In 1948 the editors of Body and Soul, an apparently boxing movie, won the Oscar, but the leading actor and the scriptwriter didn’t, despite being nominated. Yes, it is a boxing movie with plenty of actions in the ring. I have to admit those bits were the most boring for me, although I understand the need to show the fight along with the pains, strength and agility to prove that our hero was a hero at least there.
The real excitement and the bulk of the story was fortunately outside the arena, where we learn about Charley’s humble beginnings (parents managed to get a grocery store, but only in the area of town with a rightfully bad reputation), his enormous drive to be the best boxer (while his parents saved up every penny to provide an education for him) and his innocent love for an art student. All of this goes down the hill in terms of his morals, when he makes a deal with a crooked manager, who chases money through any mean necessary. Charley is slushed with money that he wastes like there is no tomorrow, loses his father, his love, his mother’s respect and his best friend on the way to stardom. He wins fight after fight and stops to think about the price only briefly enough to cover his sense of right with some self-deceiving lies. Then he goes on enjoying decadently the fruits of his position.
The film provides an excellent contrast between external, material success and the inside decay. It is a well told, moralizing story, although I was surprised at the positive ending. I thought it would be a tragedy, but I guess the movie makers yielded under pressure to make a more crowd-pleasing movie by concluding with a happy end that, I think, did not follow logically from what we’ve just seen.
Having finished writing my review above, I looked around what others wrote, to see what important context I missed. First, I recommend Brian Cady’s review at TCM site, because it provides analysis of the style (“gritty realism, harsh lighting and a cynical view of the sport became the standard for fight films”) and background (“based on the life of Barney Ross, the middleweight champion who became a hero in the U.S. Marines, turned to drugs, and fought his way back.”)
Next, I want to open up page 51 and 52 of Tony Williams’s book, “Body and Soul: The Cinematic Vision of Robert Aldrich.” I feel justified, because there I read that the director wanted to to end the story, just as I thought it should, as it was referred to earlier in the script (“the death of its hero, who ends up gunned down in an alley with his head in a trash can after defying the mob’s order to throw his fight.”) This book also sheds more light on the studio behind the movie (“Enterprise Studios”), how the people in it were leftists, how they became targets of the McCarthy era, and the fact that only this movie of theirs ever made a profit. Aldrich, who the book is about, was an apprentice at the studio, assisted with the movie, although he is uncredited. Later he went on directing three dozen movies, including The Dirty Dozen, Hustle and The Frisco Kid.
Finally, I want to mention the New York Times’ review of the movie, written when the movie was first released in 1947. The positive review practically accuses the film makers of plagirazing:
Granted that the whole domestic background and emotional conflict of his battered young pugilist follows quite closely the pattern of Clifford Odets’ “Golden Boy.” Granted that much of the cruelty of the “fight racket” that he reveals seems to reflect the basic thesis of Budd Schulberg’s “The Harder They Fall” and that the corkscrew twist in his climax is reminiscent of Ernest Hemingway’s “Fifty Grand.” (Mr. Polonsky, we understand, is an ex-lawyer, so we feel confident that his legal skirts are clear.)
I feel that the references need to be unpacked a little. “Golden Boy” a violinist who wants to be a boxer, was written in 1937 and made into a hit movie, with William Holden and Barbara Stanwyck in 1939. “The Harder They Fall” was published in 1947 and became Humphrey Bogart’s last film before his death in 1957. Hemongway story was first published in 1927 and was turned into a TV movie (directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Peter Bogdanovich) in 1958. My point is that the director of Body and Soul may have taken cues from literature, but in the world of film there weren’t too many movies before him that balanced the sport/fight elements with a well rounded story.
IMDB’s summary: Charley Davis wins an amateur boxing match and is taken on by promoter Quinn. Charley’s mother doesn’t want him to fight, but when Charley’s father is accidentally killed, Charley sets up a fight for money. His career blooms as he wins fight after fight, but soon an unethical promoter named Roberts begins to show an interest in Charley, and Charley finds himself faced with increasingly difficult choices.