Monday, February 20, 2012

Reeling Backward: "Champion" (1949)

"Champion" has a great twist ending. It's not a fake-out in the classic sense -- rather, the movie establishes a set of expectations for what will happen, and then something even worse occurs, but once it happens it feels like just the right outcome.

It looks like it's going to be a bad ending for the champion, Midge Kelly (Kirk Douglas), as he's getting pounded to a pulp by the challenger. He's barely on his feet, his left eye is puffy and closed, and his face is a ferocious grimace of blood and anger. Enraged at the broadcaster and crowd calling for his blood, Midge rallies his strength and knocks out his opponent. Minutes later, he dies of a brain hemorrhage in his locker room.

Like so many boxing dramas, 1949's "Champion" is about hubris and ambition. A man who has nothing rises up to the top of the fighting sport through sheer determination, and not a little savagery in the ring. As he climbs the ladder, his personal life descends into a morass of failed relationships and selfishness. Midge gives up everything that's important in exchange for glory in the ring, then watches even that slip away.

Also like so many boxing movies, there's someone waiting just outside the ring who's subordinate to the fighter. Sometimes it's a kid, sometimes it's a girl, and in "Champion," like "Raging Bull," it's a brother. Arthur Kennedy plays Connie, who walks with the aid of a cane. (He's literally listed in the credits as "Midge's lame brother.") Connie is supportive and loyal, until he realizes Midge's fountain of ego will eventually drown everyone close to him, including his sibling.

There are three lady loves for Midge in the movie, and it's one too many. Ruth Roman plays Emma, a waitress at the diner where Midge and Connie land jobs. Connie is clearly attracted to her, but Emma only has eyes for the athletic, aggressive Midge. Her father catches them canoodling and forces Midge to marry Emma, at which point he immediately abandons her, angry at his wings being clipped.

The next is Grace (Marilyn Maxwell), a brassy blonde who seems to hang on the arm of whoever is the biggest contender for the championship, switching allegiances as the rankings rise and fall. "I'm expensive," she warns Midge, "Very expensive." She uses Midge, and Midge uses her until such time as he doesn't need her anymore. He dumps her, in a devastatingly cold move, but we don't really feel sorry for Grace. Midge may be a mercenary, but at least he plies his trade in the ring, not the bedroom.

Perhaps the most interesting, but also the most unnecessary, female is "Palmer" Harris (Lola Albright), the much-younger wife of Midge's shyster of a manager, Jerome Harris (Luis Van Rooten). She's a trophy wife, but is comfortable about being one, until she encounters the brooding Midge, who by this time has sunk to almost caveman levels of testosteronal behavior.

Paul Stewart has a nice role as Tommy, Midge's laconic first manager who discovers him. When Tommy tells him he has to take a dive before he'll get his shot at the championship, Midge refuses, thrashing his opponent to the canvas in mere seconds. Soon the mobsters and gamblers are after him. To atone to the moneymen who control the sport, Midge is forced to part ways with Tommy in favor of Jerome. He's not happy about it, but Midge pays whatever price in personal relationships is required to keep climbing upward.

The fight scenes in "Champion" are fairly weak by modern standards, but for 1949 they pack a pretty punch. Douglas has the physique and pugnaciousness of a fighter, though as usual more punches are landed in a single round than in an entire real bout. They are quite obviously stunt punches, with the glove never quite contacting the face, and it shows.

Director Mark Robson keeps his camera roving inside the ring in a dynamic way. The film won an Oscar for editing, and earned a slew of other nominations, including Douglas for Best Actor and Kennedy for Supporting Actor.

Carl Foreman earned his own Academy Award nod for the screenplay, which was based on a short story by Ring Lardner. (Interesting aside: Carl Foreman was Blacklisted during the 1950s, and posthumously awarded an Oscar for his uncredited work on "The Bridge on the River Kwai." Lardner's son, Ring Lardner Jr., was also a Blacklisted screenwriter and Oscar winner.)

I should note that I watched "Champion" in a colorized version -- the only one available (sadly) on streaming Netflix. The movie was shot in black-and-white, and in fact earned an Oscar nomination in Best Cinematography, Black-and-White for Franz Planer -- back when the Academy gave out separate awards for color and monochrome.

I can't say as I found the colorization terribly intrusive. Truth be told, I didn't even know about it until I began my post-viewing research. But the many slanted shadows and inky pools of darkness should have clued me in that "Champion" belongs in the film noir category. Somehow, I can't think of film noir as being anything other than black-and-white.

3 stars out of four

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