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Body and Soul (Blu-ray Review)

30 Jul, 2012 By: Mike Clark

Street 7/31/12
$19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars John Garfield, Lilli Palmer, Hazel Brookes, William Conrad, Anne Revere, Canada Lee.

Hollywood’s first truly grown-up boxing movie hasn’t been all that tough to see since its early sale to TV sometime in the 1950s, but I never felt I’d seen it until now despite several viewings over the years — including on the big screen at the AFI Theater in Washington, D.C., when I was programmer/director. The new Olive Blu-ray of the 1947 film is so pristine that the images suggest moving versions of what we might see in a glossy coffee table book devoted to the great cinematographers. This movie had one, too: the brilliant James Wong Howe, who supposedly donned roller skates to help him shoot some of the fight sequences in 16mm (I hope this is true). One thing, though, definitely is true: the direct line between this movie and Raging Bull is straight, dark and easy to see.

Body and Soul is right up there with the same year’s Crossfire as the definitive Blacklist poster-child movie: Its future political casualties included director Robert Rossen, screenwriter Abraham Polonsky, actors John Garfield, Anne Revere, Canada Lee, Lloyd Gough and probably more I don’t know about (Howe himself was kind of “gray-listed” in that the quality of his projects dropped for awhile — and this for the cinematographer of Yankee Doodle Dandy). Of course, the fact that the film portrayed a friendship between a white guy and black guy (Garfield and Lee) would probably have been enough, by itself, to get the evil eye from HUAC hayseeds. If you doubt this, note the following beauty unearthed by the 1940s edition of the AFI Catalog. It turns out that the industry’s own self-policing Breen office demanded that a sequence portraying a fight between black and white boxers be eliminated because the Production Code “did not permit any scenes showing the social intermingling of white and colored people or of a boxing contest between two people of these opposite colors.” Here’s hoping your afternoon saucing at Hell’s Happy Hour are overpriced, clowns.

It has been suggested that Garfield’s character was inspired by Jewish boxer Barney Ross, with whom I had a memorable (and on his part, gracious) lunch back when I was 10. By the time he retired without ever having been knocked out, Ross had been champion in three divisions — lightweight, light welterweight and welterweight — and was later played by Cameron Mitchell in Andre de Toth’s Monkey on My Back, the 1957 screen biopic of him. Body definitely has an up-by-the-ethnic-bootstraps tone, and when the Garfield character’s father is killed early on, the specifics aren’t too different from what happened to Ross’s father in real life. A mere two days after Body’s New York opening came the city’s premiere of Gentleman’s Agreement, the Oscar-winning attack on anti-Semitism in which Garfield had what later would have been called an extended cameo. The viewer sense in Body is that Garfield’s character must be Jewish, which would have been highly unusual for the day, though the script never specifically says so. What’s more, the middleweight champ protagonist here is a “Charley Davis,” certainly a handle of minimum ethnicity. You can understand the confusion: as someone once said, vintage Hollywood was an industry run by Jews and policed by Catholics for predominantly Protestant audiences. Why deal with specifics?

Sleaze, of course, has no religious preference, and the characterizations here are a far cry from anything you’d have seen in a boxing movie made before the end of World War II, when, say, someone like Barton MacLane was the gold standard for urban crooks. As Body’s fight-fixing promoter, the much smoother Gough represented a new brand of rogue; though not tough enough to let his own fists do the talking, Gough’s character here is the kind of guy who could probably talk you into selling more than a hundred percentage points of yourself (or, Zero Mostel in The Producers without the comic dimension). There’s also another leech played by William Conrad — who, as in so many of his films during this period, looks as if he’s been eating a few too many dozen bon bons for breakfast each morning. As a trampy hanger-on who thinks Garfield’s money smells better than Conrad’s (for now), Hazel Brooks has a “silky” quotient to rival that of Gloria Grahame, whose characters usually didn’t have Brooks’ nasty streak or lack of humor.

This must have been a very powerful picture in its day, though I agree with those who think some of its wattage has been sapped by a) Polonsky’s inclination to spell things out; and b) the number of imitators over the years that have turned innovations into standard situations. With the passage of time, I think the Garfield-Polonsky follow-up Force of Evil has turned out to be the better movie, and I cannot wait to crank up Olive’s new Blu-ray of it. But if you’ve never seen Body and love Rossen’s The Hustler, those two movies are cut from the same cloth and remain the director’s most prototypical one-two punch (leaving the cult qualities of his swan song Lilith aside).

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