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The Set-Up

The Set-Up (1949)

March. 29,1949
| Drama Crime

Expecting the usual loss, a boxing manager takes bribes from a betting gangster without telling his fighter.


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The Set-Up is a fairly lackluster and uneventful boxing flick. This would have to be the shortest film I've ever seen, plus around two thirds of the film were spent in the ring, which is quite odd. Basically Stoker's corner makes a deal to throw the fight without telling Stoker, he wins the fight and his corner flees and Stoker cops the brunt for it. That premise is a worthy premise for a film, but it is all too short and poorly executed, the main character barely has dialogue. I don't know what I'm suppose to get out of this? Stoker: Yeah, top spot. And I'm just one punch away. Julie: I remember the first time you told me that. You were just one punch away from the title shot then. Don't you see, Bill, you'll always be just one punch away.


I was completely stunned by this movie (which I had never even heard of before last night)--it should be near the top of everyone's list of the best movies of all times.I am tagging my review as a spoiler not for a plot element, but because I want to mention that it unfolds in real time: the 71 minutes of the movie corresponds exactly to 71 continuous minutes of action in the story, and this gives the movie much of its amazing intensity. I did not realize this until the end--that's why drawing attention to it is somewhat a spoiler.Robert Ryan is marvelous as Stoker, a boxer nearing the end of his career; Ryan boxed at Dartmouth and in the Marines and he is wonderful in the part. When he smiles his face lights up the screen. The actors in the smaller parts are outstanding and fun to watch--Stoker's tiny cut man with a marvelously expressive face, his opponent Tiger Nelson, the characters in the audience, and the boxers in the dressing room--every little portrait is a gem. The fight choreography is remarkable and so convincing, and the night photography of "Paradise City" is suitably lively and tawdry, but also beautiful in the way that only black and white cinematography can be, especially in the scene on the viaduct. (Little bit of trivia: The dance hall is named "The Coral Sea" which to the 1949 viewer called up a decisive battle between Japan and the US--the world's first air/sea encounter--a note of grim irony.) This movie made me wish that most movies were kept to 70 minutes--this intense pace makes contemporary movies seem boring, tedious and self-indulgent by comparison.


A boxer who's past his prime but still dreams that he's only a punch from greatness. A girlfriend who's seen him take one beating too many. And a fight set-up in advance but no one's told him because he's going to lose, right? This still packs a punch. It has a usual grit, but also inner flow. As he waits in the lockerroom for his fight, other boxers get ready; one reminds him of his green, younger self, another of some washed- up future ahead, yet another gives him spiritual courage. We have all this visually, thrown from soul in the air. We're away from some big championship match. The atmosphere of the suburban boxing hall reminded me of another film I love about boxing and failure, Fat City. It doesn't matter if it's a noir. It's a small film but intimate, all about past and future lives mixed together. And it has a pretty perfect spatiality, an editor's understanding of cinematic space, Wise's original craft; Ryan from the basement can look up at their apartment and see if the lights are on or off, the promise of love.Ryan is typically intense but brings a humored and weary detachment, the guy is one of my favorite actors of the time. He brings real boxing experience to the fight that takes up the middle portion of the film, and still is pretty mean.Noir Meter: 1/4


You know what's odd? I couldn't even tell you who the World Heavyweight Champ is today. However there was a time, and I'm referring to my own youth here back in the Fifties and Sixties, that even if you weren't a boxing fan, the names of the champion and top contenders were a ubiquitous presence in newspaper headlines and the evening news. Times sure change.This is the tale of a hanger-on, an over the hill pugilist going by the name of Stoker Thompson, admirably portrayed by Robert Ryan in one of his classic roles. At the age of forty, he's playing a thirty five year old fighter against a much younger contender on the way up, backed by a flashy gangster the townies call Little Boy (Alan Baxter). I can't say I was much impressed with actor Ryan's ring style, virtually spending the entire match in an uncomfortable looking crouch position that seemed defensive most of the time. This really hit me when I learned that Ryan actually did some boxing in his college and military service days. I've never boxed, so what do I know, except that it looked awkward for someone who wanted very much to win just one more fight.The film gets a lot of mileage out of it's supporting players. George Tobias and Percy Helton are wonderfully smarmy and duplicitous in the mismanagement of their boy Stoker. Edwin Max as Little Boy's stooge Danny also conveys a lot more with his facials than with any lines he gets to deliver. Stoker's long suffering gal Julie conveys all the desperation and fatigue of someone who stands by her man, but hopes against hope that he'll give up the fight game to join the rest of humanity. In that scene on the bridge overlooking the trolleys, the torn up pieces of her fight ticket seem to flutter away like the last remnants of desire in her heart that maybe, just maybe she and Stoker can someday have a happy life together.So it's 1949, and things were a lot simpler back then, but here's what I don't get. The money involved in the fix seemed inconsequential to me, and I don't understand how a hood like Little Boy could get so worked up over fifty bucks. Fifty bucks! Sure, he was bankrolling his girlfriend Bunny on a side wager for a C-note, but how far was that fifty dollar pay off expected to go between Tiny (Tobias), Red (Helton) and Stoker? This is what Stoker was supposed to lay down for? Maybe I'm being naive, but an average week's pay to throw a preliminary fight seemed like small potatoes to me.Anyway, you don't have to be a boxing fan to get something out of this flick. Filmed in a crisp noir style, it captures all the seedy atmosphere of small town venues and smoke filled arenas that anyone could ask for. The ticket to this match is worth every penny.