Mark Robson was a talented director with an interesting, albeit varied, filmography to his name. He made suspense titles like The Ghost Ship, drama like Peyton Place and even corny misfires like The Valley Of The Dolls - and then there's his 1949 Republic production, Champion. Widely regarded, and rightfully so, as the one of the films that made a then young Kirk Douglas a box office star, it's a tense film noir that mixes up drama, suspense and romance and places it around the most dramatic of sports - competitive boxing.
When the movie begins, Michael "Midge" Kelly (Kirk Douglas) and his crippled brother Connie (Arthur Kennedy) are on a trip, heading west in a box car in search of a better life. On their way, they're run off the train into a ditch and with no other choice, they have to hitchhike their way back to civilization. They're picked up by a boxer on his way to a fight in Kansas City. When they get there, the promoter needs someone to step in to fill a spot on the undercard and Midge, in need of some quick cash, agrees. He gets into the ring and is promptly beaten to a pulp by Johnny Dunne (John Daheim) but not before Tommy Haley (Paul Stewart) sees in Midge the kind of spark he likes in a fighter. Tommy takes him under his wing and promises to turn him into a real boxer.
Eventually the two brothers make it to California where they have to find day jobs. Emma (Ruth Roman), a beautiful waitress, catches their collective eye which causes some issues for them but eventually Midge wins out and makes her his wife, shotgun wedding style. Midge eventually bails on her and heads to Los Angeles where he meets up with Tommy and takes him up on his offer. He takes to boxing like a fish to water and quickly works his way up the ranks to the point where Tommy is able to set up a bout for him against the current champion - Dunne. This isn't supposed to be a fair fight though, Midge is asked to take a spill and is told that if he does, he'll be given his shot at the belt at some point thereafter. Once he gets in the ring though, Midge defies all expectations and knocks Dunne out quickly. The men who had money riding on this do not take kindly to his defiance, however, and Midge soon finds himself at the hands of some very angry customers. Although he gets beaten pretty harshly, he's soon recognized for his honesty and given that title shot. When he wins the belt, he soon finds himself the success he's always wanted, but it's come at a cost and he can't fun from his past forever.
Reasonably stylish and at times quite tense, Champion is a well told cautionary tale that makes good use of a strong script but which really does a great job of focusing more on character development than anything else. Douglas, who was Oscar nominated for his work here, does a fantastic job of bringing Midge from a typical everyman type of character into an altogether different sort of man by the time the movie is over. His transition is believable and the acting from Douglas is top notch, standing as a serious highlight in the early part of his career. As a man completely driven to get the fame and success he wants regardless of the cost, Douglas cuts a fascinating character out of Midge, a complex, multi-layered and believably despicable man while the plot weaves and twists enough that it can showcase the effects that his actions have on those around him. In that regard, Ruth Roman, who is quite beautiful here, and Arthur Kennedy also do very good work as those initially closest to Midge. They play their parts well and add some welcome depth to the supporting cast.
Carefully shot, particularly during the fight scenes, this is a well put together film in all regards. The score compliments the cinematography which manages to maximize the atmosphere offered up by the locations chosen for the picture. The editing is top notch, rhythmic in spots and slower at the times when the film goes in more melodramatic/romantic directions. The film may have a little more polish than you might want out of a noir, and in that regard it does lack some of the grit and therefore some of the conviction some viewers might expect from it, but outside of that this is a gripping, dramatic, tense and entertaining film.
For a movie made on a modest budget way back in 1949, Champion looks pretty good on Blu-ray in AVC encoded 1080p high definition framed at 1.33.1. There's a nice amount of natural looking film grain present that results in a very film like presentation without the picture ever looking deteriorated or dirty because of it. Texture is good and black levels are strong, with very nice shadow detail. There are a few instances of minor scratches and print damage here and there but these are few and far between and overall the elements used for this transfer appear to have been kept in excellent shape. Depth is strong, contrast looks properly set and there are no issues at all with any compression artifacts, edge enhancement or noise reduction. This is a nice, film-like offering from Olive.
The only audio option on the disc is a DTS-HD Mono track in the film's original English language, no alternate language or subtitle options or offered. The audio is clean and clear and easy to follow, the dialogue easily discernible and the score dramatically strong without overpowering anything. There are no issues here with hiss or distortion and the levels are properly balanced throughout the movie. Range is obviously limited by the age and format of the source material but the movie sounds just fine here. This is a nice, clean mix and it feels true to the source material and rightfully a product of its time.
Aside from a static menu and chapter selection, there are no extra features at all on this Blu-ray disc from Olive Films.
Olive Films' Blu-ray debut of Champion, like most of their releases, doesn't offer up any extras - which is a shame given the importance of the film in Douglas' filmography. Otherwise, the disc does not disappoint. The transfer is a nice one and the audio quite good as well. As to the movie itself, it's an exciting and tense slice of classic film noir and rock solid entertainment through and through. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.