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The first and maybe still the best boxing movie

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: With Southpaw stepping into the ring next week, and the Rocky spinoff Creed on its way this autumn, let’s cheer on some of the great boxing movies of yesteryear.

Body And Soul (1947)

The dawn of modern film acting—in which exponents of several different varieties of the Stanislavskian Moscow Art Theatre style, all loosely grouped together as “Method,” became prevalent in American film—is usually dated to the early/mid-1950s advent of Marlon Brando and James Dean, two of the most romanticized and influential actors ever to live. But Brando and Dean had precedent, in an actor with every bit of their talent and pure physical force of being, who like Dean died far too young, but unlike Dean failed to die under as appealingly poetic circumstances. That actor was John Garfield.

Body And Soul is Garfield’s apex as a performer, in which his character, boxing champion Charley Davis, embodies a kind of reified experience of the working classes under capitalism. He comes from humble beginnings, and is driven by ambition and a naïve sense of the glamour of wealth to risk his very physical body to make as much money as he can. Eventually, he realizes that the part that’s been written for him to play is a man who punches other men, and who is punched by them—someone who sheds blood for the entertainment of others. Body And Soul is a fairly progressive movie even by the standards of nearly 70 years later; for 1947, it was far out enough that its star, screenwriter Abraham Polonsky, and director Robert Rossen (as well as supporting player Anna Revere) were called before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Garfield, Polonsky, and Revere were all blacklisted, with only Rossen able to escape permanent sanction by naming names.

Amazingly, even that dark cloud of an extratextual epilogue fails to dim the film’s light. Body And Soul remains the definitive boxing movie, one from which subsequent forays into the genre borrow heavily. Rocky III owes a debt to the relationship between Charley Davis and heavyweight champ Ben Chaplin (Canada Lee), which provided the template for Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed. Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull pays a far broader homage, with James Wong Howe’s exquisite black-and-white cinematography and innovations in camera movement essentially writing the language in which Scorsese and Michael Chapman would then write poetry.

John Garfield’s acting particularly lends itself to the cinema, in that so much of it originates in his eyes. Acting for the camera requires a refinement of gesture to the bare elements, which often means that the eyes—the windows to the soul, as the poet said—have to do the work that the entire body would overdo. In the flashbacks to his early days as a neighborhood kid made good, Garfield’s glance is often shy, scattered, flickering around the room with a barely contained force of personality. When he’s the champ, he can look anyone in the eye.

The tension of Garfield barely restraining his peerless brute force is released only in the boxing scenes, which remain some of the most exhilarating filmmaking there’s been. Cast aside any notion of “old” movies being stiff and dull; the fights are viscerally intense, Raging Bull 30-plus years ahead of time. Body And Soul is widely considered to be the first great boxing film. It was not the last, but it still wears the title belt.

Availability: Body And Soul is available on DVD from Netflix or possibly your local video store/library.