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Tag Archives: Boxing

Champion (April 9, 1949)

Champion
Champion (1949)
Directed by Mark Robson
United Artists

SPOILER ALERT. This review will discuss plot points of this film that you may not want to know if you haven’t already seen it.

Mark Robson’s Champion is not a film about a man destroyed by fame. It’s a film about a man whose resentment, anger, selfishness, and cruelty are given free rein by fame and fortune.

It’s not an uplifting film, but it’s an occasionally powerful one, since it depicts a man who stands up to everyone who tries to take advantage of him, mistreats everyone who ever cared about him, and becomes middleweight champion of the world and dies of a brain hemorrhage without ever showing an ounce of remorse.

It’s also a tremendous showcase for Kirk Douglas, who made his film debut in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946). He played an uncharacteristically milquetoast character in that film, but his next role, in Out of the Past (1947), was more of an indication of what lay ahead for Douglas. His character “Dink” in Out of the Past is a vicious crime boss, as was the character he played opposite Burt Lancaster in I Walk Alone (1948).

Not every character Douglas played in the 1940s was a strutting, snarling alpha male — his wonderful performance in A Letter to Three Wives (1949) is a great example of his range — but he excelled at playing macho men, and Champion cemented that image. With his jutting cleft chin, puffed-out chest, intense eyes, and lean, muscular physique, Douglas dominates every scene in Champion.

If Kirk Douglas had a spirit animal, it would probably be a banty rooster.

Kirk Douglas in Champion

Douglas’s physical intensity carries him through Champion fairly well, which is good, because he’s not that convincing as a boxer. He looks the part, but he doesn’t move like a world-class middleweight. He lacks the right combination of speed and power.

Champion was based on a story by Ring Lardner and was nominated for six Academy Awards (best actor for Douglas, best supporting actor for Arthur Kennedy, best screenplay for Carl Foreman, best score for Dimitri Tiomkin, best black & white cinematography for Franz Planer, and best editing for Harry Gerstad), and won one — the Oscar for editing.

But now that almost 70 years have passed, I think Champion compares really unfavorably to Robert Wise’s The Set-Up (1949), which was released around the same time and was nominated for zero Oscars. First of all, Robert Ryan boxed as an amateur heavyweight, so he was utterly convincing as a professional fighter who loses more often than he wins. (Asking us to accept Douglas as the world middleweight champion is too much, I think.)

Also, The Set-Up is a tightly coiled masterpiece from beginning to end, while Champion feels sloppy. Douglas’s training and his rise up the boxing rankings are both done as cheesy montages with a light tone. The film doesn’t really get going until more than a half hour has passed, when Douglas’s character, Michael “Midge” Kelly, refuses to throw a fight to Johnny Dunne (John Daheim). For the next hour, Champion is a good film. Not a great film, but a good one. The always-great Arthur Kennedy turns in a good performance as Midge’s sad-sack brother, Connie, and Ruth Roman and Marilyn Maxwell are both good as the women Midge uses and abuses.

Kirk Douglas

I found the penultimate sequence of the film particularly harrowing, but modern-day viewers might miss its implications.

Ruth Roman’s character, Emma, is romanced by Midge early in the film, which leads to her father forcing them to marry at gunpoint. As soon as it’s official, however, Midge drops her like a bad habit, and she eventually finds love with his brother Connie.

Toward the end of the film, when Emma is preparing to get a divorce from Midge in Reno so she can marry Connie, Midge forces himself on her. He kisses her, says “It’s still there, isn’t it?” She walks away from him and says, “Leave me alone.” He walks toward her and says, “You’re my wife.” She looks scared, and the screen fades to black.

Plenty of classic films show women yielding to an aggressive man, but I think it’s significant that the fade-to-black happens without showing her acquiesce to a kiss or yield in any pleasurable way. His line “You’re my wife” strongly implies that he is going to have sexual intercourse with her whether she likes it or not. It’s his legal right, and the concept of “marital rape” was not a criminal act in 1949. But it’s a rape, and it’s a violation of his brother’s trust, since Midge and Emma were married in name only. His brother’s rage in the next scene is also a pretty clear indication that something awful has happened.

After Midge wins his final fight and collapses and dies in his dressing room, the press asks Connie for a statement. “He was a credit to the fight game, to the very end,” Connie says, because he can’t bring himself to say that Midge was a credit to humanity, or to anyone else.

Much like Midge Kelly himself, Champion was a hard film for me to like. It’s a good movie, but not nearly as good as some of its contemporaries, like Body and Soul (1947) and The Set-Up.

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The Set-Up (March 29, 1949)

The Set-Up
The Set-Up (1949)
Directed by Robert Wise
RKO Radio Pictures

My favorite sports movies are all boxing movies. Body and Soul (1947), The Harder They Fall (1956), Rocky (1976), Rocky II (1979), Raging Bull (1980), When We Were Kings (1996). The list goes on and on.

I love watching boxing, which is one reason I love movies about it, but that’s not the only reason I love boxing movies.

Boxing is an individual sport that lends itself well to film drama. Most of the movies about team sports that I like are comedies — The Longest Yard (1974), Slap Shot (1977), Major League (1989). That’s not to say there aren’t good dramas about team sports. There are plenty, like Hoosiers (1986), Eight Men Out (1988), and Friday Night Lights (2004), but there’s something about one fighter facing another in the ring that makes for a great drama. And the brutality and widespread corruption of the boxing world makes for great film noirs.

The Set-Up is based on Joseph Moncure March’s long, narrative poem of the same name, which was written in 1928. (March’s other enduring work is the narrative poem The Wild Party, also written in 1928, which was republished in 1994 with illustrations by Art Spiegelman.)

March’s The Set-Up is a masterpiece of hard-boiled writing, and especially impressive considering that it’s written in verse.

Pansy had the stuff, but his skin was brown
And he never got a chance at the middleweight crown.

Mean as a panther,
Crafty as a fox,
He could hit like a mule,
And he knew how to box.
A dark-skinned jinx
With eyes like a lynx,
A heart like a lion,
And a face like the Sphinx:
Battered, flat, massive:
Grim,
Always impassive.

The film version is only loosely based on March’s poem. Significantly, it sidesteps the racial angle by casting a white actor, Robert Ryan, in the lead. It also renames its pugilist protagonist “Stoker.”

Robert Ryan

Judged solely on its own merits, however, The Set-Up is a great film. It’s one of the great noirs, as well as one of the best films about boxing ever made. It’s lean and mean — just 72 minutes long — and unfolds more or less in real time.

Bill “Stoker” Thompson (Ryan) is gearing up to face a 23-year-old opponent in the ring. Stoker is 35 years old, which in his business makes him an old man. (John Garfield’s character in Body and Soul was also facing his own mortality as a boxer at the age of 35.)

Stoker’s wife, Julie (Audrey Totter), wants him to retire. His days as a fully functioning human being are numbered if he keeps fighting for measly purses and absorbing massive amounts of punishment in the process.

Stoker tries to reassure her, but his eyes tell their own story a little later in the film as he watches a punchy fighter repeat himself for the dozenth time before leaving the locker room for his fight. Gus, a trainer played by Wallace Ford, shakes his head and says, “I guess you can only stop so many.”

The boxing milieu depicted in The Set-Up is exceptionally sleazy. The arena where Stoker faces his opponent, Tiger Nelson (Hal Fieberling), advertises “Boxing Wednesdays, Wrestling Fridays,” and is located in Paradise City, a low-rent strip of arcades, dance halls, and chop suey joints.

Worst of all, Stoker’s manager, Tiny (George Tobias), has arranged with local hoods for Stoker to take a dive without telling Stoker about his plan. He’s that certain his man will lose.

Robert Wise’s direction is tight and unpretentious. His cinematographer, Milton R. Krasner, lenses some of the most starkly beautiful black & white images ever captured on film. There’s a scene early in the film where Stoker walks across the street from his rented room toward the arena with his bag in his hand. He moves straight toward the camera, and he looks like the archetype of every lonely hero who has faced a tragic fate without blinking.

Robert Ryan is key to the film’s authenticity. The 6’4″ actor was on the boxing team at Dartmouth College and had a 5-0 win-loss record, with 3 KOs. He continued to box while serving in the Marine Corps.

The Set-Up is a brutal, violent film, but despite its real-time plot that uncoils with ruthless efficiency, there are still quiet and reflective moments, like the sequence in which Audrey Totter walks the streets of Paradise City through a gauntlet of drunks and mashers. She eventually winds up on a bridge over a highway and slowly rips up her ticket to the fight and watches the scraps float down as a streetcar rumbles by.

Robert Wise had a long and interesting career in Hollywood. While The Set-Up will never be a crowd-pleaser like West Side Story (1961) or a family favorite like The Sound of Music (1965), it’s still one of Wise’s best films, and one of the all-time great noirs.

Killer McCoy (Nov. 30, 1947)

Nineteen forty-seven was the year Mickey Rooney turned 27, and the star of the Andy Hardy series and family fare like National Velvet (1944) was looking to stretch his range as an actor and step into more grown-up roles.

Roy Rowland’s Killer McCoy is a remake of Richard Thorpe’s The Crowd Roars (1938), which starred Robert Taylor as a young pugilist named Tommy “Killer” McCoy who was caught between his no-good father and his gangland manager.

Hopefully there’ll be a second remake next year starring former child star Haley Joel Osment. Maybe they could even throw in a drug-related in-ring breakdown, à la Oliver “The Atomic Bull” McCall, or a tawdry and mysterious death, à la Arturo Gatti.

But I digress.

Killer McCoy isn’t a bad flick, and Mickey Rooney is pretty good in it, but it has the misfortune of being a boxing picture that was released right around the same time as Body and Soul, which is one of the best boxing pictures of all time.

If you’re a fan of knock-down, drag-out fights, Killer McCoy does offer more punches per foot of film than Body and Soul. On the other hand, if the number of punches thrown was the only measure of a boxing film, then Rocky III (1982) and Rocky IV (1985) would be superior to Rocky (1976) and Rocky II (1979), and we all know that ain’t the case.

Rooney is pretty convincing as a boxer. The filmmakers don’t try to shoot around how unbelievably tiny he is, so it makes sense that his character starts out fighting as a featherweight and moves up to lightweight. (Although I think in real life Rooney would probably have been more in the flyweight and bantamweight range.) The boxers he faces are mostly little guys, too, like Bob Steele, who plays a former lightweight champion named Sailor Graves.

The supporting cast is generally good. I love seeing diminutive cowboy actor Steele in anything, and the same goes for Brian Donlevy, who plays boxing manager and fight promoter Jim Caighn. And actor James Dunn is great as Tommy McCoy’s drunken father, a former vaudevillian who clings to the past.

The problem is not with the actors, but with the story, which never really allows its characters to become three-dimensional people. Caighn, the manager, is an especially egregious example. He has a double life as “Carrson,” a Wall Street tycoon who is far removed from the disreputable world of boxing. Caighn doesn’t want his daughter, Sheila Carrson (Ann Blyth), to know about his double life. This is all totally ludicrous, of course, and only exists to manufacture a stumbling block to Sheila’s romance with Tommy McCoy.

Killer McCoy is competently made and entertaining if you’re able tolerate Mickey Rooney, which a lot of people aren’t. Its boxing matches are well choreographed and action-packed. It’s no Body and Soul, but then again, what is?

Body and Soul (Nov. 9, 1947)

Body and Soul
Body and Soul (1947)
Directed by Robert Rossen
Enterprise Productions / United Artists

Charlie Davis’s face is a road map. Every scar tells a story, and every story is the same — a bruising boxing match, a big purse, wealth, success, and another step farther away from the people he loves.

This isn’t a spoiler, because we see exactly how far Charlie Davis (John Garfield) has fallen in the first scene of Robert Rossen’s Body and Soul. He wakes from a nightmare, sweat glistening on his scarred face, mournfully crying out a name … “Ben!”

He drives to his childhood home in New York’s Lower East Side and sees his mother (Anne Revere), but neither she nor his old girlfriend, Peg (Lilli Palmer), wants anything to do with him, so he drives to a smoky jazz club to see the beautiful singer Alice (Hazel Brooks). She tells him his manager has been looking for him everywhere. “How does it look, Charlie, the night before the fight, three a.m. and you loaded?” she asks him.

The next morning at the weigh-in, the challenger for the middleweight championship of the world, Jack Marlowe (Artie Dorrell), derides the tired and hungover champ. “All fat,” he sneers. “Nightclub fat … whiskey fat … thirty-five year-old fat.”

Back in his dressing room, Charlie’s gangster manager Roberts (Lloyd Gough) reminds him that he’s being paid $60,000 to throw the fight, and to make it look good.

John Garfield

Most of the rest of the film is told in flashback. We see Charlie’s youth as a tough Jewish kid looking to break into the fight game. His best friend Shorty Polaski (Joseph Pevney) is his manager. Charlie’s father David (Art Smith) is supportive, but his mother wants him to choose a more respectable profession than the sweet science. All of this is strongly reminiscent of Garfield’s previous film, Humoresque (1946), although I have to say that Garfield is more believable as a pugilist than he was as a violinist.

Body and Soul is the first really great boxing film, and it still stands as one of the best. Garfield’s performance as Charlie Davis is pitch-perfect, and James Wong Howe’s black and white cinematography is gorgeous. As good as Raging Bull (1980) is, it still owes an enormous debt to this film. And so does nearly every boxing picture made after 1947.

To be fair, the rise and fall structure of Body and Soul and most of its story elements were clichéd even at the time of the film’s release. But despite a sense of familiarity, Body and Soul still manages to feel fresh. A lot of this has to do with the final fight, which Howe famously shot with a handheld camera while standing on roller skates. It’s a brilliantly shot and edited sequence, and still thrilling to watch.

Garfield and Dorrell

Body and Soul was director Rossen’s second feature. His first, Johnny O’Clock (1947), was good, but overly complicated and occasionally contrived. Body and Soul, on the other hand, is a punch straight to the gut. It’s moving, brilliantly acted, and one of the best films I’ve seen in a long time.

Body and Soul was nominated for three Oscars; John Garfield for best actor, Abraham Polonsky for best original screenplay, and Francis Lyon and Robert Parrish for best film editing, the only category in which it won.