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BODY AND SOUL(director: Robert Rossen; screenwriter: Abraham Polonsky; cinematographer: James Wong Howe; editor: Robert Parrish; music: Edward Heyman; cast: John Garfield (Charlie Davis), Lilli Palmer (Peg Born), Anne Revere (Anna Davis), Art Smith (Dave Davis), William Conrad (Quinn), Hazel Brooks (Alice), Canada Lee (Ben Chaplin), Lloyd Gough (Roberts), Joseph Pevney (Shorty Polaski), James Burke (Arnold), Artie Dorrell (Jack Marlowe); Runtime: 104; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Bob Roberts; United Artists; 1947)
Now only seems gripping because of Garfield’s gritty performance.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Robert Rossen’s Body and Soul becomes more than a boxing and film noir tale, as screenwriter Abraham Polonsky makes this into a socialist morality drama where the pursuit of money becomes the focus that derails the common man in his quest for success. This shouldn’t be too surprising since Rossen, Polansky, and Garfield were brought before the HUAC anti-Communist hearings to testify about their Communist affiliations. The outcome was that Rossen and Polonsky were blacklisted and Garfield, who denounced Communism as a tyranny but refused to drop names of other Communists, also saw his career derailed. After making Force of Evil in 1948, Garfield was blackballed and died of a heart attack a year later at the age of 39 unable to get over his bad fortune. Body and Soul won an Oscar for Best Film Editing for Robert Parrish (it should be noted that Francis Lyons assisted as the supervising editor), while Garfield was nominated as Best Actor and Polonsky for Best Original Screenplay.

Charlie Davis (Garfield) is a tough Jewish youngster from the slums of the Lower East Side, where his hardworking parents run a candy store. Not the brightest guy in the world, the naive Charlie is good at boxing and wins the middleweight crown in the amateurs. He’s ambitious to escape his life of poverty and dreams only of success, ignoring mom’s wishes that he continue with his studies and make something of himself without knocking the other person’s brain’s out. Together with his loyal lifetime friend Shorty (Pevney) he convinces veteran local boxing trainer Quinn (Conrad) to take him on in his stable. But holds off that decision when his pop is accidentally killed in a neighborhood Mob hit of the next door speakeasy, as he doesn’t want to hurt mom anymore. In the meantime he hooks up with nice girl artist Peg Born (Palmer), who lives in Greenwich Village with a roommate and encourages Charlie to fight if he must.

Charlie sells his soul for a chance to win the middleweight crown from the aging black champ Ben Chaplin (Canada Lee, an ex-boxer), as he signs an exclusive contract with crooked racketeer Roberts (Gough) who controls the fight scene and without his support no championship fight would be approved. The personal contract dumps Shorty, but Charlie agrees to give him his usual cut out of his own pocket. Without his knowledge the fix is in, as Chaplin’s career is finished because he has a blood clot in his brain and all the doctors warn him not to fight again. But as a favor to his decent manager (Burke) who owes Roberts big money, he agrees to take the dive as long as he doesn’t take a pounding. But Roberts double-crosses him by not telling Charlie about the real deal and the champ takes a severe pounding nearly killing him. When Shorty is disillusioned with his pal’s blind ambition and walks out after telling him that he won the fight in a foul way, he’s roughed up by Roberts’ bodyguard and is accidentally killed by a passing car when he stumbles blindly out in the street. Charlie continues making bad decisions by ditching Peg for a gold digging night club vamp, Alice (Brooks), whom he steals from Quinn. In the conclusion the troubled fighter has a chance to regain his dignity when he’s ordered to take a dive against a young challenger, but events in the ring make him change his mind as he instead knocks out the challenger Marlowe and returns to Peg and walks out on a threatening Roberts.

Garfield is seen as a victim of the ruthless capitalistic system that fixes everything including athletic events, as the little guy is always at the mercy of the big operator. It’s the kind of liberalism that was common in the dramas made in the 1930s. It’s more a film about corruption and the presence of violence everywhere in America rather than a straight boxing film. Though its influence with boxing pics through the decades has been very great, as all its clichés and formulaic plot lines of the rise from the mean city streets to the penthouse were often copied by a wide range of films including Raging Bull and Rocky. Body and Soul viewed at this late date lacks much relevancy and now only seems gripping because of Garfield’s gritty performance, and not because of the intense script that once made waves in powerful circles.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”