The Film Noir Odyssey
Writer: Abraham Polonsky
Director: Robert Rossen
Cast: John Garfield, Lilli Palmer, Hazel Brooks
Cinematography: James Wong Howe
Music: Hugo Friedhofer
Studio: United Artists
Release: November 9, 1947
Awards: Won the Oscar for Film Editing. Garfield was nominated for Best Actor but lost to Ronald Colman in film noir “A Double Life.” Polonsky was nominated for Best Original Screenplay, but lost to “The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer.” Also nominated: “A Double Life.”
Percent Noir: 60%
I suspect that “Body and Soul” is low key one of the most beloved films noir ever created. It’s not big and bold like “Gilda” or “Out of the Past,” nor is it dripping in crime like “Detour” or “Double Indemnity.” There is a wannabe femme fatale, but this is the rare noir where the good girl makes a bigger impression. Yes, it’s atypical to the genre in many regards, but in its own way, it’s just about perfect. I’ve never met someone who doesn’t like it.
In case you can’t tell, this article is going to be a rave. Get ready.
John Garfield is excellent as the boxer Charley Davis, who has worked his way up to becoming the best fighter in the world. In doing so, he has sold his soul a piece at a time, whether it’s freezing out friends, taking payoffs or losing himself in the money. He’s in love with a woman (Lilli Palmer as Peg) who makes him a better man… so of course he abandons her when she starts pointing out how self-destructive he’s becoming. Another piece of his conscience comes from his mother Anna (Anne Revere, who is great), who doesn’t initially support her son’s ambitions and questions him whenever he starts behaving badly.
But that money is too good to turn down, especially for a poor Jewish kid from a bad neighborhood. And while many other movies follow a similar structure of downward trajectory for a main character’s soul while their bank account improves, “Body and Soul” feels fresh and new thanks to the screenplay by Abraham Polonsky.
I feel like it would be easy to throw a bunch of synonyms for “excellent” at this screenplay, but I weirdly don’t think that will do the work Polonsky (“Force of Evil”) did here justice. The character specificity in every single scene in the movie is beautifully rendered, and I was genuinely surprised in ways both big and small in every scene. There’s a moment when Charley is courting Peg where he says he wants to be a success, and she asks for clarification – he wants other people to think he’s a success? That was the exact moment I fell deeply, madly in love with this movie. Oftentimes screenwriters write in the same voice for every character – their own – but here Polonsky is careful to make every person onscreen sound different, and takes as much care sketching the small supporting roles as he does his main character.
And what a main character Charley is! I love John Garfield, and not just because of those looks – he’s been excellent in every film I’ve seen him in, but this performance is his opus, my friends. The man’s eyes are always searching, and the subtle facial expressions he makes throughout the film predates Marlon Brando’s more famous work in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” His performance here couldn’t be more different than, say, “Humoresque” or “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” and the fact that he could pull off the change while still retaining his own star quality deserves a standing ovation.
He has off the charts chemistry with Palmer, who likewise crafts one of the most memorable characters in all of noir. This is especially impressive since, as stated before, she’s the good girl who is steering Charley towards the light in just about every scene she’s in. There’s a masterful scene where Charley visits her with a meaningful painting long after they’ve broken up, and the amount of emotion they conjure… both in things said and unsaid… brings me to tears every time.
Director Robert Rossen wrote or co-wrote several very good films noir, including “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” and “Desert Fury,” before transitioning into directing, and would soon be winning all the awards for “All the King’s Men.” Here he proves to be a visual master, creating indelible image after indelible image, thanks to his incredible collaboration with superstar Cinematographer James Wong Howe (“Sweet Smell of Success,” “Kings Row”). Many of the shots and set-ups in the climactic boxing match were groundbreaking at the time and still hold up astonishingly well. Scorsese would steal liberally from Howe’s work and the look of 1949’s “The Set-Up” for “Raging Bull,” and it’s hard not to blame him after seeing the quality of the work here.
The fact that the word “Soul” is in the title is indicative of the amount of soul in the film itself. Noir is often cold, usually calculated and doesn’t have much faith in the world. And yet “Body and Soul” has a humanity that is rare for this genre. You often don’t give two shits about the doomed schmucks and the femme fatales doing the dooming, but here you care deeply for Charley’s fate. His decisions in the final reel have you both cheering and terrified for what is going to happen next, and that’s the sign of a story well told.
If you’ve somehow missed “Body and Soul” up to this point in your life, you can easily fix it in the next two hours. And you’ll be better for having seen it – it’s one of my personal favorites of the genre and one I’m eager to revisit. It’s a knockout.
(Sorry I couldn’t help myself.)