4 out of 5 stars

Nearly three decades before a boxing movie gave Sylvester Stallone his entrée to the big time, Kirk Douglas had his breakthrough with the same genre. But Champion could hardly be more different from Rocky (1976). Described by Jason A. Ney on this Blu-ray’s commentary as an “anti-boxing film”, it has more in common with Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980) in its portrayal of a boxer whose triumphs in the ring are paralleled by an increasingly pugilistic and destructive attitude toward life outside it. (The two films are set at much the same time, too.)

A major success in its day, even if it’s not as well-remembered as other classics of the immediate post-war period, Champion was also a big step forward for Stanley Kramer in his production career before he turned to directing, and was the deserving recipient of an Academy Award for film editing as well as several other nominations (Douglas and Arthur Kennedy for acting, Carl Foreman for his screenplay, Franz Planer for his outstanding cinematography, and less explicably Dmitri Tiomkin for his mostly rather average music score).

The film begins where it will end, with Midge (Douglas) about to defend his title against arch-rival Dunne (John Daheim, credited here as ‘John Day’). Nearly all of it, though, is a flashback from this depicting Midge’s rise to fame and simultaneous descent into brutishness.

Midge and his brother Connie (Kennedy)—who walks with a cane—start out broke, freight-hopping and hitching across the US in hopes of taking over a restaurant in Los Angeles. That comes to nothing (they’ve been deceived) but on the way Midge has by accident gained his first taste of boxing, filling in for an injured fighter in Kansas City. “Don’t know from nothin’. But he can take it,” Midge’s opponent says appreciatively of the newcomer after the fight.

The Kansas City fight also provides an early indication that Midge, although he will do some despicable things, is equally a victim of the (then) notoriously corrupt boxing world himself: the $35 he’s earned is reduced to $10 by spurious fees. “Nice guys don’t make money,” he observes later.

All the same, when the restaurant dream goes sour, soon enough he finds himself becoming a professional prizefighter, managed by Haley (Paul Stewart), and dallying with high-maintenance dames like Grace (Marilyn Maxwell) and Palmer (Lola Albright). But as his innocent delight in his own triumphs turns into overwhelming arrogance, so his treatment of the people around him also becomes cruel and selfish.

Champion is thoroughly a boxing noir, then, the portrayal of one man’s fatal flaw and the downfall it brings about. Indeed, the matches themselves are brief and almost unimportant (apart from some intense and detailed violence in the last). Mark Robson’s direction and Planer’s cinematography often reflect its noir affinities, with some powerful black-and-white effects—the opening shot of Midge walking through pools of light in a dark corridor is so chiaroscuro it’s almost abstract, a later scene of Midge and his brief love interest Emma (Ruth Roman) on the beach at sunset is striking in the way that the pair are little more than silhouettes.

This overt artistry is certainly well served by Eureka Entertainment’s Blu-ray transfer. But such moments are few enough that Champion never seems overly mannered, and there’s plenty else to hold the attention in a movie where the storyline and characters are relatively uncomplicated. Planer’s camera often lingers on unexpected, telling details, and Robson inserts some broad humour, too, most notably in the beach scene where Midge stares at Emma in her swimsuit with obvious appreciation before asking “shall we get wet?” As Ney says in his commentary, it’s surprising the blatant sexual allusion made it to the final cut.

Only Tiomkin’s rather tiredly melodramatic score is a disappointment, though even that comes into its own in two montage sequences, one of them—depicting Midge’s early training—was actually directed by Kramer.

As important as these production elements are in lifting Champion above the level of a lurid, unsubtle shocker (and above many of the era’s numerous other boxing movies), it’s equally the performances that grab the attention. Douglas—in one of the tough-as-nails roles he became so identified with—is impossible to take your eyes off, and though the movie demands that his character’s transformation from likeable guy to monster is a little over-the-top, his superb handling of it foreshadows his rather similar character in Ace in the Hole (1951).

Consider three smiles, for example. Early on, Midge hops out of the ring after a win and gives his phone number to the girl of his defeated opponent, sitting in the audience; his grin is one of simple pleasure. Later, he grins again when a bellboy calls him “champ”, but this time it’s pride in his status that’s taken over. And by the end, though he might seem still to be smiling at the time of his final fight with Dunne, it’s an animal grimace: there’s no real pleasure in Midge’s life any more, just an instinct to kill or be killed.

Douglas may dominate the movie, but other characters are always credible, and many of the performers create a rounded impression despite a script that gives them only a limited amount to work with. Perhaps the outstanding one is Stewart as Haley, burdened with a bit too much background-explaining dialogue yet managing to give the sense of an unexpectedly intelligent and sensitive man; he rather evokes Stanley Tucci.

Roman, as Emma, is the best of the women, while Luis van Rooten puts plenty of depth into a fairly small but important part as Palmer’s husband, seemingly buttoned-up but actually emotional, smart, and manipulative. As with Stewart’s Haley, he’s not what you’d expect the character to be, and that adds a new dimension to the film.

Champion isn’t a movie of great complexity or ambition. The story it has to tell, “a story that could only have been lived in the fight game”, is simple and forthright. But it’s told so well—both by the cast and by the team behind the camera—that it’s addictively watchable and completely absorbing from beginning to end, and worthy of sitting alongside Rocky in the genre hall of fame.

USA | 1949 | 99 MINUTES | 1.37:1 | BLACK & WHITE | ENGLISH

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Blu-ray Special Features:

  • Audio commentary by Jason A. Ney. Although this disc is not exactly laden with extras, the commentary by Ney—an academic at Colorado Christian University—is invaluable and well worth listening to throughout. Unlike some commentary providers on classic movie discs, he talks as much about what’s on-screen at a given moment as about production background and trivia.
  • Stills gallery.
  • Booklet. Not available for review, but contains new writing on the film by Richard Combs and an article on boxing in cinema by S.B Caves.
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Cast & Crew

director: Mark Robson.
writers: Carl Foreman (based on the short story by Ring Lardner).
Kirk Douglas, Marilyn Maxwell, Arthur Kennedy, Paul Stewart, Ruth Roman & Lola Albright.