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Champion (Blu-ray Review)

27 May, 2013 By: Mike Clark

$19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Kirk Douglas, Arthur Kennedy, Ruth Roman, Marilyn Maxwell.

Kirk Douglas’s breakthrough performance in this 1949 boxing-pic landmark is still so dynamic — think of Spartacus recast as a heel who wears a cup — that it’s fun to imagine how audiences must have reacted to an actor who, just three years earlier, had made his screen debut playing a weakling opposite the ever-dominant Barbara Stanwyck in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. Talk about intensity: There’s enough material for a hundred KD impressions by the late Frank Gorshin in a lean-and-mean melodrama that holds up better than I thought it might.

Douglas was pretty well into heroic mode by the time I started seeing his movies theatrically in the mid-1950s, which included labor-intensive squid battling and that “Whale of a Tale” guitar vocal (leading to a spinoff Decca 45) in Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. So when I took a ravenous leap into Champion for the first time on a 1959 Saturday afternoon (age 11), I had not yet seen him as one of those cynical double-crossers (or, at very least, emotional train wrecks) who pretty well defined his early career in wavemakers such as Out of the Past, Young Man With a Horn, Ace in the Hole, Detective Story and The Bad and the Beautiful. But only the first of these preceded the movie (Douglas’s eighth) that jump-started his superstardom and earned him his first Oscar nomination — one of six the film received. They included a win for Harry Gerstad’s editing, which is instructive because another landmark boxing drama — Body and Soul, also available on Blu-ray from Olive Films — had itself taken the editing Oscar just two years earlier. You can have a lot of fun with boxing footage during post-production.

On his way to the top in what is persuasively portrayed as a crummy racket where self-protection is a must, Douglas’s Midge Kelly goes fatally over the brink by stabbing so many backs (we’ll avoid spoiler specificity here) that the physically handicapped brother who’s at his side most of the time (Arthur Kennedy) wonders when it’s going to be his turn. He’s wise to raise the question: In a Carl Foreman script adapted from a Ring Lardner story, Midge shows no sexual favoritism when it comes to rude surprises for those who’ve befriended him — and, of the women, only Marilyn Maxwell’s character is the one who seems to get away unscathed because the glorified ring groupie she plays is so tough herself that she gives at least as good as she gets. Ruth Roman and Lola Albright offer excellent brunette-blonde contrast as the other lookers in Midge’s life, and one of the key matters my 11-year-old self took away from that initial viewing in ’59 was that Albright (by then a key component on TV’s “Peter Gunn”) held the key to most of the secrets of the universe. This was also Kennedy’s first supporting Oscar nomination of five — four of them in pictures directed by Champion’s Mark Robson. His 1990 death hit me hard because it seemed that this five-time Oscar nominee deserved more recognition that he ever got. When I proposed doing an obit for USA Today, my clueless editor had him confused with George Kennedy, which is far from the only time this kind of thing happened. 

The no-frills Blu-ray is a keen rendering of Frank (aka Franz) Planer’s Oscar-nominated cinematography — impressive in the ring, in the spotlit corridor shots of the path to the ring and in boxcars and flashy nightclubs. Planer was plenty versatile and would later photograph 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Nun’s Story and Breakfast at Tiffany’s — and while we’re at it, can you imagine shooting Max Ophuls’ Letter From an Unknown Woman and Champion in successive years? In the end, though, this is high-test Kirk, and the brutal final scenes that lead to a surprise ending still have shock value. There’s one close-up from the big fight where the actor’s face is so mangled that it almost anticipates his appearance after going one-on-one with that p.o.’d falcon in The Vikings.

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