Body and Soul is the quintessential boxing film. What makes it stand out from the pack is its ability to transcend cliché—no easy task for a Hollywood film. Jewish boxer Charlie Davis (John Garfield in an Oscar-nominated performance) has fought his way out of poverty to become middleweight champion. But the corrupt world of professional boxing and his own lust for money and fame threaten to destroy everything he has worked so hard to achieve. To settle a mob debt, Charlie agrees to a fixed fight. Realizing he has made a pact with the devil, Charlie must choose redemption or self-destruction, a choice played out in the final climactic boxing scene.
At first Charlie’s Jewish identity is only implied (for example, his mother, the wonderful Anne Revere, affects a slight New York Jewish accent). But towards the end of the film, Shimin the grocer (Shimin Rushkin), speaking in an unmistakable Yiddish lilt, tells Mrs. Davis, “Over in Europe the Nazis are killing people like us just because of their religion, but here, Charlie Davis is a champion.” It is one of the first references in film to the Holocaust. Inexplicably and inexcusably, this dialogue has been cut from a new DVD version of the film.
Inevitably, there is a wise and patient girlfriend, a femme fatale and a menacing mobster. But interwoven throughout Abraham Polonsky’s riveting screenplay are the ongoing deeper themes of greed, lust and loyalty. Polonsky would later become a victim of the McCarthy-era Hollywood blacklist as would John Garfield—born Jacob Julius Garfinkle. —Mike Silver