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This is an awfully hard and brutal movie, produced at the end of the
brief, rather high end 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
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 couldn't 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 was one of Hollywood's most versatile and talented directors, but amidst all the classic films he made, this one was purportedly his personal favourite. It's easy to see why. Seedy, gritty, and stark, it's about as subtle as a hard right to the jaw. Ryan - one of the most underrated actors in American cinema - delivers a superb performance as Stoker, an aging boxer looking to salvage his dignity if not his career. It's a moral choice that could cost him his friends, his marriage and his future. Among the many interesting facets of the film is the use of other boxers on the night's ticket to reflect and reveal aspects of Stoker's own character - the loss of his youthful dreams, the fear of pain and permanent damage. Wise reserves such subtle devices for Stoker alone - every other character is rather one-dimensional, though this came across to me as a conscious choice to better fit the story into the 'real time' format, and to keep us focused solely on Stoker's story. The camera work and visuals are as stark and as potent as the story, carefully chosen to reflect the emotional beats of the story. Overall, an archetypal example of film noir not to be missed. Don't consider yourself a true film buff until you've seen this movie!
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
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.
Bill "Stoker" Thompson is 34, not old perhaps but in the world of
boxing that makes him an old man. Despite the protestations of his wife
Julie, Stoker still believes that one more punch, one more fight will
see him making it into the marquee fights and the big time rather than
being on the support bill. As he waits in the dressing room full of
similar hopefuls (some his age and tired, others just starting and full
of big dreams) his trainer is busy making the fix with the opposition
for Stoker to go down like a $10 ho and not last the distance. However,
Stoker isn't told as his manager assumes that Stoker losing is a given
and that the "fix" is unnecessary and easy money for them all; however
with Stoker feeling this is "the one", it may not be that simple.
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.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Evoking so accurately the seedy, down-at-heel world of the professional
boxer, "The Set Up" is right1y regarded as probably the best boxing
film ever made
It was shot in black and white, as was the only other film on the sport to equal it, "Raging Bull" (1980), but the scene of Robert Ryan as the washed-up prize fighter refusing to take a fall and seen slugging it out with Hal Fieberling, nonetheless captures the merciless, stark, brutal quality of the film and its subject
This was one of Ryan's best roles and no doubt the fact that he had held his college heavyweight boxing title for four years enabled him to bring an even greater sense of authenticity to the part It also provided Robert Wise with his directorial breakthrough after a period of routine B pictures, and won the Critics' Prize at the 1950 Cannes Film Festival
This film is a knockout on every level, a thrilling 75-minute character study told in real time by director Robert Wise. Wise pulls haunting performances from every member of a large cast, and makes telling use of cinematography, sets and sound (every street sign and pop tune seems to comment on the character's broken emotions). Along with "They Drive By Night" and "The Third Man" the same year, "The Set-Up" brought humanity to film noir. An overlooked classic.
Fight scenes-wise, this was "Rocky" almost 30 years before there ever
was a "Rocky." It was the same kind of unrelenting (and unrealistic in
that no matter how bad the beating the good guy was getting, the good
guy couldn't lose) boxing action that Sylvester Stallone likes so much.
But, don't get me wrong, I liked this film. It was good stuff. 'Rocky" was drama, romance while this was film-noir.....and solid film-noir, too.
Robert Ryan, playing a 35-year-old aging rank fighter, gives it his all against an up-and-coming kid, not knowing that he supposed to take a dive. He finally finds this out (his manager didn't tell him) and by then, he was not going give up trying against his opponent.
There are so many punches thrown in this four-round bout it will make your head swim. The best part of this film, to me, was the cinematography, which was outstanding. Kudos to director Robert Wise for the photography. There are a lot of nice facial closeups in here, all of which look sharp on the recent DVD transfer.
Humor is thrown into this film-noir as we see a variety of boxing fans, from the bloodthirsty woman to a fat man always eating to another guy acting out the action while in his ringside seat. They provide some much- needed respite from the grim story. Ryan, as he usually was, is interesting to watch. The ending of the film is a tough one and, I found tough to watch at times.
Note: the film was done in "real time" - a 72-minute period in the life of the boxer Ryan portrays.
Overshadowed by the more heralded The Champion in 1949, I like this movie better. Maybe the grittiness of this one with its unrelentingly seedy environment and no obvious feel good outcome made it less popular at the time. After seeing it for years on cable, a most welcome sight on DVD. Certainly an Oscar caliber performance by Ryan. The direction and cinematograpy also Oscar worthy. The boxing match itself is a classic, convincingly choreographed. The whole cast down to the smallest part is uniformly fine, with many memorable faces. The sense of anxiety we feel for Stoker mixed with hope and fleeting elation makes quite a compelling story. The movie is 71 minutes and is in `real time` ****1/2 out of *****
This is a beautiful study in despair. The simple plot is moving. The
boxing scenes are excellent. The dark photography is breathtaking. And
it is superbly directed.
The director is one of the two mysteries involved in "The Set-Up." Robert Wise directed some of the most incisive, searing films noir in the history of movies. He seems to have had a true feel for the down and dirty. Yet he is best known for overblown, soulless musicals in the 1960s. OK, a man has to eat. But offhand, I can't think of a more dichotomous career.
The other, sadder puzzle is its star, Robert Ryan. He had a solid career as a working actor. Yet he is nearly forgotten today. Cary Grant never won an Academy Award and there are many others, who are often cited. But how could the award have been denied Ryan, one of the finest movie actors of the Twentieth Century?
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"The Set-Up" is one of the great boxing movies, using the sport as a
metaphor for the illusory nature of the American Dream, with one of the
screen's most realistic scraps, staged by John Indrisano. In the
symbolically named Paradise City, "Stoker" Thompson and his wife stay at
sordid Hotel Cozy, and Julie cradles her husband under the neon sign of
Dreamland dance hall in the final scene. In the seedy dressing room
meets a range of boxers - a teenager making his debut, a demented no-hoper
going into the ring for the last time, a handsome black determined to box
his way out of the ghetto. The film is not an attack on boxing itself,
ultimately the doomed Stokes snatches victory from his
"The Set-Up" was shot entirely in a studio and has a stylized, expressionistic noir atmosphere. There is only source music from radios, bars, and clubs. The film lasts exactly 72 minutes from the opening to the closing shot (unlike "High Noon", for example, which is shorter than the time shown on the clocks).
Robert Wise edited "Citizen Kane" and "The Magnificent Ambersons" before he made his directorial debut with Val Lewton's low-budget horror unit at RKO and became a versatile genre director. "The Set-Up", his ninth film, completed his RKO contract, after which he entered the big time, which ultimately led to such pictures as "West Side Story" and "The Sound of Music".
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