BODY AND SOUL

 (Robert Rossen, USA, 1947) 102 minutes

BODY AND SOUL

Director: Robert Rossen
Producer: Bob Roberts
Asst. Director: Robert Aldrich
Screenplay: Abraham Polonsky
Photography: James Wong Howe
Editor: Robert Parrish
Music: Hugo Friedhofer
John Garfield (Charley Davis)
Lilli Palmer (Peg Born)
Hazel Brooks (Alice)
Anne Revere (Anna Davis)
William Conrad (Quinn)
Joseph Pevney (Shorty Polaski)

Reviews and notes

Of all the Marxists who came to Hollywood, Polonsky was the most successful - single-minded, if you like - in setting the capitalist ogre within a gilded narrative frame. The scripts for his late-forties trilogy on the profit motive (BODY AND SOUL, Force of Evil, I Can Get It for You Wholesale) reveal characters so obsessed with money as to make Greed, by comparison, look like A Christmas Carol. As described by Roberts, the malignant, manipulative force of evil in BODY AND SOUL, life is just "addition and subtraction. Everything else is conversation."

BODY AND SOUL, directed by Robert Rossen, fits securely into Polonsky's very personal urban Hellmouth, with its Breughelesque, subway-at-rush-hour density, its stylized but fiercely realistic dialogue, and its cheeky characters who seem to carry both a chip and an albatross on their shoulders. But defining BODY AND SOUL, and to a diminishing extent Force of Evil and I Can Get It for You Wholesale, are the soundless voices whispering through the tenements and boxing clubs, through the bookie joints and garment centers, like the whispering house in D. H. Lawrence's The Rocking Horse Winner: "There must be more money!"

BODY AND SOUL shares many of the generic conventions of Clifford Odets's 1937 play, >i>Golden Boy: the ambitious youngster who leaves an ethnic home for the excitement and notoriety of prizefighting, the avuncular manager and rapacious gangster who grab "pieces" of him, the Negro champ he accidentally kills, the final decision to make a clean break; even the presence of John Garfield in both roles...

Death and money, money and death. You kill somebody (one way or another) to get money, then somebody kills you to get yours. Throughout the movie, Roberts keeps reminding, warning, threatening Charlie that "everybody dies. Ben - Shorty - even you." By the time Charlie decides not to throw the fight that could let him retire rich, Ben and Shorty have died, at Roberts's hands; so Charlie knows his life won't be "worth much" when he steps out of the ring as the undefeated champ. Only his realization that two years of success and money have made him less his own man, and have brought him dangerously closer to Roberts's scrap heap, gives him the courage to walk up to his boss after the fight and ask, "What are you gonna do, kill me?" Roberts doesn't answer. But Charlie does. "Everybody dies." And he walks away.

Robert Rossen was neither the most forceful nor even the most adroit of the Directors Guild's leftists. Where his intent was to go for the jugular, as in All the King's Men, his execution too often pandered to the obvious. Where his material was lyric (as in Lilith), Rossen's treatment inevitably called to mind the sight of Phil Silvers, in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, singing a mock-romantic Lovely to Jack Gilford in drag, as the two traipse clumsily through an impeccably sylvan setting.

But, as happens more often than auteur philosophers would dream of, something clicked when Polonsky, Rossen, Garfield, James Wong Howe, and the rest of the BODY AND SOUL troupe converged: there's a claustrophobic concentration of mood and dialogue, of character and characterization, that makes BODY AND SOUL not only the bleakest (and, perversely, the most exhilarating) of boxing movies, but also the blackest of the decade's film noir.

To say, for example, that Anne Revere conveys an almost hysterical intensity as Garfield's concerned, possessive mother is to understate the case, and to underestimate her achievement. It would be more precise to credit her with restoring, in a few short scenes, a literary concept of the Jewish mother that had been thrown out of balance by three decades of well-meaning, soft-edged, hypocritical Hollywood matrons. Revere (who, like just about everybody else who worked on BODY AND SOUL, was blacklisted from movie work) is both the real spur to Garfield's undefined ambitions and the over-powering rival to recessive "co-star" Lilli Palmer, for her son's love and loyalty.

It is just as demeaning to credit Polonsky with writing, on his first try, dialogue that ranks with the tersest and fiercest a screen-writer has ever produced. When a cocky contender for Garfield's crown looks the champ over, and snorts, "All fat. Night-club fat. Whiskey fat. Thirty-five-year-old fat," Polonsky is giving us more than a neat precis of the protagonist's condition, distorted only slightly by the callow perception of a young punk; he is creating a kind of urban, cinematic poetry, a language that builds its richest effects out of the rhythms and images of street-smart poverty.

The film's labyrinthine contradictions (of prose-poetry and ghetto tough-talk, of saintly motherhood and a woman's demonic ambition for her son, of money hate and money obsession) find their ironic apogee in the climactic fight, which is photographed and edited so excitingly, so involvingly, that it explains our hero's fascination with "the game," and nearly makes us regret that he has to give it up. Charlie may think he finally demolished Roberts with a verbal cut to the jaw ("Everybody dies"), but Charlie's last fight helps us realize that he had to put his body on the line before he could pick up the chips of his soul.
-Richard Corliss, Talking Pictures, David & Charles, 1975.

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