Like Martin Scorsese's "Raging Bull" of 1980, the leading character in "Champion" (made over 30 years earlier) is a boxer who is acclaimed in the ring for his skill and valour, yet in private life is an unprincipled bully ruthlessly trampling on and discarding those close to him. Carl Foreman's taut screenplay is more direct than that of the later film, not having the biographical constraint of having to follow a real life story, and Kirk Douglas's strong, confident performance, one of his earliest, propelled him into an Oscar nomination and stardom.
His character, Midge Kelly, is first seen as a post-war drifter riding freight cars and thumbing lifts with Connie, his lame brother (Arthur Kennedy). Both go after the daughter (Ruth Roman) of a Californian diner operator, but Midge wins her, is forced into marriage and immediately dumps her to try his luck in the ring. Paul Stewart is excellent as the manager who teaches Kelly to fight, brings him up to championship class, collects a quarter of his earnings and, like the wife and various girlfriends, gets dropped when better prospects loom.
Mark Robson's direction is satisfying and assured. Unusually for a film of its era, it makes no bones that big-time boxing is an ugly business. Particularly horrifying is Kelly's confrontation with hired thugs after he has disobeyed his orders and knocked out a reigning champion who was supposed to have won the bout.
The contrasting black and white cinematography perfectly fits the dark mood. The fight sequences are excitingly and realistically staged, and were not surpassed until "Raging Bull" came along.
"Champion" is on BBC2, Thursday 28th December 2000, at 12.25pm.