Tuesday, September 13, 2011
The Set-Up (1949)
Although I’ve owned a copy of years I had never bothered to sit down and watch Robert Wise’s 1949 film noir The Set-Up. Blame my prejudice against boxing movies. But tonight I did watch it. And it’s magnificent.
It’s one of the few movies in any genre take place in real time. The 73-minute running time covers 73 minutes in the life of a broken-down boxer. Wise actually manages to avoid having the real time idea look like a gimmick. It gives the movie a real immediacy and a sense of urgency.
Robert Ryan is boxer Stoker Thompson. After 20 years as a fighter he’s scheduled to fight a support bout in a sleazy joint in Paradise City. This is about as low as you can get in the fight game. Despite this he feels good about tonight’s fight. He has a feeling he can win this one. It just takes one good punch, and then he could find himself fighting in the top slot again.
Unfortunately Stoker has been one good punch away from the big time for his whole career. His devoted but long-suffering wife Julie (Audrey Totter) can see this but Stoker cannot. It’s not that he isn’t prepared to think about quitting, but unless he can get a break and pick up some decent purses he can’t see any alternative to the fight game. It’s all he knows.
His manager Tiny certainly has no illusions about Stoker’s future. He’s been offered money by a mobster known as Little Boy to have Stoker take a dive. Little Boy is grooming a fighter named Tiger Nelson for the big time and Nelson needs some easy knockout victories to establish his credentials for a shot at a title fight. Tiny is so convinced that Stoker is finished that he doesn’t even bother telling Stoker he’s supposed to throw the fight. Stoker’s such a has-been that Tiny figures he’s absolutely certain to get knocked out anyway, so why bother splitting the bribe with him?
Julie now has to decide if she’ll be there for this fight. She’s told Stoker she’s not coming because she has a headache but thats not the reason for her reluctance. She has been at all his fights, but she’s just not sure she could stand seeing him get yet another beating. She has no intention of leaving him, she loves him deeply, but a woman can only watch the man she loves take a pummeling so many times. As the time for the bout approaches Stoker keeps looking uneasily out the window at the seedy hotel across the street where he and Julie are staying, hoping to see that she’s changed her mind and is on her way.
Of course, given the way the story has been set up, you know the fight is not going to turn out the way Little Boy and Tiny expect. Stoker is old and broken-down but he still packs a pretty good punch and he can’t shake the feeling that tonight he’s going to take Tiger Nelson. If he does succeed in doing so then it’s likely he will face a grim reckoning with Little Boy.
This is a movie that is just about without faults. Wise’s direction is spot-on. The editing is exceptionally good. Roland Gross was the editor but Robert Wise had started out as an editor and certainly spent some time in the editing room on this picture. The photography is perfect, capturing the seedy despair of the fighters at Paradise City. It has a nicely stylised feel to it - everything looks like it was shot on a sound stage or on the backlot which of course it was. This slight artificiality heightens the intensity of the drama.
Robert Ryan had been an intercollegiate boxing champion and the actor playing Tiger Nelson had been a boxer as well. The fight scenes are extraordinary in their ferocity and in their sheer desperation. Ryan of course was a great actor and he’s superb here. Audrey Totter is extremely good as Julie. Both Ryan and Totter were capable of playing very dark roles indeed but this time around they both play very sympathetic characters. As the movie progresses it’s difficult to see turning out well for them but we desperately want them to make it.
Apart from everything else it’s also sensitive depiction of a marriage, a marriage that is basically a good marriage. The affection that Stoker and Julie have for one another is portrayed poignantly but without sentimentality. The support cast is outstanding - there are so many wonderfully acted minor parts.
There are lots of nice little touches - the blind man who has his friend describe the fight to him, the middle-aged lady who keeps yelling for blood, the guy watching the fight while listening to the ball game on his radio. They add to the atmosphere of voyeurism, to which we as viewers of course add.
The ending neatly avoids all the obvious pitfalls and is completely satisfactory, something that can’t always be said for film noir.
The Warner Home Video DVD release, which came out quite a few years ago now, looks fantastic. There’s a commentary track featuring both Robert Wise and Martin Scorcese (whose enthusiasm for this movie knows no bounds and he makes some perceptive observations as well). Even if you hate boxing movies as much as I do this is a must-see movie.