Film Review: Champion (1949)

Release Date: April 9th, 1949 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Mark Robson
Written by: Carl Foreman
Based on: Champion by Ring Lardner
Music by: Dimitri Tiomkin
Cast: Kirk Douglas, Marilyn Maxwell, Arthur Kennedy, Paul Stewart, Ruth Roman

Stanley Kramer Productions, Screen Plays, 99 Minutes

Review:

“I’m expensive. Awful expensive. I didn’t want you to think you could buy me cheap.” – Grace

I heard pretty good things about this motion picture before I actually sat down and watched it. A lot of the film-noir books I’ve read over the years have praised it. It’s also often times discussed alongside The Set-Up, another film-noir from 1949 that features the sport of boxing. In fact, both movies came out less than a month apart and both are very good.

While I give The Set-Up a slight edge, Champion is almost on its level.

To start, this was directed by Mark Robson, who was most known for his noir-esque horror pictures before this. But his transition into more traditional film-noir was incredible and this film truly is a crowning achievement in his directing career.

Robson re-uses a lot of the visual cues from his previous horror work. While noir takes a lot from the visual style of German expressionist films, so did American horror. Robson employs a very chiaroscuro look and it gives certain scenes in this film a very brooding atmosphere. The lighting is fantastic from scene-to-scene and the general cinematography is impeccable. Even in the boxing match sequences, the look stays consistent, giving the bouts a real sense of high stakes and danger.

It’s nice to see how well Robson’s style evolved and developed, just within the 1940s, as he started out as an editor working on the earliest Orson Welles films: Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. He also spent a lot of time working under RKO horror producer Val Lewton. But, honestly, what better filmmakers could one have worked under at the time?

Beyond just Robson, the film greatly benefits from the magnificent performance of Kirk Douglas, who is, hands down, one of the greatest manly man actors of all-time. He plays the main character, here, an opportunist, conman-esque piece of crap that ends up becoming a great boxer but it’s really neat seeing a guy known for being heroic, play a real scumbag. And despite the character’s terrible nature, Douglas plays the role so well that his fate in the film is still sort of a punch in the gut.

Also, Douglas didn’t have to do all the work and carry the load alone, as the film is full of great performances by several actors who probably deserved bigger careers. I especially liked the scenes he shared with Ruth Roman and Marilyn Maxwell.

Champion is a great sports-based classic film-noir. It does just about everything right and it’s carefully crafted, meticulously executed and just a beautiful looking film with depth, character and real human emotion.

Rating: 9/10
Pairs well with: another 1949 film-noir surrounding the sport of boxing, The Set-Up.