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With: John Garfield, Lilli Palmer, Hazel Brooks, Anne Revere, William Conrad, Joseph Pevney, Lloyd Gough, Canada Lee
Written by: Abraham Polonsky
Directed by: Robert Rossen
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 104
Date: 08/22/1947

Body and Soul (1947)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Glove Story

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The boxing genre has been so reliable and so universal that it has continued to yield good, and even great movies, every few years for decades. Thus, it's very hard to look back on Body Soul (1947), the one that pretty much started it all, and not see it as a pack of clich├ęs.

John Garfield stars as Charley Davis, the boy from a rough New York neighborhood. His sweet old parents run a candy store, until his father is killed during some neighborhood violence. Charley jumps in the ring as a way to make money to support his mom, but he has a meteoric rise to the top, complete with money and fame. He lives the high life, even though a girl, Peg (Lilli Palmer) loves him for who he truly is. There's even the scene where he unknowingly defeats a fighter (Canada Lee) with a blood clot in his head, and later hires him to be his trainer. Finally comes the scene in which he is asked to take a fall for money.

If the movie works today, it's probably because of Abraham Polonsky's beautiful screenplay, a rich desert plate filled with glorious, lowdown street and sports prose. This was Polonsky's first produced screenplay, and it led to a job directing his own film the following year. He re-cast Garfield and re-hired some of the same crew and created a masterpiece in the "B" movie Force of Evil (1948). Unfortunately, that pretty much ended Polonsky's career for two decades, thanks to the blacklist.

Polonsky's Body and Soul screenplay received one of the movie's three Oscar nominations. Garfield received another, and the movie won for its editing. This might lead one to believe that it is filled with glorious fight footage, but there's really only a tiny percentage, and mostly during the final ten minutes. Though it is said that cinematographer James Wong Howe wore roller skates to capture the kinetic, balletic fights.

Perhaps the movie's weakest spot is director Robert Rossen, who was one of a new breed of ultra-serious "message" directors. Andrew Sarris wrote of him: "the director is always trying to say more than his technique can express." Indeed, Rossen sometimes doesn't feel at harmony with his screenplay or his lead actor. The movie goes on too long, and gets a bit mushy from time to time; it's not as hard and lean as it could have been. Fortunately Rossen went on to make the much more satisfying The Hustler.

Body and Soul, therefore, is arguably a completist's boxing film, one to see for historical context rather than dramatic. But it can be thoroughly enjoyed for Garfield's performance and for Polonsky's screenplay, and for the fact that it led to Force of Evil. Olive Films has unearthed both Body and Soul and Force of Evil for a pair of new Blu-rays. Body and Soul contains no extras, but the black-and-white picture is pristine.
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