Robert Wise, 1949
Starring: Robert Ryan, Audrey Totter, George Tobias
A washed up boxer past his prime, Stoker Thompson, is determined that one night he will win and change his fortunes. His wife, who can’t bear to see him beaten again, walks off her anxiety around the city. His manager, Tiny, has taken money from a local gangster, Little Boy, to guarantee that Stoker will lose the evening’s fight. Tiny is so confident that Stoker won’t win, that he’s neglected to mention the bet and the set-up, spelling doom.
Based on Joseph Moncure March’s epic poem about boxing and the sports underworld, The Set-Up is a rare boxing-noir film and is one of the finest boxing films ever made. Though it lacks some of the key noir tropes – the isolated antihero and the femme fatale – it has a pervasive atmosphere of gloom and defeat. Stoker is introduced as a defeated man. Even his loving wife doesn’t believe he will win and has obviously been hiding this from him for such a long time that she has reached a breaking point and – it is implied that this is for the first time in their marriage – she can’t bring herself to attend one of his fights. Noir regular Audrey Totter (The Unsuspected) is at her best here as Stoker’s genuinely concerned wife. The film occasionally cuts to her walking through the city (giving the action a break from the locker room, on occasion) and her sense of anxiety is a palpable undercurrent throughout The Set-Up.
Robert Ryan gives one of his best performances (which is saying a lot) as Stoker, a unique chance for him to play a good guy. The film adaptation strips away the poem’s racial issues (the boxer is black and deals with a variety of prejudice) and also removes the character’s moral ambiguities. Stoker is a decent guy, happily married, and hardworking, while the poem’s hero is a murkier fellow. It is perhaps Stoker’s good-hearted, honest nature and hard-working determination that makes the film so bitter sweet. It is obvious that he probably will win the fight with Tiger, a much younger boxer, but even if he wins, it’s a shallow victory.
Alan Baxter (Saboteur, Judgment at Nuremberg) is memorable as Little Boy, the film’s token bad guy. Little Boy is notable for not giving into the fit-throwing, scenery-chewing, or snappy dialogue of other movie mobsters from the period – thing James Cagney or Richard Widmark – but he’s quiet, with an icy resolve. Organized crime does not play a major role in the proceedings, and is little more than a useful plot element to insure that no matter what Stoker does, he will fail in some way.
One of the first films to make use of a “real time” structure, The Set-Up is incredibly tightly paced and not a moment of its running time (short at 70-some minutes) is wasted. Though much of the film takes place in the locker room, director Robert Wise turns it into a dynamic set where the grime and grittiness of the underworld boxing scene comes through, as do the personalities of the numerous hopeless, helpless boxers, men trying to make a name for themselves in a hostile world. Though I’m generally not a fan of boxing and find films about the sport particularly dull, the fight scene is gripping, despite the fact that it is shot close to the real duration of a boxing match, with excellent pacing and suspense. The film was also shot at the Hollywood Legion Stadium, incredibly famous for its boxers and star-studded audience.
The Set-Up comes highly recommended. It’s available on single-disc DVD or in the excellent Film Noir Classic Collection Volume 1 along with The Asphalt Jungle, Gun Crazy, Murder My Sweet, and Out of the Past. Director Robert Wise had a long, varied career that includes everything from The Body Snatcher and The Haunting to West-Side Story and The Sound of Music. His work on The Set-Up is undeniably excellent and if you find most film noir too predictable, this moving, pensive work might just change your mind. It’s a true classic, thanks to Wise and what is maybe the best performance of Robert Ryan’s career, where he channels the spirit of post-war rage and violence into a character full of pathos and humanity.