Boris Karloff at RKO: Body Snatcher, Isle of The Dead, Bedlam

In our current climate, it almost seems like an oxymoron to have a shoestring budget period piece, but many of Val Lewton’s best movies were founded on this formula.

His three-film partnership was beneficial for all parties involved and we would like to consider how he was able to fashion Karloff into a new kind of monster.

In honor of the spooky season, let’s talk about Karloff at RKO:

The Body Snatcher (1945)

Robert Louis Stevenson is an auspicious literary figure for anyone raised up on fiction like Dr. Jeykll, Treasure Island, or Kidnapped. Much of this might have come from any of their many adaptations. Thus, it seems fitting to know his work also received the Val Lewton treatment in the form of his short story, “The Body Snatcher.”

The year is 1831 in Edinburgh, Scotland, a place I reminisce about fondly. This is not a world of invading pod people; it’s actually a much more arcane movie with a gothic mood and style of the Victorian Age.

There’s a practicality to its premise and the origin of the horror. Not unlike Doctor Frankenstein, these doctors need cadavers — specimens on which to learn their trade. They have a bit of a silent agreement with a local coachman named Gray (his eminence, Boris Karloff), who is also a “Resurrection Man” by night. In other words, he digs up dead bodies.

The Doctor Macfarlane (Henry Daniell) has an empty callousness in his face and voice, like a shell of a former man who probably had ideals in his youth. Now he’s shackled by something, either vocational obsessions or something far more sinister.

The character dynamics are mostly intriguing as it’s hinted that “Toddy” and Gray shared a slightly sordid past together long before their current business arrangement. The Doctor’s housekeeper is also closer than she appears, chiding him to let the past go and with it the callow boy he’s brought on as his assistant.

Russell Wade is perfect as the naive Fettes, who only sees the altruistic good in their profession and his mentor. The young student vows to a pretty young mother that her invalid daughter might walk again if only the doctor might operate on her. Macfarlane’s less inclined to make such a rash promise.

Because of these clouded histories, much of the movie is about the specters of the past with Gray constantly at the ready to hound the man of reputation. He aims to keep their lucrative partnership going by any means necessary.

One of the film’s most visually arresting scenes is in the dead of night. There’s a haunting street singer done up in a shawl with a small bowl for arms. Her gorgeous brogue pierces through the evening lamplight and the all but silent cobblestone streets as she sings “When Ye Gang Awa Jamie.” Soon even she goes quiet…

Another definitive moment comes later upon entering the cabby’s quarters with the camera turning right into his horse resulting in a genuine jump scare. Bela Lugosi feels almost unrecognizable to me and by that I mean he hardly speaks, mostly slinking about in the periphery of the story. When he finally does speak that’s the giveaway.

Joseph pays a visit to gray with a mind to blackmail, but he’s not half as cunning. They share a drink in the firelight. Karloff’s propped on the table grinning lasciviously as he leans over the oblivious man. Who’s in control of the situation is plainly apparent, and it’s such a stunning composition honoring two of the greatest horror showcases Universal ever had.

Now they are with RKO, certainly older, but Val Lewton pays them his utmost respects. Although Karloff’s the biggest name, this is a new generation of films removed from his earlier persona. Lewton effectively allows him to rebrand himself as a new kind of villain, a new kind of monster to be feared. The extraordinary thing is how it’s hardly makeup or special effects-driven but performative in nature. It’s also chilling.

There’s a jolt of ambiguity into the ending of the movie as the Doctor is haunted by his sins, but Karloff’s just as agonizing. Maybe it’s because he seems to represent past sins reincarnated. I’m curious if contemporary critics hailed it as a return to form for Karloff. Even with the passage of time, it seems to show a startling range I’ve appreciated more with time. He gets to show another side of himself.

4/5 Stars

Isle of The Dead (1945)

Isle of The Dead begins with an unbelievable scenario with no forewarning as Karloff’s General intimates for a disgraced officer to commit suicide in order to maintain the company’s reputation. Minutes later he takes a journalist (Marc Kramer) for an amble through no man’s land in the First Balkans War as if nothing has happened.

There’s something uncanny and manufactured about how this General brings this other man along with him as he goes to visit his wife’s crypt on a nearby deserted island. Just saying it now sounds outlandish. But this is what happens. I’m not saying it’s naturalistic, but that’s hardly the reason for watching this movie. It’s as if we have entered this transitory world that operates outside of our accepted logic.

It is a bit of a surprise because Lewton normally worked very hard to create the baseline world and the logic of his stories, so we might be fully committed as an audience. Although this might be partially lacking in Isle of The Dead, what’s not absent is his signature sense of foreboding atmosphere adding a shroud of horror-worthy darkness to all his pictures. Their eeriness cannot be shaken off easily.

Then, again perhaps I spoke too soon. The story still works in ample amounts of mythology including Vrykolakas: undead, vampire-like creatures that haunt the living. Some believe they have been sent as punishment by the gods, there are pagan rituals to Hermes, prayers are sent up regularly, and belief is a powerful force.

Although the opening premise is suspect, it’s this added context creating the foundation for the rest of the movie as it sends Karloff deeper into this Grecian abyss of darkness and shadow. In no moment is this more clear than the glorious sequence when Ellen Drew walks the hallways at night, candle in hand. It encapsulates the entire movie in a few successive shots of stylized pitch-blackness.

Our protagonist says, “I put my faith in what I can feel and know and see,” and yet his rationality must do war with the steady barrage of wind and shadow. Many of the island’s inhabitants are stricken with the plague. It seems like a silent killer born out of voices calling out from the night and a fleeting apparition in white.

Lewton hasn’t lost his touch in conjuring up such mysterious environs to assault our senses. It’s never about out and out shock value, but this pervasive sense of the inevitable. This must all come to some end. We all die be it from war, plague, or something equally as sinister.

3.5/5 Stars

Bedlam (1946)

It’s curious and rather extraordinary that two of Karloff’s films with RKO were inspired by paintings. Bedlam came out of William Hogarth’s series A Rake’s Progress. It occupies itself with Bethlehem Asylum in 18th century London. Although this is the so-called “Age of Reason,” treatment of the mentally ill is hardly benevolent.

All the “loonies” are kept in their cages like sideshow attractions for the public to gawk at for a tuppence fare. We’re privy to one of its present tragedies: a man falling to his death from the asylum rooftops with a little assistance. If we want to get to the bottom of the callous hell hole, we must look no further than Master George Sims.

There he is: Boris Karloff done up in a wig and the attire of the age. Here’s another joyous occasion to see him take on yet another century of English history through the period lens of Hollywood. It’s a deliciously unctuous performance, and he proves himself just as skeevy as he’s ever been.

He’s called in for a stern talking to — the corpulent Lord Mortimer (Billy House) and his lady protege (Anna Lee) have some words for him. He’s taken mild dissatisfaction on losing some of their entertainment.

Always quick to ingratiate himself and despite having sent Mortimer’s poet to his demise, he vows to put on a frivolous performance to tickle the patron’s fancy. It’s so easy for him to use and degrade his tenants for monetary gain because what worth are they to the world outside?

The moment Anna Lee enters the inner sanctum of the asylum and sees the tenants in their own world she’s momentarily surprised even moved by their fate. Though she tries to mask it on the outside with words and a riding crop, she does harbor pity for them.

It is a perceptive quaker (Richard Fraser) who notices her reaction and rouses her to some form of Christian action. She is more sympathetic than the rest of the idle masses because she is self-made. Without the luxury of personal wealth or power, she knows intuitively how hard it is to find self-preservation in an often heartless world.

In some way, it feels like a call for tolerance and sympathy by reaching into the past to inform the present. Because although it is a story in the guise of 18th-century horror — Karloff’s presence makes sure of that — there is something more to the picture.

Like all Lewton’s work, there’s a deceptive depth and substance to Bedlam that is at one time both intriguing and generally commendable. Because he doesn’t just make entertainment. It entertains, yes, but you can watch the RKO films and there are supplementary thematic interests to them.

Karloff is the standout in all three pictures — no one else comes close — though I am fond of Lee here because she actually has spirit and stands for something. She’s willing to do battle with him. It’s a collision of dueling philosophies.

He snarls that men are not brothers — they are not good and kind — but savages that must be ruled by force and his worldview plays out in how he governs Bedlam. With the saintly quaker speaking into her life, she looks to reform the asylum as she is trapped on the inside vowing not to give in and cave to Sims’s merciless conception of the world.

Karloff obviously relishes his subtle insinuations and well-placed comments to stir pots and get what he wants while pushing back against those who wronged him. Namely, gaining the good graces of Lord Mortimer and spurning the impudent, proud lady.

Is he evil? Not exactly — at least not at first — but he has a steady mean streak which proves to be utterly Machiavellian and maniacal. It’s villainy at its finest because it slinks so easily under the radar of societal convention. He’s despicable and still oddly droll making for a fine antagonist.

4/5 Stars

Getting to Know Peggy Dow: Harvey and Beyond

source: IMDb

The L.A. Times headline in 1951 read: “Peggy Dow Sketches Future as She Quits Hollywood to Wed”

Many people recall how Grace Kelly famously married Prince Rainier of Monaco and from thenceforward left her stirling Hollywood career behind out of a sense of love and duty. That’s how the narrative was written anyway.

At least in the case of Peggy Dow Helmerich, it was never about sacrificing her career for the sake of her family. She wouldn’t have had it any other way, going on to raise 5 sons with her lifelong husband, Walt Helmerich, in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

What makes it such a lovely story is how she left behind the “Hollywood Dream” and lived a lovely life of contentment outside of the West coast rat race. Far from being a wasted talent that could have been, she simply reallocated her talents becoming synonymous with the arts in Oklahoma. And there’s nothing more admirable than raising a family.

In recent days, I got interested in Helmerich’s career. She is still with us today and before COVID days, she still made a decent amount of public appearances in her hometown as well as graciously agreeing to be interviewed by the Jimmy Stewart Museum, among others. It’s been a cache of wonderful information about old Hollywood and her part in it, but it’s also given me a greater estimation for the woman herself.

I felt compelled to acknowledge her, not only as a bright Hollywood talent with some enjoyable films to her name (including Harvey), but also as a lovely human being. I’m not sure if Mrs. Helmerich will ever see this, but hopefully, it can act as an introduction to those who aren’t as familiar with her.

Although she was only in Hollywood for several years, coming off university at Northwestern, she was touted at Universal-International as a rising starlet and her contemporary portfolio suggested as much.

In 1950, she was not only featured prominently on the cover of Life Magazine, but she also presented Edith Head her first Oscar at the Academy Awards for costume design. Famed gossip columnist Hedda Hopper rated Dow highly, writing that she “Endowed Roles With Zest and Impact.” In 1951 she even accepted an award from Harry S. Truman in laud of Bright Victory, and its portrayal of servicemen.

If there was a beauty to actors being salaried to specific studios, it meant they had the opportunity to be in a slew of movies and therefore take on many different roles in an extremely short span of time. Peggy Dow only worked for a couple years at Universal-International and still found herself in 9 movies. Here are some of them.

Undertow

It’s not a pretty picture, but in an era saturated with noir, Undertow does give a fairly prominent role for Dow as an intrepid schoolteacher who meets a reformed criminal (Scott Brady) in Reno and shares a flight with him, only to later provide him asylum from the Chicago mob. Against the run-of-the-mill plot of a wanted man exonerating himself, Dow ably showcases her charms with warmth and a touch of class. The only question remains how will Brady end up with her since he already has a bride-to-be already waiting in the wings? It all works out in the end and boy gets girl.

Woman in Hiding

It’s a superior picture starring Ida Lupino in trouble, Stephan McNally as her treacherous southern boy of a husband, and Howard Duff plays the genial foil, providing support in her time of need. The title is straightforward enough and Dow’s part is pretty small, but it’s a juicy bit. She plays a scorned southern belle who gets slapped around during a cabin rendezvous and still manages a conspiratorial tone later on. Although it wouldn’t become the norm, it certainly would have aided in not totally typecasting her if she had wanted to stay in Hollywood.

The Sleeping City

It’s a mostly forgotten noir set in a hospital with Richard Conte as an uncover agent investigating a mysterious murder. With the sweet and diffident Colleen Gray as a nurse, it’s a bit difficult to know where Dow will fit into the picture. Sure enough, she shows up at the tail end as the heartbroken wife of a dead man brought in for questioning. All it amounts to is sharing a walk and talk with Richard Conte. That’s about the extent of it. Thankfully, the best was yet to come!

Harvey

Dow stated in interviews she actually didn’t want to feature in Harvey as a nurse because she was earmarked to play an Indian princess in some western opposite Van Heflin. It was her agent as well as her beau at the time, Walt Helmerich, who both encouraged her to take the part from the hit play now starring James Stewart. Time certainly has looked kindly upon that decision.

Now 70 years on and Harvey is still a beloved classic about a whimsical man who converses with an invisible rabbit and sprinkles a bit more pleasantness into the world. It would not be a stretch to say I would have never known Peggy Dow without Harvey. It’s not a flashy part, but what comes through is her beauty and natural courtesy gelling so nicely with Stewart’s characterization as Elwood P. Dowd. It just makes me smile, and she does too. It still holds up for me.

Bright Victory

It comes in the fine tradition of many of the war rehabilitation movies, in this case, following a soldier returning from WWII without his eyesight. He struggles to put his life back together with the help of his doctors and the tough love of his buddies. Dow got her biggest chance this time opposite Oscar-nominated everyman Arthur Kennedy.

She plays a warm and virtuous woman who sees through a vet’s gruffness, treating him decently because she sees all he’s had to overcome. After getting off on the wrong foot, they build a comfortable rapport. The only problem is that he already has a beautiful fiancee (Julie Adams) waiting for him. Thankfully, she’s hardly a terror, but the way the cards fall, Kennedy still ends up with the girl who has waited faithfully for him. It’s a joyous crescendo in a movie that certainly has admirable intentions promoting empathy and racial tolerance. Dow shares some tearful moments opposite Kennedy that are absolutely heart-rendering.

You Can Never Tell

At its heart, it’s a goofy fantastical comedy that has a bit of the DNA of the Shaggy Dog or Angels in the Outfield. A dog is bequeathed a giant fortune, quite peculiar, only to kick the bucket, quite suspicious. He’s reincarnated as a Dick Powell private eye prepared to get to the bottom of his own murder. Far from a villainess, Peggy Dow is his faithful caretaker who is next in line to the fortune. However, in all her good-nature, she doesn’t know someone has their designs on her (and the money). It’s ludicrous and fluffy if altogether harmless entertainment, enjoyable for what it is.

I Want You

This movie shares some similarity to Bright Victory in that it evokes an earlier classic in The Best Years of Our Lives. In fact, Samuel Goldwyn was trying to match his earlier success bringing back Dana Andrews in a story examining the effects of war on three generations of a family in Middle America. Robert Keith is the father and WWI vet whose eldest son (Andrews) went off to WWII, leaving behind his wife (Dorothy McGuire). Now, with the current conflict in Korea, the next in line (Farley Granger) is to be sent off.

He’s a brash young man involved with his car and girls. His best girl happens to be Peggy Dow. She’s been off to college, gained education, experience, and breeding. Her father is not too keen about her hometown beau, and so he has an uphill climb to woo her back. There are several facets to the movie, and if it was allotted more time to tease out its themes with greater nuance, it might be more well-remembered today. The meaning certainly is there if it’s not executed to a tee. Regardless, the performances carry a genuine warmth, and it’s a delight to watch the young love of Granger and Dow breeding between them. What a shame this would be Dow’s final time in the Hollywood spotlight!

Beyond Hollywood

We will never know what Marnie would have looked like if Princess Grace had come out of retirement to work once more with Alfred Hitchcock. And the same might be said of Peggy Helmerich. She was married and already a mother of her first when Hollywood tried to coax her back one last time in 1956.

It wasn’t just anyone either; it was one of the industry heavyweights in William Holden. He was set to play a pilot. No, this wasn’t another Bridges of Toko-Ri, but a picture called Toward the Unknown. Ultimately, the former actress passed on the opportunity and never looked back!

In an interview with Tulsa World she recounted how Dick Powell actually gave her some sage personal advice:

“Why would you want to stay in this business?’ I thought he was crazy, and I told him, the same reason as you: I’m an actor. But it turned out that he was fascinated with Walt because Dick was fascinated with business. He told me: You get married to Walt, and you come back to Hollywood, and this is what’s going to happen: It won’t work out. He asked me to come up with five happy married couples in Hollywood that we knew, and we had a hard time doing it.”

So in the end, a truncated Hollywood career seemed like a small price to pay for lifelong happiness. As alluded to already, Dow gladly turned her faculties towards raising a family with her husband of over 50 years Walt Helmerich as well as investing in her community. It’s no coincidence that the University of Oklahoma school of drama is named after her as well as a prestigious Distinguished Author Award.

However, more then any of this, whether it’s through her screen roles or the interviews that she gave, it’s obvious that Peggy Dow Helmerich is a classy, warm-hearted individual. When asked what she wanted to hear from God when she arrives at Heaven’s gate, she responded, “Come in.”

I’m not sure if I will get the pleasure of making your acquaintance in this lifetime Mrs. Helmerich, but I certainly hope I might get the privilege of seeing you in the next. I will tell you how much Harvey impacted me and how pleasantness really can go a long way in this world of ours. I think you exemplified that as well as anyone else. I wish you all the best.

The Ghost Ship (1943): Creaky Yet Atmospheric

Ghostship.jpg“What a hobby to pick: authority.” 

The Ghost Ship is yet another serving of shadows and sound courtesy of legendary cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca and former editor-turned-director Mark Robson. However, the film is punctuated by few dramatic notes and instead settles in to develop a world of continual foreboding. It begins with the near-ESP of a blind street peddler who warns a youthful 3rd officer (Russell Wade) about the new ship he is about to board.

Though our lead actors are fairly bland types — the kind of people who could easily be slotted into any number of similar projects — I still found myself interested in them. Because with both Richard Dix and Wade I hardly have any history with them; it’s a tabula rasa. They remain as a reminder of how many actors and actresses are all but lost to time just waiting to be discovered anew. Some give a more lasting impression than others.

But Ghost Ship‘s most intriguing characters are certainly the shipmates because each man has an element to his performance. Sparks (Edmund Glover) is probably the most affable and the closest thing to a friend the new 3rd officer has onboard. Beyond this, the radioman sprinkles in some Latin with his normal vernacular.

Our next person of interest is an all-seeing mute who is nevertheless given the courtesy of a voiceover. He is the first among seafaring hands aboard, including Boats (Dewey Robinson, a Preston Sturges regular), the calypso-singer (Sir Lancelot), and the Greek who needs his appendix taken out mid-voyage. This is a whole ordeal in its own right.

But none of this gets at the reason the Altair just might be one of the most perturbing seas vessels in the annals of maritime movies. It should be noted the previous third officer died under unusual circumstances and rather dubiously, Mr. Merriam is occupying the same room the deceased man passed away in. Another old mate is found dead on the deck without much fanfare.

There were flying coffins during WWII, but this is a floating coffin if there ever was one. Its all very curious because The Skipper seems a good, honest seaman. His new mate likes him and the men — though at times disgruntled — listen to him, for the good of the outfit.

One particularly perilous event involves a loose hook on the bridge all but ready to decapitate a mate. Still, as time progresses, the captain’s words get more and more troubling. Without blinking an eye, he says, “I have rights over their lives – I have the right to do anything for the crew – because their lives depend on me.”

He is drunk on authority. It remains his only concern, and he will do anything to maintain his image, even fabricating events involving the aforementioned appendix operation. He can raise people from the brink of death while a cascading stack of clinking chains quickly means the demise of another man. No one can prove it outright, but the captain literally holds everyone’s life in his hands.

The third officer wants no part of this scenario. However, it seems fate brings him back into the clutches of this dictatorial madman, and the net is slowly contracting around him. Only time will tell if he is stopped in his tracks before knocking off another defenseless victim.

Obviously, given the time period, we can have a guess at the allegorical references toward the crazed power hunger of Hitler. It’s not difficult to see the parallels, but I don’t think we need much of a reminder such slavish devotion is detrimental. In this regard, such a pronouncement seems altogether superfluous.

The plot is also a bit stagnant and our leads admittedly bland. We are reminded of not only wartime shortages but that these are far from A-list talents on hand. In spite of these admissions, it’s all the more astounding to consider the impression this Lewton production still manages to provide.

The bottom line is that the ideas and the visuals are still worth remembering. Because Ghost Ship is not completely derailed by its shortcomings, still casting a fine vision lingering ominously over every frame.

3/5 Stars

The Seventh Victim (1943): Lewton’s Economy Rules

Seventh-victim-poster_one_sheet.jpgWhat a picture for Kim Hunter to have come into her own (and Mark Robson for that matter). The 7th Victim is a chilling gem, and the motor to move the story forward is an audacious girl, Mary Gibson (Hunter), who makes a decision to leave her boarding school of stain glass and angelic choirs, to search after her missing big sister.

Upon arriving in New York, Mary finds out Jacqueline, in an uncharacteristic fashion, sold her profitable cosmetic company eight months prior. Something must be up. Our kiddy noir hits its paces as Mary’s intrepid investigations lead her to Dante’s Italian Restaurant. She checks in on her sister’s rented room only to find a chair and an ominous hangman’s noose.

Next, she files a claim with the missing person’s bureau and looks to hire a private eye to give her help in a city that feels generally unfriendly. However, this is not entirely the case as she makes the acquaintance of Jason, a local poet who looks to lighten up the atmosphere. Likewise, Hugh Beaumont acts as a calming force in this labyrinth of turbulence and underlying dread. Nevertheless, he warns Mary that her sister, “Lived in a world of her own fancy. Didn’t always know the truth.” Another portent of some ill fate awaiting her.

Admittedly, on a micro-level, all the pieces simply do not fit together. To understand why we only need look at what moments were potentially left on the cutting room floor. In the age of narrative incoherence in crime storytelling, The 7th Victim is among the best (or worst). The fact that in such a short time it can be so befuddling must speak to something. Dissenters might clamor this is a disjointed mess but if this is faulty storytelling there is also a sense of apprehension present, inherent to such narratives.

It cannot simply be about four scenes that were famously cut out of the picture. Though we would have gained clarity in one sense, in another these missing pieces somehow aid in this byzantine journey weaving a yarn out of relatively meager resources. The dialogue is just okay but on a macro level, it’s all very intriguing.

The creme de la creme of chiaroscuro photography occurs when Mary goes down to a mysterious shop with Mr. August on a clandestine mission that goes awry. Anyone walking into such a world would know to begin with no good will come of it, inching down a hallway of darkness.

Then, we have the curious appearance of Dr. Judd (Tom Power) from Cat People who conveniently provides another male character with information on Jacqueline’s current situation. He subsequently has deep abscesses of knowledge about a cult of Palladian Devil Worshippers operating out of Greenwich Village. Again, we have a mythology evoked with traditions and sacred texts lending credence to this widespread conspiratorial atmosphere.

Because of course, as you might have guessed already, Jacqueline (Jean Brooks), now cloaked in a bob of dark hair, found herself immersed in a very foreboding crowd. They don’t look too kindly on those who let their secrets out. Another stylistically rewarding moment comes right after the woman is released from certain death and winds up wandering the darkened streets in a near dazed state. She scurries away into the shadows to evade an unknown pursuer — frantically seeking the aid of an oblivious theater troupe.

We’re on again with the perplexing waling nightmares because the film chooses to dwell in such places. But if the picture chooses to acknowledge Satanic cults the equal and opposite must be called upon to whether the evil. Though not an obviously religious man, the good psychiatrist asserts there is proof that good is superior to evil.

It comes in the words of the Lord’s Prayer. He speaks the words, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us…Deliver us from evil.” Again, the real world liturgy pads the narrative with a kind of believable ethos even as Jacqueline is still hounded by some unknowable, supernatural specter.

The final scene is a blink and you missed it circumstance. Provided a few more seconds to sink in it could have been a horrible thing. As is we hardly have time for the facts to dawn on us until the movie is over, literally seconds later. While not optimal there’s no discounting how the scene was handled visually. Even in this single moment, it says so much with what is not seen and a sound compared to so many other pictures bloated with extravagant sets and resources.

7th Victim is a reminder that sometimes our movies lack imagination, thinking money and special effects can be thrown at a story to make it novel. While this might be true on a most superficial level, sometimes it is constraints that bring out creativity and reveal to us how starkness in the right context can be a beautiful gift. Val Lewton’s horror unit is one of the small wonders of classic cinema, and they cast an indomitable shadow, widely in part to cinematographers like Nicholas Murucasa. This one is another low-lit gem. Once again economy rules.

4/5 Stars

Champion (1949)

Champion1949filmA premier boxing film and Kirk Douglas‘s big break, Champion is in the company of other Noir such as The Killers, Body and Soul, and The Set-Up. This story is about one man’s rise to the top of the business and in his business, the blood and corruption actually show.

Douglas is Midge Kelly, a fiery nobody who is trying to make ends meet with his crippled brother Connie (Arthur Kennedy). When work at a hot dog joint falls through, Midge willingly takes some quick money sparring in the boxing ring. He’s got guts, but no skill, so he thinks that’s the end of his chances. Back to working at a Diner it is, and Midge has his eyes on the proprietor’s daughter (Ruth Roman), but then he’s forced into a shotgun wedding that he’s not too fond about.

Fed up with this kind of life, he searches out a manager so he can begin the long hard odyssey to make a name for himself as a boxer. His faithful brother Connie sticks by his side as does his manager Tom Kelly. City after city, Midge keeps knocking them out rising up the ranks until he is called on to throw a match. It’s all set, but in a brief instant, the reluctant slugger splits with the program. It’s a turning point that gets him in trouble with the big boys and yet makes him a media darling with the press. The opportunistic platinum blonde Grace Diamond (Marilyn Maxwell) realizes the tides are shifting and begins pursuing Midge.

It’s at this crossroads that Midge’s relationships begin to splinter since Diamond convinces him to take on the bigger fight manager Mr. Harris who can help catapult him to the top. The one thing Midge always had going for him was his loyalty to brother and manager, but in the pursuit of “happiness,” he lost both.

Connie returns to the home of his mother and pleads with Emma to come back with him. Their romance quietly builds as Midge’s star continues to rise. His infidelity also ascends with it. His next object after Diamond is the beautiful and more cultured Palmer Harris (Lola Albright), who also happens to be the young wife of Jerome Harris. However, he soon ditches the genuinely lovestruck girl when Harris gives him a wad a money to lay off of her. That’s the kind of man he’s become, but at least he’s Champion.

In one final effort, he tries to patch things up with Connie and Emma following the death of his mother. A rematch with Johnny Dunne is coming up and Midge hints at retirement, while also bringing Tommy back for one last hurrah. In rather predictable fashion, the fight plays out as we expect and yet as with any good noir their needs to be a little wrinkle and there is.

This film is by no means Citizen Kane, but in a sense, it is Kirk Douglas’s version of it.  Because he got the opportunity to play a character following the mold of the American Dream. He rose from the depths of poverty to become the champion of the world! And yet along the way, he became a cold-blooded, money-grubbing, scumbag who lost connection with all the people who actually cared about him. It’s the inverted American Dream — a cautionary tale on the most archetypal level. He plays Midge with the same tenacity of some of his earlier roles where he balances cold-hearted corruption with a nevertheless infectious charm.

Something else it has is a Cain and Abel type complex  — much like Force of Evil. There are the two brothers at odds, except instead of murder, there’s more of a self-destruct going on. In this respect, Connie is far from the most important character, but he is an interesting character thanks to the earnestness of Arthur Kennedy.

Also, I find it particularly interesting in terms of the women in Midge’s life. Thanks to posters I assumed Marilyn Maxwell was the main love interest, but in the film, he’s actually married to Ruth Roman’s character almost the entire film, and it seems to be Lola Albright’s character who is the only one who actually loves him. It makes for an interesting dynamic because these women are drifting in and out of his life. And he doesn’t end up with any of them. That’s the life of a Champion sometimes.

4/5 Stars