A tasty film noir-cum-boxing melodrama, 1947's Body and Soul is notable on a couple of counts. One is for serving as the archetypal vehicle for John Garfield, who received an Academy Award nomination for his turn as feisty, haunted boxing champ Charlie Davis. The other is that much of the material in Robert Rossen's film directly inspired Martin Scorsese with Raging Bull, especially apparent in the film's whiz-bang climactic fight sequence. Although the story deals with the usual territory of sudden success spoiled with arrogance and greed, the film holds up quite entertainingly. After years of being somewhat hard to find, Olive Films is bringing this film back into the wider circulation it deserves - like the old pugilist who wants to get back in the ring for that one final, glorious match.
Body and Soul opens with Garfield's character, scarred and disheveled, awakening in some rural home (a training camp for boxers) and escaping into the night. Back in the city, he's recognized as "champ" by the locals as he visits with his weathered ma (Ann Revere) and explains his distress with an upcoming big match. He then trades a few acid-tongue words with a hotsy-totsy bar singer (Hazel Brooks) and has a tense altercation at a weigh-in with his future opponent as a steely fight promoter (Lloyd Gough) looks on. Who is this guy Charlie and what's he got to be so glum about? Like a more guy-centric Mildred Pierce, the film goes into extended flashback mode to reveal the protagonist's innocent origins, long before the cynicism set in.
Charlie is now a feisty young punk in the slums of New York, scraping by while his beaten-down parents run a candy store. His quickness with his hands makes him a legend in the streets, a talent that Charlie's best bud Shorty (Joseph Pevney) believes could be a real asset to the sleazy local fight promoter, Quinn (William Conrad). Although Charlie's mother doesn't want him to fight professionally, a tragic accident that kills Charlie's father strengthens his resolve to make it on his own terms. Quinn takes him on, and a series of wonderful montages illustrates Charlie's rise to success in the ring. Meanwhile, Charlie is taken by a sweet-natured artist, Peg (Lilli Palmer), who accepts him for the charming lug he is, regardless of his prowess in the ring. Fame and fortune brings in undesirables, however, including hangers-on and the attentions of mob-connected promoter, Roberts (Gough), who has even bigger plans for Charlie. This includes a predetermined set-up with an African-American boxer, Ben (Canada Lee), a pugilist vet whose life-threatening brain condition the promoters fail to tell Charlie about. After Charlie nearly kills Ben in the ring, he winds up employing the man as his own personal trainer. The ethical dilemma of dealing with muckety-mucks like Roberts gets to Charlie, however, leading to his breakup with Peg and taking up with avaricious singer Alice (Brooks), who was once Quinn's gal. The constant rounds of fights have made Charlie a beaten-down man, but one last heavily promoted bout will provide the opportunity to finally set things right - with himself, his mother and Peg.
Body and Soul was given skillful direction by Robert Rossen, who entered the field (this was only his second feature) after penning similarly fatalistic screenplays such as the underrated Blues in the Night (1941). The cynicism in his work really informs this particular screenplay ("Everybody dies."), written with tartness and contemporary flair by Abraham Polonsky. The story, although dealing with the usual noir theme of the regular Joe undone by evil forces, is actually compelling enough to get swept up in. Mostly this is due to the great craftsmanship on display, and the uniformly good performances from the cast. Garfield, who always had a haunted quality in his work, is pitch-perfect as Charlie and versatile enough to pull off both the young, naive firebrand and the weathered, world-weary aspects of the character. The film also boasts some excellent turns by Ann Revere (who never fails to look like a 1930s photo of a sharecropper's wife), Lili Palmer, William Conrad, the fiery Hazel Brooks, and Joseph Pevney (who eventually left acting to forge a long, long career directing in television). Another wonderful performance comes from Canada Lee, playing one of the few examples of a dignified, non-stereotypical black man in '40s cinema. He rocks.
Put aside the nuanced acting, good direction and snappy script - just for a moment - and Body and Soul would still count as a worthwhile film for James Wong Howe's gorgeous cinematography. On the surface, Body and Soul is as studio-bound and artificial looking as anything coming out of '40s Hollywood; there's something about Howe's camerawork, however, that brings out a luminosity in even the most fake looking of backdrops. He makes the film breathe, and it often feels so gritty you could almost touch it. It's this aspect that Scorcese most consciously aped for Raging Bull, especially when it comes to Charlie's climactic bout. A dreamlike flurry of casual documentary-like footage, deep focus, pore-exposing close-ups, bloodthirsty audience shots and the constant flashes of photographers' bulbs, the scene serves as an astonishing finale to an already fantastic flick.
This re-release of Body and Soul comes from Olive Films, which has recently done a great job in bringing lesser-known '40s-'70s Paramount productions back onto the market (actually, this particular film was independently made by John Garfield's own production company and distributed by United Artists). Speaking of director Robert Rossen, I'm keeping my fingers crossed that Olive can get the deliriously campy Western soap opera he wrote, Desert Fury (1947), onto blu-ray and DVD. Are you listening, Olive?
Looking swell ... the print of the film used on this disc is somewhat grainy but remarkably clean and mostly bereft of specks and blemishes. As with other vintage films released by Olive, the mastering is excellent.
The only audio option is the film's decent original mono soundtrack, with no subtitles. The soundtrack is given a consistent, pleasing mix with clear dialogue and an unobtrusive, moody musical score.
A gritty, satisfying boxing melodrama with a knockout performance from John Garfield, Body and Soul comes to disc in bare-bones fashion (What would Criterion do for it? The mind reels.). Still, the film holds up wonderfully and is worth owning for fans of great, gritty '40s cinema. Highly Recommended.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and jack-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. Since 2000, he has been blogging at Scrubbles.net. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's experienced are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.