Plot: Charley Davis (John Garfield) grew up in a rough, poor neighborhood, so he had to get tough himself, if he wanted to protect himself. The toughness led to him being good with his hands in a scrap, which then took him to the boxing world and he became a champion in the amateur ranks. His mother wants him to go to school and seek a better future that way, but Charley wants out of the ghetto now, so in a rush to leave poverty behind, he pursues a professional run in the squared circle. Before his career can even begin however, his father is killed and he questions if boxing is the right choice, given his mother’s objections. His new love interest Peg (Lilli Palmer) reignites his passions though and encourages him to box, if that’s what he really wants. As he sees the ring as a chance to make a better life, he quickly falls in with a crooked promoter and is blinded to how his actions are harming his personal life. Will Charley sacrifice everything he holds dear to pursue fame and fortune as a boxer?
Entertainment Value: This well crafted drama was nominated for three Oscars and took one home, but is more of a socialist drama than traditional boxing movie, though it does remain rooted in that world. The focus is on the corruption the financial side of the sport can breed, not just how the rich get richer, but someone like Charley can be dragged down into the muck as well. In other words, a good man who gets a taste of the good life, then all but sells his soul to make that taste permanent, not the most subtle or original concept. But the premise is executed well, if in quite heavy handed fashion and if nothing else, the movie is always watchable. I wouldn’t rate much of Body and Soul as masterful or even that great, but it hits some effective notes and is a rock solid drama in most respects. I might be biased though, as I always manage to find the best in these boxing films, as I just love the sport and how well the stories of that world translate into cinema. So it might not be an immortal classic, but fans of John Garfield or boxing movies, I’d recommend a watch.
I think most new viewers will be drawn to Body and Soul for those reasons I mentioned, either as part of an exploration of the boxing world in cinema or because of John Garfield’s performance. Garfield is likely the best part of the movie and he turns in an earnest, serious effort that elevates the material, even at its most heavy handed, which is a testament to his skills here. He is able to convey the toughness needed to be believable as a fighter, but a kind of naive presence that makes his descent a sympathetic one, at least at times. Not the easiest kind of role to pull off, but Garfield handles it and is able to make Charley into a memorable character. The rest of the cast is fine, if limited by the heavy handed material, but Garfield is the standout. He was nominated for an Oscar for the role, which was well deserved. The cast also includes William Conrad, Lilli Palmer, Anne Revere, and Hazel Brooks.