The Set-Up (1949) Poster

(1949)

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10/10
Knockout
telegonus10 August 2002
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 "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 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.
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Great depressing stuff in the dressing room, a gripping fight and a solid narrative
bob the moo19 April 2005
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.
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8/10
Running On Pride
bkoganbing13 August 2010
If your taste runs to happy endings and beautiful people than stay away from The Set-Up. But if gritty and realistic drama is your taste you can't do better than this noir classic about the world of boxing. The Set-Up anticipated Rod Serling's Requiem For a Heavyweight by a decade as it deals with the same issues about a boxer at the end of his career.

Anthony Quinn might very well have seen Robert Ryan in The Set-Up when he played Mountain Rivera in Requiem For A Heavyweight. Rod Serling must have seen it as well. Both films deal with a boxer at the end of his career, but who has a lot of pride. Manager George Tobias and trainer Percy Helton get an offer from gambler Alan Baxter who is backing an up and coming heavyweight contender Hal Baylor. Ryan is just another step up the ladder, a ladder when Ryan was younger he was climbing. Tobias and Helton agree to take a dive, but no one can broach the subject to Ryan.

Which sets it all up for the final match and the aftermath where Ryan betrayed by all hangs in on nerve and pride alone. What happens afterward is for you to view, but don't expect the same kind of resolution that Requiem For A Heavyweight gave.

A really big surprise here are George Tobias and Percy Helton who normally play comic parts are quite serious here as a pair of fight game characters. The performances are so atypical of the work you've come to expect from both.

Ryan's amateur boxing career no doubt stood him in good stead for this role. He makes a rugged looking boxer who's been through the ring wars over and over again. That helps him in this latest encounter.

The sets are gritty and realistic, in fact I've never seen an urban area done so well until Otto Preminger's The Man With The Golden Arm debuted six years later. Preminger also might have been influenced by The Set-Up when he made his classic.

Although unnoticed at first, The Set-Up has slowly built a reputation as one of the great noir films out of RKO and one of the best boxing films ever made. For myself it certainly influenced a lot of people.
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8/10
One of the most brilliant little films noirs of the Forties that evokes a brilliant feeling for time and place…
Nazi_Fighter_David22 July 2005
Warning: 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…
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10/10
Forgotten gem
arngest25 June 2004
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!
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10/10
Bitter Dregs Of The Sweet Science
Arriflex129 September 2005
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.
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8/10
The Great One
David (Handlinghandel)2 November 2005
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?
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10/10
TKO!
apocalypse later12 November 1999
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.
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10/10
A Marvelous Example of Film Noir
beejer10 May 1999
This film is a marvelous example of the film noir genre. Directed by Robert Wise, who learned his craft under Val Lewton, the film's settings and lighting, convey the feeling of a 40's boxing scenario - the sweaty neighborhood arena, the seedy hotel, the dark dimly lit streets.

Robert Ryan is simply superb as the washed-up fighter who refuses to compromise his principles and take a dive. Audrey Totter as his long suffering wife and George Tobias as Ryan's handler are excellent too.
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9/10
Boxing as analogy for the American Dream
rdoyle2922 September 2000
Warning: 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 the sordid Hotel Cozy, and Julie cradles her husband under the neon sign of the Dreamland dance hall in the final scene. In the seedy dressing room Stoker 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, and ultimately the doomed Stokes snatches victory from his defeat.

"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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