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The Set-Up (1949)
I'm just one punch away. Stoker
Robert Wise started in the RKO editing room where he put together the marvelous footage we now revere as Citizen Kane, perennially listed as the greatest film ever made. Subsequent to that work he soon was offered a director's contract with RKO where he made a string of "B" movies, including one of the ten best films noir ever Born to Kill and also this better-than-average take on the sporting world, The Set-Up.
The Set-Up looks at the life of the boxing world through the eyes of a particular character, 35 year-old heavyweight boxer Stoker Thompson, played by "B" movie stalwart Robert Ryan (The Wild Bunch).
As you probably know, a 35 year-old is practically a senior citizen in professional sports and especially in the squared circle where absorption of one lucky punch can send you back to coloring books under adult supervision for the rest of your life.
Despite his age, Ryan is confident that he can be a contender. He is fighting an up-and-coming boxer Tiger Nelson and feels he can beat him. He reasons this will give him a rematch, upping his usual $50 salary to $150 for that bout, which, if luck holds will propel him into a title match which may earn him the stratospheric sum of $500 or $600. Then he can retire and open that cigar stand he always dreamt of. So he tells his long-suffering wife (Audrey Totter) who is less than enthusiastic. She refuses to watch him fight in the arena and sends him off by himself to do his day's work. She is afraid he is going to get his brains beaten out and be left a punch drunken wreck, like so many fighters have been.
Ryan trudges across the square from his hotel to the Paradise City arena. He enters the locker room and the various other fighters are preparing for their bouts, speaking to each other like any other guys at work. It is very much like watching the scenes in Spartacus or Gladiator where the contestants wait for their turns in the arena interesting and chilling at the same time to see the guys relating on an everyday level just before they enter the competition and try to beat each other silly.
What Ryan does not know is his manager (George Tobias) has agreed that he will take a dive and has accepted a mob payoff to ensure it. He never mentions this to Ryan figuring to pocket his cut, since he'll probably lose anyway. This is the tension that underlies the rest of the story - Ryan's determination to win and his manager's determination for him to fail.
As Ryan waits in the dressing room for his bout he sees the contestants leave and return, either victorious or vanquished. Finally his turn comes and he goes through his entire four round bout in real time. As viewer, you just about feel every punch along with the fighters as they go through their grueling match. Wise shows the audience, several members of which are almost part of the story they are so bloodthirsty. People that you would normally think are fairly refined show their true colors ringside, rooting for the boxers to kill each other; stuffing their faces; gambling; half watching the bout while jamming a transistor radio up to their ear to hear the baseball game, too.
Finally the end nears and a lucky punch floors Tiger Nelson Ryan is victorious; but fate has a surprise waiting for him that I'm going to leave for those of you who want to see this fine boxing drama.
Robert Ryan is probably at his finest here as the washed up fighter who still retains a glimmer of hope. Audrey Totter is a decent wife who wonders how she will get along when her pug husband becomes a vegetable. George Tobias (Sergeant York) and Percy Helton (Criss Cross) are sufficiently rat-like to desert Ryan in his hour of need, while Wallace Ford (T-Men) does a good job as the trainer, hastily reminding Ryan to turn the lights out when he's done, just as the thugs are closing in...
Robert Wise filmed the action in real time, as frequent glimpses of the clock are provided throughout the running time. The Set-Up is a dynamic depiction of the undermining of integrity by venal self interest. Very interesting for sports fans as well as fans of character driven stories.
The Warner Bros DVD is presented in well preserved B&W and the 72 minute movie has a full length commentary by director Robert Wise and fan Martin Scorsese. The comments are separately recorded and not all that pertinent because they are pretty much self evident. Martin Scorsese does his typical self congratulatory shtick, if you've ever heard one of his other commentaries; you'll know what I mean.
More dramas about the Squared Circle
The Harder They Fall
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Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Better than Watching TV