Call it the sweet science or legalized manslaughter, but boxing has spawned more great movies than any other sport (maybe more than all other sports). Three terrific ones came out in the first years after World War II Robert Rossen’s Body and Soul with John Garfield and, two years later, Robert Wise’s The Set-Up with Robert Ryan and Mark Robson’s Champion with Kirk Douglas possibly as metaphors for warriors who had returned home and needed a domestic form of combat.
Garfield’s Charlie Davis is a working-class striver who, after his father dies, literally has to fight to support his family. “I want money, money, MONEY!” he tells his righteous mother (Anne Revere). And when she spits out, “Better you go buy a gun and shoot yourself,” he snaps back, “You need money to buy a gun!” Screenwriter Abraham Polonsky sees boxing and, indeed, all capitalism as lethal activities: you kill somebody, one way or another, to get money; then somebody kills you to get yours. Even being on top doesn’t last forever; nature makes way for the next hungry youngster. A cocky contender appraises Charlie the complacent champ and snorts, “All fat: nightclub fat, whiskey fat, 35-year-old fat.”
There’s a claustrophobic concentration of mood and dialogue, of characters and performances, that makes Body and Soul not only the bleakest and, perversely, the most exhilarating of postwar fight movies but also one of the best and blackest examples of film noir. The climactic bout, which cinematographer James Wong Howe shot by circling the boxers on roller skates, is so exciting and involving that it explains our hero’s fascination with “the game” and nearly makes us regret that he has to give it up. After the fight, Charlie tells the crime boss who has Svengalied his career that “everybody dies” a declaration of independence for a tough guy who had to put his body on the line before he could pick up the chips of his soul.
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