A couple of important things about this movie. It stars the great Kirk Douglas – '49 was his breakout year, with both A Letter to Three Wives and Champion. And let me say that if you aren't familiar with this actor's excellent work, or if you only know Kirk Douglas from Spartacus, it is time for you to rent Detective Story or The Bad and the Beautiful or Ace in the Hole. All of them are superb and Douglas is fantastic. In Champion he is perfect, he plays the tragedy of his part to the hilt. It is a beautiful performance.
And okay, okay, I hear you say: It's a boxing movie. Aren't they all the same? Well, Champion is a boxing movie, true enough, but it's also a gangster picture. This movie is a story about a boxer who is also deeply involved in the racket that makes the fight-game happen and pays the bills of the pugilists who basically work as slaves. All of the fights are fixed in this racket. There is no way to get ahead except to do as you are told. There are few guns in Champion (it was 1949, and the PCA still had teeth), but the sense of danger is palpable in every scene once Midge, the main character, gets anywhere close to the bigtime.
The best thing about Champion, though, is its style. This movie is one of the blackest films noirs I've ever seen. There is so much shadow in this movie that it is at times even distracting. I found myself straining to see, wondering if my television needed to be adjusted. It didn't. Take another look at that poster up to the left. It is nothing like any poster from the time period. Check out this poster from Battleground, for example. The style is totally different. Champion's poster focuses on darkness. That black is astounding, in fact. It swallows the hero and his girl. And if the text pretends that the movie might in any way be about loving, the sheer audacity of this all-encompassing black belies any of the tagline's pretensions to being a love story.
This darkness works to incredible effect. In the images below, Midge, his trainer, and his brother (Arthur Kennedy, also nominated for an Oscar for his work) discuss the possibility of getting a shot at the title. Midge is supposed to fight the guy in the #2 slot with the hope that he will win and then his next fight will be a shot at the title. Here are the men discussing the situation:
That's Kennedy in the background. Then the trainer tells Midge that he will have to take a fall in this fight. The #2 guy is due his turn. If #2 fights the champion and wins then everyone makes more money and Midge can fight the new champion in a year or two. But no matter what, right now, Midge takes the fall if he ever wants to fight in New York again. Midge is furious, but he agrees to take the fall. Then he knocks that lamp in the foreground straight off right with a powerful blow, and cinematographer Franz Planer (1894-1963) gives us this:
Kennedy has turned to look at his brother, but the light is now gone and there appears to be no one there. What an image! It conveys so much with light: so much of this man's inner turmoil. This is the kind of cinematography I am talking about. Planer's work is fantastic in Champion. It's worth it to watch this movie just for the lighting. Seriously.
And this noir style is not restricted only to scenes about gangsters and violence. We also get exquisite images like this:
I should add that Champion did not win the Oscar for cinematography. That went, and deservedly so, to Paul Vogel for Battleground, another film from 1949 for which I have nothing but love.