Friday, November 29, 2019

THE SET-UP (1949)

RKO Radio Pictures, 72m 34s

In his recent explanation of why boxing is so different from most other forms of athletic competition, boxing analyst Max Kellerman described the sport as a contest of wills. A bout's outcome is determined not just by the pugilistic capabilities of the participants, but by each fighter's respective will to endure whatever punishment his opponent can deliver. Sometimes an unspectacular but durable fighter with a big heart can outlast the opposition's superior firepower. That possibility makes professional prizefighting exceptionally dangerous activity for the participants, as well as dramatic viewing material.  Everybody likes to root for a likable underdog who just won't quit when faced with serious adversity. Bill “Stoker" Thompson (Robert Ryan) is that battle-scarred fellow in director Robert Wise's THE SET-UP, a vigorous film noir that approximates real time.

The story commences with a timekeeper sounding the bell at ringside. As the narrative progresses we hear the ticking of a hotel room clock, see the hands of the town street clock and witness close-ups of the timekeeper’s clock at ringside between rounds. The uncompromising reality of time stands as the film's most crucial theme, emphasized by the recurrent images of clocks throughout the narrative as well as the stoic persistence of the lead protagonist, a journeyman heavyweight who now pensively recalls his first prizefight took place twenty years ago in Trenton, New Jersey. That is a long spell to ponder for any professional athlete, especially one trying to eke out a living in the fight game. A boxer whose time has passed and thus has become his own worst enemy makes for impactful film noir material, particularly in this case. The 35-year-old Thompson is among the most sympathetic of noir characters, punished severely and unfairly for giving his best effort in a sport that is notoriously brutal.

In what must feel like the supreme insult to a boxer's ego, Thompson's upcoming fight is to take place after the evening's featured event. The opponent in front of him is Tiger Nelson (Hal Baylor, here credited as Hal Fieberling), who is a mere 23 years of age. Despite the enormous age gap that separates Nelson from Thompson, money is exchanged to ensure Thompson hits the deck and stays there. In one of film noir’s most cynical gestures, Thompson's cigar-chomping manager Tiny (George Tobias) is so certain his fighter hasn't a prayer he never informs him his fight’s outcome has been predetermined! Even before that revelation, we sense Tiny does not have his fighter's best interests in mind. The moment we meet the presumably second-rate manager, he dismissively strikes a match across Thompson's name on the arena's poster, leaving a noticeable scratch over the name of the man he supposedly represents. Thompson's trainer Red (Percy Helton) is understandably skittish about the whole set-up, but he keeps quiet. With an internal support structure like that, one would hope the veteran boxer's fan base would be more enthusiastic about his next contest, but spectators are not very kind in their remarks about him, for instance:

"I remember him when I was a kid!"
"Where's your wheelchair?"
"He's an old man!"

In spite of the less than encouraging court of public opinion, Thompson stubbornly clings to the notion that he has the tools to end matters with one mighty punch. But when Gunboat Johnson (David Clarke) is dragged back to the locker room after a demoralizing defeat, the other fighters look on in knowing recognition:  someday this happens to every fighter who competes long enough. That sequence speaks to the true crux of prizefighting, which is unlikely ever to change. How does any practitioner of the sweet science call it quits when he knows he can still punch with power? It has been said for the fighter blessed with punching power that the power is the last thing to go. And when he does retire, one way or the other, to what exactly does he retire? What significant job opportunities exist for ex-prizefighters, especially those who were known to have hung around the ring past their prime? Any sentient observer might conclude there is no obvious exit strategy for the shot fighter. Those questions linger as Thompson soldiers on in boxing's no man's land, forever “one punch away” from a revitalized prizefighting career. In the meantime, he absorbs more punishment. “You’ll always be just one punch away,” declares his wife Julie (Audrey Totter, one of the few actresses I would describe as a possessor of rugged good looks). Though THE SET-UP’s runtime mostly respects actual time, the element of time is manipulated during Thompson’s climactic fight to make the brutality inside the ring even more excruciating. Round 1 clocks in at 3:17, round 2 at 3:37 and round 3 at 4:02!

The film noir of the late 1940s often doubles as a classroom session devoted to the dangerous tensions inside capitalism's underbelly, an overstuffed area bloated with class separation, cutthroat competition and unrealized dreams. The unglamorous urban setting of THE SET-UP percolates with dance halls, liquor stores, competitive newspaper salesmen, ungenerous gambling machines, street pitchmen and a wide variety of people chasing odds. It is an environment in which there are few obvious winners and a lot of average people just trying to get by on a daily basis. "Everybody makes a book on something," Thompson observes. Of primary interest in this noir city are the disturbingly bloodthirsty fight fans, who demand the most violent possible outcome to each match. The diversity of the fan base is given emphasis; one of the ticket holders is a blind man who does not allow his lack of sight to keep him far from the carnage. The montage of humanity captured inside the arena defines the term “urban jungle” better than any assortment of words ever could.

Fittingly, the major plot mechanics are empowered by the underworld business maneuvers of local gangster Little Boy (Alan Baxter), who has a significant investment in a Thompson loss. After Thompson fails to cooperate, the filmmakers make great use of the venue, both from visual and audio perspectives. Presumably the last boxing arena Thompson will navigate through is an empty one; his fighting career symbolically finished. The suddenly on-the-run Thompson attempts to avoid the representatives of the man who hemorrhaged money on Nelson's surprising defeat. As Thompson scurries around the arena in one of film noir's best "nowhere to run" concluding sequences, every sound echoes throughout the place. We recognize his time is up. On an optimistic note for an otherwise pessimistic narrative, THE SET-UP concludes with Thompson free to pursue a new life with Julie. After the moral and physical triumph in the ring, Thompson departs the sport of boxing horribly damaged, but with his life, and the potential for some sort of humble fresh start. Julie tells him “We both won tonight.” Only in a film noir could such a finish be described as an outright victory for the cinematic couple.

THE SET-UP was the first feature film screenplay credited to Art Cohn, who later co-wrote TOMORROW IS ANOTHER DAY (1951), one of the great couple-on-the-run noir titles. Cohn adapted Joseph Moncure March's long narrative poem THE SET-UP (1928), the story of a past-his-prime black boxer just freed from incarceration. Obviously the racial aspect of the poem was lost in the filmed version when a white actor was cast as the main protagonist. Nonetheless, Robert Ryan really registers as “Stoker" Thompson, one of film noir's most convincing everyman types. Still in admirable physical condition at the time of filming, Ryan was an intercollegiate heavyweight boxing champion while a student at Dartmouth College. Prolific cinematographer Milton R. Krasner worked on two other film noirs in 1949:  William Dieterle's THE ACCUSED for Paramount Pictures and Joseph L. Mankiewicz's HOUSE OF STRANGERS for Twentieth Century Fox.

A single-layered Blu-ray edition of THE SET-UP has been made available through Warner Archive, and the 1080p presentation honors their laudable standards. Based upon well-preserved 35mm source material, this welcome upgrade makes for intense viewing framed at the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1 with DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono. For noir collectors, this is an obvious must-own.

Warner Blu-ray

Warner DVD

Supplemental material is limited to an audio commentary track with Robert Wise and Martin Scorsese, ported from Warner's 2004 DVD release. Wise reveals his belief in test screenings, which allow filmmakers to repair segments that prompt unexpected audience reactions. Scorsese, who graced us with the great Jake LaMotta biopic RAGING BULL (1980), does most of the talking as he relates his obvious passion for the career of Wise. Routinely jumping from one genre to another was never an easy task, Wise just made it look easy. Scorsese applauds some of Wise's previous achievements as a director, including producer Val Lewton's noirish horror productions at RKO THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE (1944) and THE BODY SNATCHER (1945). Later at RKO Wise helmed BORN TO KILL (1947), one of the great tough-guy noirs with a memorable lead thug portrayed by Lawrence Tierney. Also mentioned are ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW (1959), one of the great noir stragglers, and the Rocky Graziano biopic SOMEBODY UP THERE LIKES ME (1956), Wise's return to the boxing film. Naturally the majority of Scorsese's focus is on THE SET-UP, which Wise recalls as his favorite film he made for RKO. From a technical standpoint, Scorsese proves himself to be an especially helpful guide. He believes it was Wise's experience as a film editor that allowed him to emerge as a master of the film medium. Wise understood when to hold the image versus when to cut. To understand the difference between the two, one must have great respect for the visual image. From an analytical perspective, Scorsese sees the boxing ring as an allegory of human life, our daily struggles encapsulated in the squared circle. He views the Penny Arcade & Fun Palace similarly, where the noir force of fate is well dramatized by the stingy crane machine that fails to pay off just when it looks like it will. In this noir city, perhaps everyone is a bit like Thompson, limping toward the end of the road, but still hopeful a big payday is out there somewhere, just “one punch away.”


  1. Great review. Thank you. Love to see Audrey Totter in an sympathetic role. Ryan is perfect.