Midge Kelly is the champion. How do we know he’s the champion? Because a ring announcer calls him such a half-dozen times before we even see his face. He is played by Kirk Douglas after all, and with that million-watt smile, those broad shoulders, and that perfectly coifed hair; who else could the champion?
Champion, directed by Mark Robson and written by Carl Forman, then flashes back to Kelly’s humble beginnings, showing how the champion came to be. From riding the rails from Chicago to L.A. with his brother, Connie (Arthur Kennedy), then as a waiter for an oceanside diner where he meets and is forced to marry the owner’s daughter, Emma (Ruth Roman). Kelly ditches Emma the second the sham ceremony is over and looks up Tommy Haley (Paul Stewart, always a treat), a fight manager whose path he crossed in Kansas City while boxing for dollars. Considering his stunning physique and hot-headed attitude, it’s little wonder why Haley decides to take on the young fighter with no experience. He must have sensed Kelly would do anything to make it to the top.
And Kelly will do everything. He’ll leave his wife, his manager, his brother; he’ll defy the gangsters who run the boxing world; he’ll bite the hand that feeds him and spit in the face of the establishment. In another movie, maybe a Hollywood melodrama, Kelly’s defiance and individualism would be celebrated, maybe even lauded; treating his rise from rags to riches as something distinctly American and noble.
But this isn’t a Hollywood melodrama, this is 1949 film noir and Kelly’s go-getter attitude has a snake-like cruelty to it. As Dimitri Tiomkin’s score transitions from saccharine to sinister, Franz Planer’s stark black and white photography moves from observational to expressive. In a sense, we have hitched our wagon to Kelly — not Connie, Emma, or Haley — and we’re along for whatever ride he wants to take us on.
And this ride goes the way to the top, to hell with what it takes to get there. Midge Kelly wants to be the champion, and he’ll get there on paper and in his mind, but from where everyone else is standing, this beaten-up piece of leather sure doesn’t look like one.