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  Champion Like A Punch In The Face
Year: 1949
Director: Mark Robson
Stars: Kirk Douglas, Arthur Kennedy, Marilyn Maxwell, Paul Stewart, Ruth Roman, Lola Albright, Luis Van Rooten, Harry Shannon, John Daheim, Ralph Sanford, Esther Howard, Bill Baldwin, Sam Balter
Genre: DramaBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Midge Kelly (Kirk Douglas) has had to work his way up from nothing to become the boxing champion of the world, and it has been a tough battle at every step of the way, so as he stands in the ring on the brink of potentially his greatest victory, he remembers those he used to get to the top. There was a time he was riding the railway cars with his brother Connie (Arthur Kennedy), who suffered a lame leg and walked with a stick, and they were both robbed in the process. But their fortunes picked up when they subsequently hitchhiked and were given a lift by a boxer on his way to Kansas City, though Midge was more interested in his girlfriend...

Champion was Kirk Douglas's breakthrough movie, as he had appeared in movies for a short while before in supporting roles, but with this he was able to really show off what he was made of in a part seemingly tailor-made for him. Midge, despite his name, is a nasty piece of work at heart, though we can understand what has made him this way, a life of extreme poverty where the American Dream has hitherto been a hollow joke. For a while this renders him semi-sympathetic, as we want to see the underdog succeed, but once he has, we realise an existence of hardship does not necessarily breed a decency and compassion for others less fortunate.

Based on a Ring Lardner story and an early hit for superproducer Stanley Kramer, this was effectively an independent movie distributed by United Artists, but similar to its protagonist, it went from strength to strength to become one of the sleeper hits of its year, and Douglas was a major part of that, as audiences sat up and noticed the dawning of a real star. You could argue Midge informed every starring role he had from that day on, as even when he was playing the good guys there was a sense his characters could have turned on others, or had some grim aspect to their past that would make you wonder how far you should be supporting them; basically, you'd be glad he was on your side and not against you.

Champion is often included in the film noir genre when trying to sum up its appeal, and it was true this looked deep into the souls of its players and found a corruption there they either tried to resist or embraced because it gave them an unlovely power over others. Obviously with Production Code in effect there was only so far the picture could go in depicting what form that corruption took, and they got away with Midge seducing his brother's fiancee Emma (Ruth Roman) because though technically separated, they are still married after a shotgun wedding instigated by her father, who owned the diner the brothers worked at. Yes, it was very soap opera in practice, but the acting served to give it a genuine edge and danger.

Roman did well out of this film too, as audiences wanted to see more of her, and the same thing happened to Lola Albright who played the classy sculptress who Midge is drawn to, his sexual aggression not able to be turned off around any attractive woman, including Marilyn Maxwell, also doing well as the femme fatale who our antihero places in a difficult position when he decks her meal ticket as a way of snaring her - for a while. Paul Stewart as the manager was worth a mention too, he thinks he knows the depths the boxing business can plumb, but even he has never met anyone like Midge, who embraces every cruelty on his scramble to reach the pinnacle and shrugs off the slightest sliver of conscience when it all serves to secure his success. The point was, if you’re the king of garbage, you’re still the king - but it's still garbage you're king of. Although it risked being humdrum in the first half, Douglas's increasing stature electrified the second half, with a great finale of brutality and callousness. At least some can walk away from the wreckage, though not uninjured. Music by Dimitri Tiomkin.

[Eureka's Blu-ray of Champion has these special features:

1080p presentation on Blu-ray | Optional English SDH Subtitles | Brand new audio commentary by professor and film scholar Jason A. Ney | Stills Gallery | PLUS: A collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by critic Richard Combs; and a piece on boxing in cinema by author / screenwriter S. B. Caves.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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Mark Robson  (1913 - 1978)

Workmanlike Canadian director who occasionally rose above the mainstream. A former editor, he got his break directing some good quality Val Lewton horrors for RKO: The Seventh Victim, The Ghost Ship, Isle of the Dead and Bedlam. Excellent boxing drama Champion led to more high profile work: Home of the Brave, Phffft!, The Harder They Fall, Peyton Place, enjoyable Hitchcock-style thriller The Prize, Von Ryan's Express, campy Valley of the Dolls and Earthquake.

 
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