Saturday, February 13, 2021

Movie Reviews: The Set-Up

The Set-Up
directed by Robert Wise
This is a taut 1949 film noir by the man who would later go on to direct The Sound of Music. But The Set-Up is not something which is going to have anyone breaking out into song. The Set-Up is set in the brutal world of boxing. Here there are no excuses or explanations, just results. And very few of the boxers achieve anything resembling long term success. 
Many wind up barely better off than they would have been in a 9-5 job while a significant minority are worse off. The boxers are ripped off by the sport's parasitical promoters, managers, and mobsters. Some boxers end up with permanent health issues. Glory and the ability to say they took the best their opponent had to offer and kept moving forward are the motivators for all of these boxers.
Film noir mainstay Robert Ryan is aging boxer Bill "Stoker "Thompson. Stoker's no bum. He's had some ups and downs in his career, but more downs than ups. At thirty-five he's become an old man by boxing standards. He's getting hit more often than he used to, something that has not failed to escape the attention of his loyal wife Julie (Audrey Totter). Julie thinks that Stoker needs to get out of the game before he gets brain damage. 
Stoker doesn't see things that way. He thinks he still has lightning in his right fist and thunder in his left fist. Stoker's next fight is worth $500. That's enough money to start a newsstand or other business, invest in some younger up-and-coming fighters, and still have enough money left over to buy Julie some of the finer things Stoker thinks she deserves. 
Besides, Stoker believes that with his talent he's just one punch away from getting a title shot. A frustrated Julie retorts that Stoker can't see that he will always be just one punch away. Julie is tired of seeing the man she loves getting beat up. She doesn't want to watch hubby fight any more.
Not wanting to bring himself down by arguing with Julie, Stoker stops talking. He leaves Julie a ticket for a good seat where he can see her and departs for the arena, which is conveniently across the street from the couple's hotel.
Stoker is matched against boastful younger fighter Tiger Nelson (Hal Fieberling). It's after the main event; it's the night's last bout. This gives Stoker plenty of time to warm up, ponder his past and future, offer some advice to younger fighters, and stare out of the window watching for Julie's departure.

This film is shot close to real time elapsed. This gives it a tension that isn't ever released until the movie's final moments. 
Along with Stoker the viewer watches as older fighters leave the locker room and come back beaten senseless, new fighters get nauseous before their first bout, and young stars come back boasting about how they took out their opponent in an early round. There's not necessarily any rhyme or reason. Fighters who take Bibles into the ring lose badly. Arrogant show-offs more interested in women than fights win easily.
But Stoker has a problem. It's not just that Julie still hasn't shown up to watch him fight. It's that his trainer and manager think that Stoker's a loser. So with that in mind the entrepreneurial duo have accepted money from Tiger's backer, the dapper and taciturn gangster Little Boy (Alan Baxter), to have Stoker throw the fight against Tiger. 
The trainer and manager are so convinced Stoker will lose they haven't bothered to tell Stoker of the arrangement. Besides, the men think it's much easier to slice up money two ways than three. The trainer's and manager's decision backfires when Stoker enters the ring, doesn't see his wife, but stubbornly decides to give it all he's got anyway.

The director accurately, sometimes humorously, sometimes not, captures the lust, blood and sexual, that often takes over the viewers of boxing matches. A demure housewife gets excited watching Stoker fight while a younger man gets up from his seat and starts throwing jabs and hooks as if he's in the ring. One fat man eats a different type of junk food in every scene he's in, even as his eyes never leave the action.
The fight scenes were pretty convincing, perhaps because the 6'4" Ryan was a college boxing champion. Much like the people in the audience I defy anyone to watch the match and not get into it. Although it's set amid the violence and corruption of boxing this is really a movie about being true to yourself and doing the right thing regardless of the cost. This film was based on a poem by Joseph Moncure March about a Black boxer. March was upset that his poem was white washed for commercial considerations.
Although there's no femme fatale here this is as good of an example of film noir as any. And it's one of Ryan's best roles. And it's one of the best boxing movies. Check it out, won't you?
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