Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Guest Blogger Steve-O ~ On Classic Boxing Films

Since 2005, Steve-O has been bringing us weekly installments of in-depth reviews on Film Noirs over at his site Noir of the Week. It is one of the most comprehensive and interesting collection of articles, written by Steve-O and various other contributorss on this ever popular genre of films. Steve-O does us the pleaures of stopping by to enlighten us on classic boxing films. Enjoy!

I'm a sucker for films about the sweet science. I admit it. As much as I try to convince co-workers that Rocky IV isn't really very good – I still find a great amount of pleasure watching it. However, I do find most modern boxing dramas – from Cinderella Man to Rocky - entertaining but a bit lacking.

Now if you want to talk about great boxing films – then you have to talk about the gritty classics from the 40s and 50s.

City for Conquest is a guilty pleasure. James Cagney plays the same guy he played in most WB tough-guy films. Cagney showcases some deft footwork in the ring – but his punches are thrown like one of the Dead End Kids in a brawl. The film is a very slick Warner Bros film filled with over-the-top drama. Strong performances make the film an absolute pleasure though. Ann Sheridan as the girlfriend, Arthur Kennedy playing the more sensitive brother, and Anthony Quinn as Sheridan's slimy dance partner all help tell the rags-to-riches tales. When Cagney goes blind in the ring and Sheridan's dancing career is also flushed the film has its most tear-jerking moment. City for Conquest is a New York story through and through - and it's one I find myself watching again and again.

More realistic is Body and Soul. John Garfield plays a young Jewish street kid who is lured into a career as a pugilist. He quickly moves up the ranks – and at the same time dumps his artist girlfriend and – surprisingly – his poor mother (played by Anne Revere). The film was an independent production by Garfield but the lack of a budget didn't stop clever film makers from making a slick sports movie. Unfortunately, a decent copy is a challenge to find. The US DVD release is muddy and cuts one of the best lines from the movie. When Charley is deciding to through a title fight – and make a fortune by betting against himself – a local grocer from the old neighbor hood says, "In Europe, the Nazis are killing our people, but here Charley is Champeen! No, it's not about the money." Charley is devastated by the comment. Hopefully someday a better DVD will be released of this one.

Kirk Douglas is at his evil best in Champion. In fact, I'm finding that Douglas is one of the best anti-heroes of the 40s and 50s. Barry Gifford, writing in his book Devil Thumbs a Ride & Other Unforgettable Films, calls Champion the most vicious boxing film until Raging Bull. Douglas as the cut-throat fighter makes Garfield in Body and Soul look like a boy scout in comparison. This was the big break out film for Douglas. Douglas – prior to Champion – learned how to smoke while making Strange Love of Martha Ivers because the director though he needed something to do with his hands. In Out of the Past and Ace in the Hole, he found amazing ways to light and share smokes. In Champion Douglas' hands were taped and gloved most of the time. He found what to do with them. Bury them into his opponent.

Robert Ryan - unlike the other leading men mentioned above – was actually a pretty decent boxer in his day. In The Set-Up he proves it. No film has better boxing fight scenes than this one. When I first saw this movie I loved it but I find – strangely- that I like it less and less with each viewing. I think I'm going to blame the DVD which seems too bright. The sets out on the streets look like sets. And the film feels too stagey at times. Ryan is fantastic in it and the fight scenes – it's worth repeating – are just perfect. Film noir fans love the cast of ugly faces including George Tobias, Wallace Ford and Percy Helton. Beauty does make an appearance though. Audry Totter – one of the queens of noir – plays Ryan's woman.

Finally, there's Bogart's last film The Harder They Fall. No, Bogie doesn't play a boxer. Luckily he keeps his shirt on and manages instead. The film both glorifies and condemns the sport. This is an appropriate send off to the grizzled Bogart. The film is heartbreaking when it shows broken down brain-damaged boxers of the past. Bogart's Eddie Willis is his best role since In a Lonely Place.

Recently at my blog, Noir of the Week, we covered both Body and Soul and The Set-Up. Film noir is notorious for using similar locations and professions. Boxing – with it's many appearances in dark cities - was the sport of film noir.


  1. Great write-up as always Steve-O. Body and Soul still remains one of my favorite boxing films.

  2. I too love the boxing film genre even though i cant stand the sport for real! What a setting for tales of moral corruption/redemption and the potential ugliness of human nature! I have to diagree about City for Conquest as being a guilty pleasure though! I think it's fine film, wondefully acted and sensitively directed and what a great score! They just didnt pay as much attention to the realism in a fight scene (or gunfights for that matter) back then. I think it's important to mention that the Set Up plays out in real time which may account for it's stagey feel. I'm with you all the way on Kirk Douglas though! he's just a hair under Cagney in my list of faves and Champion is one of the best things he ever did. his death scene is unforgettable! I think it's funny how Arthur Kennedy played the 'sensitive' brother in 2 of the films you mentioned! thanks for a great post!!!

  3. Great post, Steve-O! Also a bit of a coincidence for me as well. A few weeks ago my best friend and I were talking about why we don't like the Rocky films--namely, they don't measure up to the classic boxing films of yore! Champion remains my all time favourite boxing film.

    Thanks for giving Steve-O the opportunity to guest blog, Raquelle!

  4. Boxing movies are really their own genre, aren't they? I saw The Set-Up ages ago; I need to see it again. What do you think of Somebody Up There Likes Me? More of a biopic, really. I've boxed amateur and it's rare to find an accurate film, but a good story is enough. I'll have to watch Champion next time it's on TCM.

    I like bareknuckle flicks like Diggstown and Hard Times too. And of course the Clint movies with the orangutan :)

  5. Body and Soul looks the most convincing of the boxing noirs because of the documentary style photography, and the story lives up to the visuals. I second Tommy Salami's praise for Hard Times, and from the Seventies I also like Fat City for its glamourless depiction of the fighter's world.

  6. Somebody Up There Likes Me is a pretty good flick, but Paul Newman's performance seems forced and over-ripe to me. In Body and Soul apparently cinematographer James Wong Howe wore roller skates to film parts of Charlies last fight! i think John Garfield gives a stunning performance in that film. i'd call him possibly the best actor ever at playing a morally anguished man!

  7. Interesting comments:

    I was going to list some of the other great boxing films then I realized there are a bunch! and the article started to become a big list - so I cut them out. The 70s had quite a boxing revival in movies. We had Fat City as Noir of the Week a while back... a great, great film.

    I finally saw Somebody Up There Likes Me recently. I've avoided it because I thought Newman was too pretty for the role. I underestimated him. He was down-to-earth and gritty.

    Body and Soul is totally worth a rental on Netflix despite edits and it not looking as good as R2 releases.

    Finally: I did notice that Kennedy played the same guy in both Champion and City For Conquest despite being years apart. He was one of the great second bananas.

  8. Champion is an exciting film and one of my favorites. What I wouldn't give for the Dimitri Tiomkin sountrack on cd. When you consider Champion, Lust For Life,Paths of Glory, Lonely Are the Brave, Spartacus and Ace In The Hole (I'm sure I'm leaving out something) you can see what a talented and great actor Kirk Douglas is.


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