Great title for this well-regarded crime drama. John Garfield stars as boxer Charlie Davis, with the usual problem of mob pressure for gambling interests. Co-staring are Lili Palmer as Peg, Hazel Brooks as Alice, Anne Revere for Anna Davis, Canada Lee as Ben, another boxer, Joseph Pevney as hanger-on Shorty; and underworld guys, including promoter Quinn (William Conrad) and Roberts (Lloyd Gough).
Boxing was at the height of its popularity in this, the early postwar period; and, due to the limited number of players, and the flurry of gambling interest, it often became easy pickings for fixing.
Charlie isn’t too welcome back home, neither from mom or Peg. He’s out boozing with a nice bar hostess who is getting his attention. But some chatter from his next opponent temporarily sends him over the edge, as he slugs the guy at the weigh-in.
You got to figure this is top-shelf film noir if a guy actually talks about “the smart money”–the only thing that could amplify the grittiness of that comment would be to say that the money was ‘from Chicago’.
Anyway, via flashback, we see how he meets Peg. At a fund raiser for a local politician, she’s Charlie’s dance partner; they immediately hit it off. So there’s a bunch of funny bits in a taxi, and at Pegs place. His buddy Shorty is giving the guys his somewhat enhanced version of the romance.
Then we see slimy cigar-chomping Quinn, whom Shorty tries to sell on Charlie. Anyway, his dad stakes him for his first pro bout. Suddenly, gangsters blow up the speakeasy next to his dad’s store–pops is dead. So now Charlie is desperate; Shorty keeps working on Quinn, to the point of goading another fighter, knowing that Charlie will back him up, to show how good Charlie can fight. It works.
Charlie brings Peg home; she fits right in. Unfortunately, a charity worker shows up with fairly insulting questions; he gets rid of her, to Mom’s chagrin. She: “Buy a gun and shoot yourself!” He: “You need money to buy a gun!” The follow-up with Peg proves that they’re nuts for each other.
So, he goes in the ring. A montage of boxing posters shows that he rapidly ascends the ranks. Sure enough, as soon as he gets known, Roberts wants to ‘manage’–i.e., fix him. On the home front, he and Peg are set to be happily married. Shorty reminds him that, despite his success, he hasn’t really helped out his mom. Shorty’s real motive is to get them married quick–to settle Charlie down.
The promoters meet up, and Ben agrees to fight Charlie (with a fix). Charlie comes home to announce that the marriage is going ahead. Quinn has Alice in tow. Roberts comes calling; he blows off Shorty, and has a ‘deal’ in mind. To fight for the championship, Charlie will agree to the terms. That is, forget Shorty, and put off the wedding. Roberts greases the wheels with some cash.
While training, Alice comes on to Charlie very directly. Even Quinn is wondering what’s up with her. In the ring with Ben, Alice cheers him on, but Peg can’t stand it. Anyway, he wins by knockout. Ben is in bad shape; Charlie, very remorseful, feels terrible. “Everyone dies” says Roberts. Shorty now finds out that he’s not really partners anymore, but just on Charlie’s dole.
At a swanky celebration party, everyone’s happy but Shorty. He spills the dope on Ben: Charlie was supposed to go easy on him, because Ben had a blood clot, and shouldn’t even have fought. Shorty puts Charlie on the spot about his diminished role; when Charlie tries to paper that over (literally, since Shorty’s still getting his dole), Shorty pointedly remarks “You didn’t win, he [Roberts] did.”
He quits. Peg wants him to stay around. He says forget it. Walking away he’s jumped by one of Robert’s goons; fortunately, Charlie intervenes and pummels the guy. But Shorty, dazed, walks right into the path of a truck. Good-bye Shorty. Now Charlie is, however indirectly, has ruined two lives.
Peg tries to tell Charlie that he must quit. She won’t back down. “But I’m a champ.” She repeats more or less Shorty’s comment about who the real winner is. So she won’t marry him.
Next scene, he’s at the fights with Alice. He’s in the money now. Fortunately, Ben is in good enough shape for Charlie to take him on as a manager/train. The only problem is, he has to take a dive for a challenger; for the title, he’s going to fight.
“Nobody backs out now.” warns Roberts. Actually, Charlie only has to go fifteen rounds to a decision. But Ben asks, “Did you sell the fight?” Charlie lies. Quinn has a side-deal with Alice. During a pretty wild party at Charlie’s, Alice and Quinn are at each other’s throats; after she insinuates that he’s no spring chicken, he says “You could use a new paint job yourself.” She shoots back: “And I know how to get it.”
Next day, somewhat chastened by a hangover, Charlie slinks over to Peg’s. Obviously, they haven’t seen each other much. “I want you” he confesses. She’s about to come back to him; but he can’t stop babbling about the $60k he’s going to get for the next fight. Bad karma.
But she then says, “do you know what it’s like to love, and be alone?” He wakes up on her couch; she leaves him a note to meet that night at his mom’s. Apparently, she and mom believe that this really will be his last fight. The catch is that they figure out that it’s fixed.
He starts debating out loud about the morality of the fix. “I take the beatings and you take the dough!” So, just like that, he and Peg, are on the outs again. He knows he’s in his own personal fix. The night before the fight, he talks to Ben; like all the good guys, Ben wants him to out-and-out win the fight. Now Roberts wants to scare Ben off like he did Shorty.
Ben gets so wound up, he goes off on Roberts and literally shadow-boxes himself to death. Now, at long last, back to the beginning–to finish the story up. The match is the last undecided issue, and that will become the denouement.
Round after round, the fight looks like a bore-fest–that is, it goes according to script. All of a sudden, they really pour it on. In the last round, Charlie waits and then crushes his opponent, winning by knockout. Both Alice and Peg are wound up. To Roberts, he just says “I retire.” Then he taunts the gangster, “What are you gonna do, kill me?” He walks off with a joyous Peg.
The climactic fight scene is one of the most dramatic sequences in film noir. As suggested, Charlie isn’t just fighting against the other guy, but the gangsters as well; he’s also fighting for himself and Peg. The very existentialist sense that losing is winning, and winning is losing, is both palpable and mythic.
Great performances on all sides, particularly Garfield and Palmer. Also notable is the very dignified role for Lee. There’s not one hint of racism, even from the crooks, who, though they wouldn’t mind if Ben dies, it’s not because he’s black, but only because he’s an enemy.
Both Alice and Peg’s characters are well-drawn; they’re complete opposites, representing the two lifestyles that tug Charlie back and forth. In short, this is a character-driven story, the mark of serious drama, here with its opaque noir shadow.
The only bit I didn’t like was the abrupt flashback. At first I though my recording had messed up, and the happy-go-lucky stuff set in the past might actually be from another Garfield movie. A sentence or two of voice-over, or a bit of textual explanation, would’ve at least given a sense of transition.
Nonetheless, Body and Soul is a great viewing experience. Farmermouse was scooting along the arena floor chomping up all the spilled popcorn; so he gives this nine front row seats. 9/10.