A 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 shows.
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 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.