Over-the-hill boxer Bill 'Stoker' Thompson insists he can still win, though his sexy wife Julie pleads with him to quit. But his manager Tiny is so confident he will lose, he takes money for a "dive" from tough gambler Little Boy...without bothering to tell Stoker. Tension builds as Stoker hopes to "take" Tiger Nelson, unaware of what will happen to him if he does.
Robert Ryan ... Stoker
Audrey Totter ... Julie
George Tobias ... Tiny
Alan Baxter ... Little Boy
Wallace Ford ... Gus
Percy Helton ... Red
Hal Baylor ... Tiger Nelson (as Hal Fieberling)
Darryl Hickman ... Shanley
Kenny O'Morrison ... Moore
James Edwards ... Luther Hawkins
David Clarke ... Gunboat Johnson
Phillip Pine ... Souza
Edwin Max ... Danny
This is an awfully hard and brutal movie, produced at the end of the brief but fascinating Dore Schary regime at RKO (1946-48), just prior to Howard Hughes' purchase of the studio, which led to the company's slow, agonizing decline that forced it, or rather its new owners, to close it down ten years later. It's the story of an aging boxer, over the hill but still harboring a measure of optimism, really a sort of pride. In this tragic role Robert Ryan is superb. Tough, compassionate, deeply ethical, realistic, and yet with just enough of the dreamer in him to keep him emotionally afloat, Stoker Thompson represents the best qualities of the so-called common man. In an earlier, more heroic age, he might have been a knight; but alas we do not live in such a time, thus his personal qualities go unnoticed by all but his wife. In this role, Audrey Totter is almost as good as Ryan. Some of her scenes are unforgettable, as when she tears up the ticket to her husband's fight and throws it over the bridge into the steam of an oncoming train; or when she watches a bunch of silly teenagers "play" at boxing with a couple of performing puppets, which at first amuses her, then horrify her when she realizes her own and her husband's fate in this little "play" scene.
The film is a masterpiece of design and composition. Director Robert Wise never made a better picture than this. The movie, like High Noon, plays out in real time, and as a result has an air of urgency to it. Adapted from a poem by Joseph Moncure March, which tells essentially the same story, but with the main character a black man, Wise and scenarist Art Cohn take considerable liberties here that purists' might not care for. In the poem the setting is New York, while in the movie it's a tank town called Paradise City, a far cry from New York even if it's in fact less than a hundred miles away, upstate, or in New Jersey or Pennsylvania. The film never makes this clear. Here and there hints are dropped that the setting might be California. It doesn't matter. The Paradise City boxing arena is a place for young guys on their way up and old guys on their way down. It's a million miles from Madison Square Garden, and that's all that counts.
The film's settings are beautifully realized; and Milton Krasner's photography is no less brilliant. The central street, all blinking lights, and yet shadowy and black in odd places, is a perfect visual metaphor for the action of the film; while seldom have the denizens of a small city looked more menacing. Men in garish ties and fedoras jostle each other on the sidewalk as they pass by. They are a hard, apathetic breed, and hungry for sensation. Inside the arena we see humanity at its least admirable, as there is an undercurrent of sadism in even the most innocuous-seeming fight fans, such as a blind man ("go for his eyes!). We sense that these people come not so much to see a favorite boxer win as a hapless boxer lose.
In the center of all this is Stoker, a man with character surrounded by people who could care less. As his handlers, a porcine, toothpick-chewing Percy Helton, and a thick-witted George Tobias, are superb. In a somewhat smaller role, Edwin Max, in pinstripe suit, with pencil-line mustache's, and what look like three soggy Salada tea bags under each eye, is visually perfect as a small-time something, not even hood, just a guy who runs around and does things for the big guy, played by Alan Baxter, a sort of anti-Stoker, a man without qualities who goes to great lengths to show that he has class and principles, when in fact he has neither. The man is a monster, and he doesn't even have guts. When Stoker punches him in the face he lets his goons do the dirty work.
The interior lives of the two main characters in this film suggest an affinity with the humanistic stoicism Hemingway, while the surface is closer to Weegee and Walker Evans. Overall, though, the movie is pure RKO; its courage-in-the-face-of-adversity theme suggests, almost uncannily, this odd man out among the major studios' history and future, and the best qualities of those who worked there.
ROBERT WISE 1914-2005 The clock reads 9:05 in the p.m. And the nighttime streets are teeming. The entrance to the athletic club is especially busy. It's fight night. Crammed into a small, tawdry locker room, the young hopefuls and old dreamers who comprise the boxers prepare to do battle. Each fighter feels it's his night to win. Each fighter is certain that he is "one punch away" from the big time, perhaps even a chance at a championship. Off in a corner, one fighter, the aging Stoker Thompson, clings to his illusions with heartbreaking desperation.
By the time the viewer reaches that early scene in Robert Wise's shattering THE SET-UP, one is already immersed in Stoker's bleak existence. Milton Krasner's sinuous camera opens the film with a graceful crane shot, smoothly setting the film's tone by quickly establishing a sense of place and people. Almost as quickly, Art Cohn's screenplay begins to pepper you with sharp, terse dialog. Scenes unfold with alacrity, extending just long enough to deepen the drama of Stoker's physical and psychological struggle. The resulting emotional turmoil is fairly excruciating.
The film's atmosphere is enveloped in a rank crudeness commingled with an unsubtle irony that jumps out at the viewer: a backwater, honky tonk town called Paradise City; a fleabag flophouse dubbed Hotel Cozy; glaring neon letters flashing over the nightmarish streets- "Dreamland". Meanwhile, inside the boxing arena, circling the ringside, waits the paying public, an especially vicious cross-section of humanity, shouting to the rafters for bloody mayhem. Yet the cruelest twist is meted out to the too old Stoker, still striving to reach his battered aspirations while nearly everyone in his world, including his suffering and profoundly sensible wife, works against him.
As director Robert Wise mentions in his commentary on the DVD, 1949 produced two powerhouse films with boxing serving as a framework for the story. But while Mark Robson's terrific CHAMPION (starring Kirk Douglas in the role that made him a star) gives its central character the full biographical treatment over a long period of time (with plenty of drama and melodrama to go with it), the "real time" compression of THE SET-UP captures a brief, agonizing moment. The anguish Wise draws from Robert Ryan and Audrey Totter is remarkable, as are the performances of the other actors. Krasner's cinematography is equal to the best of that period (Alton, Howe, Robert KrasKER of THE THIRD MAN fame, Musuraca, Roe; interestingly there are shots in THE SET-UP and CHAMPION that are, except for the actors, nearly identical in composition and lighting). "I can't fight no more," Stoker moans at the end, an utterance that certifies his professional demise but also signals his chance at a new and hopefully better life.
The filmography of Robert Wise, who died on September 14th at 91 years, is well-established and known widely by film buffs the world over including the many who submit their comments to this website. However, exceptional work is always worthy of another look. Like Howard Hawks, Wise had great critical and commercial success in a variety of genres including westerns and crime films. Winning Academy Awards for two big musicals, WEST SIDE STORY(1961) and THE SOUND OF MUSIC(1965), he was also adept at horror: THE BODY SNATCHER(1945); THE HAUNTING(1963); science fiction: the peerless THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL(1951); THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN(1970); and dramas laced with social commentary: I WANT TO LIVE(1958) with its focus on capital punishment, and ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW(1959) which married a crime caper plot to a biting study on the effects of racism. His career in film was charmed from the start as he edited CITIZEN KANE and THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS for Orson Welles (AMBERSONS had no small controversy when Wise "saved" the film after Welles was barred from the final cut). In all, Robert Wise directed thirty-nine features, many of them memorable, with some becoming indisputable classics.
Although Rocky is the one that most people will throw at you when you ask them to name a great boxing movie, The Set-Up is much, much more interesting as its aspirations are empty, its sights never getting much beyond the gutter and the men merely small players in a game that never plans for them to win. The narrative is essentially about Stoker entering a fight not aware that he has already been bought to lose but the actual film is much better than this limited plot suggests. For much of the first third we are treated to an intimate look at the small time boxers – whether it be the punch-drunk old timers or the youngster who believe that they will only be doing this level for one or two fights before hitting it big. This is the reality – as much as we love to see the Rocky tale of the underdog getting his day in reality the underdogs of life generally remain just that – underdogs. In this section of the film this is very well painted and, although the characters are not deep enough to be people they are definitely well enough written to be interesting and engaging.
The other two thirds of the film are concerned with the fight and the aftermath, with the fight taking up the majority of the second half of the film. The fight is realistic and tense throughout, I was genuinely unsure how it would go. The aftermath is short and punchy (sorry!) and is effectively dark and gritty for it. The end result is a film that is dark, low key and gripping throughout; it exists in the gutter, in the small time where all our characters seem destined to remain regardless of heart or talent. The cast deliver well, particularly the lead role from former college boxer Ryan. He is really in touch with his character and delivers convincingly in his dialogue, his boxing and his mannerisms; while in the dressing room his facial responses to other boxers show thoughts within his head and conflicting emotions that his experience and age allow him. He is the dominant figure of the film and his is a great performance. Totter is a little less refined but her emotional delivery works well in both of her main scenes with Ryan – although her wandering the streets could perhaps have been trimmed a little bit. The support cast are less well written but do still play their parts well enough but it is Ryan's film and worth seeing for him alone.
Luckily he is not the only reason to see it as the film is engaging, well written, dark, gritty, tense and very enjoyable. The lower number of votes (and potentially therefore, younger viewers) is a tragic state of affairs considering the class on display in this short punchy product and I for one will be answering "The Set-Up" when asked to name a great boxing movie.
* Based upon a narrative poem published in 1928 by Joseph Moncure March, who gave up his job as the first managing editor of "The New Yorker" to devote himself to writing. On the strength of it, he went to Hollywood as a screenwriter, remaining there for a dozen years. In 1948 he volunteered to work on this film, but was turned down. He was incensed that his black boxer Pansy Jones was changed into the white Stoker Thompson.
* The movie plays in real time.
* The shoot took twenty days.
* Robert Ryan was a boxing champion while a student at Dartmouth college.