The sports drama, while not as old as cinema itself, comes pretty close, the boxing drama even more so. Filmmakers have long held a deep fascination with the cinematic potential extrapolated from the story of a man (and occasionally a woman) venturing on a journey of might, dedication, and perseverance via the boxing ring, with trials and tribulations transpiring both inside and out of the corded battleground. Perhaps it is the simplicity of the sport itself. One against one makes for compelling, intimate drama, with the focus easier laid on a single character and perhaps some supporting roles, whereas team sport dramas incur the risk of not awarding enough story to other players. What’s more, millions of people around the world seem to absolutely adore boxing, therefore making the subgenre a relatively easy sell. One of the earliest takes on this now every old yarn is Robert Rossen’s Body and Soul, considered today as one of the very best iterations.
Successful pugilist Charlie Davis (John Garfield) suddenly wakes up from a terrifying nightmare, one steeped in his dark, personal history. A visit to his mother Anne (Anne Revere) and former girlfriend Peg (Lili Palmer) fails to provided any solace to what ails him. He is in fact getting ready for a significant tilt later that day, one that his manager (Lloyd Gough) has asked that he throw. The film then flashes backwards to recount how Charlie earned his spurs in the sport following the shocking demise of his father at the hands of the mob. His dedication to boxing has always been against his mother’s wishes, not to mention causing severe ripple effects on his romance with Peg, and best friend Shorty (Joseph Pevney). Less altruistic figures also have a hand in Charlie’s tumultuous journey, chief among them mobster Quinn (William Conrad) and his nearby gold digger Alice (Hazel Brooks).
Apart from being a fine, early example of the boxing drama, Body and Soul also engages in another very familiar storytelling practice: that of beginning the picture at a point which occurs much later in the plot, chronologically speaking, before flashing backwards in time. The audience is oblivious to what afflicts Charlie when he awakes in cold sweats, but for him to pay an unexpected visit to the two people he cherishes most it certainly must be dire. Director Rossen then lets the story continue for several minutes all the way up until Charlie leaves the dressing room at the arena before finally reverting back to the story’s actual starting point. It might seem cumbersome when explained as such, but on film it does wonders to set up the richness of the drama that unfolds for the next 100 minutes.
‘Rich’ is definitely an apt adjective when characterizing Rossen’s picture. Following up on his debut Johnny O’Clock, his sophomore effort is much grander in scope and embellishes the melodramatic qualities of its plot. The term melodramatic, for a whole variety of reasons, has been handicapped with negative connotations in recent years. The reality of the matter is that certain stories, depending on how they are told, are suitable for melodrama, Charlie Davis’ exploits and failures being a fine candidate for such a treatment. Watching the film makes for something of an eye opening experience, in no small part because of the presence of dramatic beats that today, 70 years removed, are considered genre tropes. The protagonist starting from the bottom and rising to the top (almost), family members disapproving of his career choice, two women in his life, one pure and decent, the other scheming and only seeking no more than financial comfort, the bad men that attempt to control him and his finances, etc. So many of the qualities cinephiles can rattle off the tip of their tongues have incredible bearings on Body and Soul. It becomes a bizarre situation where one might start debating whether to praise or ironically criticize the picture, much like some take aim at Jaws for rolling out the red carpet for the oft-derided summer blockbusters despite that it’s a bloody brilliant film in of itself.
Conversely, Rossen’s film paints some brutally lucid portraits of certain characters that inhabit this duplicitous, treacherous world where glittery fortune, pride, and ambition easily corrupt one’s thoughts. In fact, one of the film’s subplots is shockingly brutal, wherein a ring opponent of Charlie’s (Canada Lee, real life boxer turned actor) gets beaten to a pulp by the protagonist, so much so that he suffers from brain damage. His calamitous death later on (at which point both athletes have actually become friends) refuses to sugar coat the horrific reality experienced by athletes after spending too much time in contact sports, their very minds now shadows of their former selves. It’s a bold move, one that surprises as much as it invites viewers to consider the frightening toll a boxer’s life can take on those that engage such a sport. Folly or bravery? Smartly, the film avoids any easy answers.
While replete with accomplished thespians delivering solid work (Lili Palmer, although definitely playing second fiddle as a love interest, injects magnetic humanity into the role), John Garfield understandably takes center stage, both with regards to screen time and quality. Garfield himself is justifiably considered to be one of the greatest actors of his generation, a person who left this world far too soon at the age of 39, succumbing to a heart attack in 1952. Many believe that what truly took its toll on the actor’s dubious health was his tenuous standing with the infamous Congressional House Committee on House of Un-American Acts that raged in the early years of the Cold War when the United States staunchly shielded itself against any expressions of communism. His oeuvre is incredibly diverse, and so were his performances. Body and Soul represents some of his very best work, magnificently capturing what he was so good at: being a sensitive tough guy. Garfield had no problem portraying characters that could physically impose themselves, yet was equally adept at lending his characters humanity and charisma. Garfield exudes a rare magnetism that makes him a remarkably compelling actor, very difficult to shift one’s eyes away from.
Described by many as the greatest of boxing movies, Robert Rossen’s Body and Soul is about, as many sports movies are, so much more than the sport itself. Its noir qualities of corrupt minds and hearts as well as its honest melodrama sees it smash through the confines of the ‘sports film’ label. It also laid much of the groundwork so many other movies of its ilk would tread in the decades that followed and still to do to this day. Charlie Davis may not remain a champion forever, but Body Soul’s winning formula lives on.