Body and Soul (1947): “Everybody dies”

Body and Soul (1947)

“A knockout on all levels. In what’s probably the greatest performance of his career, John Garfield portrays Charlie Davis, a Jewish prizefighter who quickly rises to the top of the heap, only to fall hard and fast. Robert Rossen‘s direction is superb, and the marvelous photography of James Wong Howe and the Oscar-winning editing by Robert Parrish set a whole new standard for fight pictures.”

TV Guide

“With its mean streets and gritty performances, its ringside corruption and low-life integrity, Body and Soul looks like a formula ’40s boxing movie: the story of a (Jewish) East Side kid who makes good in the ring, forsakes his love for a nightclub floozie, and comes up against the Mob and his own conscience when he has to take a dive. But the single word which dominates the script is ‘money’, and it soon emerges that this is a socialist morality on Capital and the Little Man – not surprising, given the collaboration of Rossen, Polonsky (script) and Garfield, all of whom tangled with the HUAC anti-Communist hearings (Polonsky was blacklisted as a result). A curious mixture: European intelligence in an American frame, social criticism disguised as noir anxiety (the whole film is cast as one long pre-fight flashback).”

– Time Out

“It is Canada Lee, however, who brings to focus the horrible pathos of the cruelly exploited prizefighter. As a Negro ex-champ who is meanly shoved aside, until one night he finally goes berserk and dies slugging in a deserted ring, he shows through great dignity and reticence the full measure of his inarticulate scorn for the greed of shrewder men who have enslaved him, sapped his strength and then tossed him out to die. The inclusion of this portrait is one of the finer things about this film.”

– Bosley Crowther, The New York Times, November 10, 1947

Body and Soul is one of the great movies of the 40’s.  The powerful screenplay by Abraham Polonsky is brought to the screen with an authority and beauty that is still breathtaking. From the editing to the photography and direction, the film is a work of art.  Throughout the picture, from the opening scene of the empty boxing ring and the fluid use of flashback and dreaming to the sensational fight climax, there is an assured elegance and, most profoundly, a freedom of expression that is rarely matched.  (The film was made by Garfield’s independent Enterprise Pictures.  Sadly, after one more great noir film, Force of Evil (1948), where the numbers racket came under the spotlight, and starring John Garfield with  the screenplay and direction by Polonksy, the company folded.)

The essential quality of Body and Soul is integrity: a masterwork by craftsmen committed not only to their craft but to film as social critique.  On one level the picture is a brilliant melodrama and expose of the fight game, and on another level a savage indictment of money capitalism where the individual has only commodity value, and the artisan and worker is owned body and soul by the capitalist. The boss and the laborer, even the crooked fight promoter and the boxer, are in antagonistic relations of production dictated by the market. When Charlie Davis in an heroic act of rebellion, in finally refusing to throw his last fight, breaks the chains of greed that bound him to a venal, shallow and alienated existence, his action is a subversive challenge not only to the crooked capitalist but to the false imperative that dictates he should act only in his material self-interest. By rejecting this false consciousness he not only exposes himself to retribution but to penury.  In the final words in the movie, spoken by Garfield to the promoter, he throws down the revolutionary gauntlet in an ironic play on the words “everybody dies” used by the promoter in an earlier scene when he writes off the life of the black boxer Ben:

Charlie: Get yourself a new boy. I retire.
Roberts: What makes you think you can get away with this?
Davis: What are you gonna do? Kill me? Everybody dies.

The final sad irony is the destruction of the careers of Polonsky and Garfield, and Canada Lee, who plays the black boxer Ben, by the HUAC which-hunt only a few years later.  Garfield died prematurely in 1952 at the age of 39 as the HUAC blacklist finally took its toll on his ailing health.

Body and Soul (1947)

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