The debasing influence of greed is at the core of the masterful 1947 film Body and Soul. Directed by Robert Rossen from an Abraham Polonsky screenplay, this cutting bite of film noir is a cutting critique of the pursuit of riches. It uses the sport of boxing as a backdrop and really does manage to be a great fight film, but the power of the script and performances transcends the milieu.
Body and Soul remains relevant because the themes are universal. The notion of having “enough” feeds the impetus of the lead character, with the enticement of just a few thousand dollars more leading him down the garden path. And the wealth comes at the expense of everything, leaving catastrophe and anguish in its wake.
John Garfield stars as Charlie Davis and he wants to be a fighter. His mother Anna (Anne Revere) is against the idea and wants him to go to school, but the death of his father (Art Smith) causes financial difficulties and he wants fast money. Together with his best friend and promoter Shorty (Joseph Pevney), Charlie begins to rise through the boxing ranks.
Shorty gets Charlie a deal with Quinn (William Conrad), who eventually lines him up with the promoter Roberts (Lloyd Gough). Soon there is more money and there are more deals, including a fight with a boxer with a blood clot (Canada Lee). Roberts begins making several shifty deals and Charlie sees nothing but dollar signs, leading to the erosion of his relationship with Peg (Lilli Palmer).
The romantic narrative of the boxer has fueled many a disreputable tale, with the blood-spattered sport lending itself to gargantuan contests between good and evil. In the case of Body and Soul, evil lives outside the ring and lures the protagonist into its lair with promises of success. The initial draw to boxing comes from Charlie’s self-sacrifice, but temptation overwhelms him.
The cinematography of James Wong Howe pulls in tight, providing a rare look for a boxing film. Rather than featuring elegant and extravagant shots, the fight scenes are ugly and capture the fury in the ring. Howe shot some of the footage on roller skates using a handheld camera, producing a genuine and energetic grain.
Charlie doesn’t just face opponents in the ring. Things start innocently enough when he dates Peg, an artist from Greenwich Village, and has Shorty set up a few bouts. Mom objects, but one gets the sense mom always objects to those sorts of things. She’s the sort to spout off aphorisms; she tells him to fight for something, not just for money.
But the money’s good. Really good. Charlie gets cash advances and sets his dame up in a posh pad. He wants to move mom to a better place, wants to ditch the family candy shop. It feels good to make money. It feels good to throw some green around. Sometimes, he has to do questionable things. The cash makes it go down easy.
Lee’s character represents a ethical turning point. Shorty hears about a lethal plan from Roberts and wants no part of the business. He figures Charlie will go his way once he hears the truth. He’s wrong. Disaster strikes and the protagonist has a chance to prove himself as the hero, but self-indulgence has other ideas.
Body and Soul received considerable attention because of its anti-capitalist themes. The film does feature a great deal of blacklisted talent, including Polonsky, Garfield, Gough, Revere, and even Lee. It cuts to the bone of greed and tells the truth about how money can chew people up and spit them out.
Body and Soul is exceptional. It packs a noir wallop and features moral heft behind its punches. The performances are stellar, with Palmer’s bright eyes nearly stealing the whole thing, and Howe’s direction sets the stage for numerous boxing films to come. And best of all, it tells the truth in every fascinating frame.