Champion (1949) Mark Robson
We know from the opening scenes of Champion that we’re getting a frame story. As the film begins, Midge Kelly (Kirk Douglas, above) is already the boxing champion, about to take on another challenger, but we’ll have to wait for that bout while director Mark Robson shows us in flashback how Kelly went from riding the rails and hitchhiking to becoming the champ.
On their way from Chicago to Los Angeles, where they are to be co-owners of a restaurant, Midge and his brother Connie (Arthur Kennedy, below left) hitchhike to Kansas City, where Midge is offered $35 to stand in for a no-show fighter in a boxing match. Midge has never boxed before, but so what? How hard can it be?
Harder than Midge thinks, but he survives, only to get taken by the fight’s promoter, who gives him just $10; the rest went to “management fees.” Midge wants to get as far away from the fight game as possible, but Tommy Haley (Paul Stewart) the owner of an LA gym saw Midge’s fight and likes his heart. Haley tells Midge to look him up when he gets to LA, but Midge isn’t interested.
When Midge and Connie arrive in LA, they discover they’ve been had. Someone else has bought the restaurant, but the new owner’s daughter (Ruth Roman, above) who’s a waitress there, gets Midge’s undivided attention. Just when things start to look up for Midge, the bottom falls out. I won’t tell you how, but Midge makes a decision that affects everyone in his life, and not at all in a good way.
Midge’s rise to the top is punctuated with ambition, greed, lust, and a thirst for power, all the things that make film noir so gloriously appealing. Yet we know there’s a price to be paid, and remember, this is a frame story, so that opening scene with the crowd chanting for Midge will be revisited. We don’t know how it’s going to turn out, but we have a pretty good idea.
There’s a scene fairly early in the film where Midge tries to convince Haley to make good on his promise to train him. At this point, Midge has faced nothing but disappointment and now he’s ready to call the shots. When Kirk Douglas grabs Paul Stewart’s arm and won’t let him go, there’s a fierce determination on Douglas’s face that’s white hot, unyielding. (I don’t know, but I can imagine Stewart had bruises on his arm for days after filming that shot.) That scene is only a taste of what Douglas displays in the rest of the movie. Champion was only Douglas’s eighth film and his first leading role and he owns it, earning his first Oscar nomination delivering a performance that’s intense and ruthless. (By the way, Douglas – one of noir’s last living stars – will turn 99 on his next birthday, December 9.)
Champion is a very good film, but perhaps not great. Some of that could be due to the fact that it was released just one week after a truly great boxing film, The Set-Up. Although both films are about boxing, they’re vastly different. Both are exceptional entries in the film noir canon.
Fair warning: the version I saw on Amazon streaming is colorized, and while colorization has come a long way, I am still – and always will be – opposed to it. If this is the only way you can see Champion, see it, but you might want to consider the DVD or Blu-ray from Olive Films.