Paul Sills sifts back through some lost classic celluloid pictures, beginning with Robert Wise’s 1949 squared-circle feature, The Set-Up.
Few sports lend themselves to cinematic form in quite the way that boxing does. While a majority of sports tend to be dispersive in nature, boxing’s intensely confined, geodesic style seems an ideal fit for cinema and film noir in particular. No other sport approaches its unique intensity – such a simple and primitive act in such a restricted space. Along with our awareness that a fight may end at any moment, this creates a sustained intensity which complements cinema perfectly.
In 1949’s The Set-Up, director Robert Wise ups the ante on this tension by setting the film in real-time. This technique gives it a palpable urgency – a constant reminder of our protagonist’s approaching battle and of a certain secret that has been kept from him. We meet Stoker Thompson (Robert Ryan), an aging boxer forced to fight, mid-week, in small-time dives like Paradise City Athletic Club. Thompson is considered something of a joke among the punters of the club – when his manager hears he is resting, he responds, “Don’t that guy get enough sleep in the ring?” Yet, Thompson feels he stands a good chance and talks of investing his winnings in a cigar stand with his long-suffering wife (Audrey Totter). Meanwhile, his manager has taken a bribe from a local mobster, agreeing that Thompson will fall after the second round. Here’s where The Set-Up deviates from the familiar film trope of the fixed fight – presuming Thompson will stand little chance against his much younger opponent, his manager decides not to tell him and pockets his share of the payoff. To synopsize any further would be impossible without spoiling the film’s nuances and twists, except to say that a final confrontation will take place with far more devastating consequences than anything meted out in the ring.
Wise’s decision to use no musical score pays dividends too, as the ambient sounds of passing trains, the baying crowd, the bustling backstreet arcades and, of course, the punches form a score entirely of their own.
Clocking in at a terse 72 minutes, The Set-Up is tight as a drum. Wise’s background as an editor shows – he had edited Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons for Orson Welles. There’s no excess here. Yet nothing feels rushed either. The characters are given plenty of space to breathe; they feel alive. Wise’s decision to use no musical score pays dividends too, as the ambient sounds of passing trains, the baying crowd, the bustling backstreet arcades and, of course, the punches form a score entirely of their own.
Taking as his source a narrative poem by Joseph Moncure March, Art Cohn has crafted a beautifully poetic screenplay, contrasting moments of brutality and hopelessness with moments of compassion and humanity. Aside from some significant changes – the poem’s protagonist is an African-American with the curiously effete name of Pansy – Cohn more than adequately captures the essence of the poem. He shows a perfect sense of pacing and a flair for snappy dialogue. Unusually, for a film noir, the mood here is more melancholic than bleak. The hopes and fears of Stoker’s fellow boxers, vented as they prepare in a locker room, seem so tragically futile. His empathy with them gives the feeling he’s not just fighting for himself, but for something altogether more important. It’s possible to read this as a subtle reference to the HUAC trials which were taking place at the time, though Cohn never forces this and largely avoids the allegorical.
Wise and his cinematographer Milton R. Krasner (a master of chiaroscuro) bring a virtuosic but unpretentious look to the film. It features some of the most striking images in noir history: the intense close-ups of Robert Ryan’s tortured face, Audrey Totter dropping her torn ticket from a railway bridge, the shadows of a jazz band in an alleyway at the film’s denouement, the gallery of bloodthirsty grotesques and misfits that inhabit the boxing hall.
Mention should be made here of Wise’s gift for casting. Every face is memorable, from the leads to the smallest of bit parts. Robert Ryan, always reliable as either good guy or heavy, is outstanding. This may be his finest role. He seldom speaks. Of course he doesn’t need to, his scarred and haunted face speaking volumes more than any monologue. In a naturalistic, understated style, Ryan inhabits the character completely. Having been a successful heavyweight boxer in his college days, he brings an authenticity to the role that few others would have. Audrey Totter, initially grating, comes into her own as she wanders the seedy back streets of Paradise City alone, hoping for the best, expecting the worst for her husband. George Tobias makes a suitably sleazy manager, Tiny, running the gamut of emotions as he realises things may not be going entirely to plan. Raspy-voiced Percy Helton turns in another notable performances as Tiny’s excitable assistant, Red. Alan Baxter as monosyllabic mobster Little Boy brings a chilling calm to his role, every small gesture having a potential consequence on Thompson’s fate.
The Set-Up unfolds with a fiery intensity and an aching humanity that linger long in the heart and mind
While perhaps lacking the broader political scope of Robert Rossen’s Body and Soul or the technical dazzle of Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (it was, after all, made thirty-one years beforehand), The Set-Up unfolds with a fiery intensity and an aching humanity that linger long in the heart and mind. Wise, one of the most consistently brilliant of Hollywood craftsmen, would revisit the world of boxing seven years later with Somebody Up There Likes Me. Few would dispute, though, that The Set-Up is clearly the superior work. Its unjust neglect (could you even say it has a cult status?) warrants a long overdue re-evaluation. With the rumoured threat of a remake, now may be that time. As both boxing picture and film noir, it more than holds its own against some stiff competition and is easily among the most underrated American films of the 1940’s. Incidentally, that’s legendary street photographer Weegee appearing as timekeeper in the film’s title sequence.
(1949, RKO Pictures, Director – Robert Wise, Running Time – 72 minutes)
The Set-Up on www.imdb.com