A Movie A Day: THE SET-UP (1949) Remember, now. Take it easy for two heats, then you can finish him. That’s the set-up
Published at: Aug. 28, 2008, 10:45 a.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with today’s installment of A Movie A Day.
[For those now joining us, A Movie A Day is my attempt at filling in gaps in my film knowledge. My DVD collection is thousands strong, many of them films I haven’t seen yet, but picked up as I scoured used DVD stores. Each day I’ll pull a previously unseen film from my collection and discuss it here. Each movie will have some sort of connection to the one before it, be it cast or crew member.]
Yeah, it’s late today, but it’s here. Can’t blame me, can ya’? Had a full, full day exploring Vegas. Caught the Star Trek Experience at the Las Vegas Hilton a scant few days before it’s shut down forever (it was pretty sweet if a little overprised… gotta love the Klingon attack ride, but the Borg one sucked a little bit) before some gambling, some great Indian food and, finally, Penn & Teller’s awesome show at the Rio. I’m a huge fan of their Showtime series BULLSHIT! and their live show was awesome. They hung out afterwards talking and autographing programs… Yeah, Teller spoke to me! I feel blessed… Apparently they are about to begin the next season…
Anyway, you see my full, packed day, but I still found time to watch Robert Wise’s THE SET-UP, about a washed up boxer played by the awesome Robert Ryan. See how clever I was programming this after SOMEBODY UP THERE LIKES ME, another Robert Wise boxing flick involving a pay-off of some sort.
What I loved about this film was the simplicity of the story. It’s a little refreshing coming off of a run of really great, sprawling semi-epic dramas, like yesterday’s film.
Here you have a story told in one night, a story about a boxer who is set to take a dive, but doesn’t know it. Robert Ryan is Stoker, a 35 year old boxer who is still stubbornly holding on to the dream of becoming a champ even though he hasn’t won a fight in recent memory.
His wife, Julie (played by Audrey Totter), is fed up with this life, not being able to stand the bloodlust of the crowd as her husband gets pummeled night after night. She can’t stand it anymore, but his point is that he’s a boxer. That’s what he does… maybe someday he can settle down, start his own cigar stand or something, but he won’t ever willingly go down this path. He’s past his prime already, but the carrot is always just out of reach.
His dickhead management are introduced by having one of them, George Tobias, inadvertently crossing out Stoker’s name on the bill when striking a match. Or maybe advertently. He is a douche.
He has accepted a bribe, but decided to not tell his fighter. It’s not because he believes Ryan is such a noble gentleman. Hell no. It’s because he knows the old wash-out will dive by himself and he can save cutting him in on the take.
What he doesn’t understand is that Ryan is fired up. He’s out to prove to his wife that he can do this.
Much like yesterday’s movie, Wise doesn’t show you the fights going on. You see the boxers in the locker room as they one by one go out and fight. They run all types… You have the title bout with a young enthusiastic black dude, his life ahead of him, dreams ripe for the picking. You have the preliminary bouts which consist of another young guy a kid entering the ring for the first time. He’s nervous, throwing up beforehand, but it goes very well for him.
Then you have another older fighter who is in an even deeper set of denial than Ryan. Or maybe not. Maybe it’s the exact same level, but Ryan sees what happens to this poor guy, sees how out of it he is when they carry him back in from his “this is the one, I’m sure it is” fight and, I’m sure, sees what his wife sees every time he is knocked silly.
Maybe he sees this and draws back a little.
The point is we see the results of the fights without seeing the fights themselves. Even the winners come in bloody and swollen. The roar of the crowd is not friendly, but angry, full of hatred. It’s the kind of roar you imagine when you read about the gladiators fighting to the death. They want to see someone hurt real bad.
It all serves to psychologically torture us, the audience, and dread Ryan’s turn up to bat. No, don’t go out there! You’re old! You’re supposed to take a fall, so even if you somehow pull this off it’s not going to turn out good for you anyway!
The only time we cut out of locker room is to follow Ryan’s wife as she takes a walk around the gorgeous RKO noir city street sets in great black and white. The blacks are deep, shadows swallowing people whole. She first attempts to go and watch the fight, composing herself for her husband’s sake, but entering the crowd and hearing them calling for blood, she just can’t take it and wanders the city, even going so far as to subtly consider suicide after being reminded of her husband’s pending doom everywhere she looks (from a radio in a newsstand discussing a current fight to a Rock-Em Sock-Em Robots style game in a game hall).
When the time comes, Ryan steps into the ring and shows every bit of heart we expect him to.
Now he’s fighting a young kid, Tiger Nelson (played by real life heavyweight champion Hal Baylor), but Nelson isn’t his main competition. The crowd is.
My God, the picture Wise paints of us, the voyeurs, is not a pretty one. The people in the crowd are animals, shouting for death, blood, brutality. There’s a sweaty fat man who shovels food into his face, something new and different each time we see him, lost in the battles taking place in front of him. There’s a blind man having the fight repeated to him as he clutches his cane and stares out with dead eyes, screaming for more. There’s a housewife who is almost zealous, cultlike, in her obsession with the brutality on display. Those last two are my favorites. Check ‘em out:
The fight between Ryan and Baylor is everybit as dirty and raw as we were worried it was going to be, incredibly well choreographed. It looked to me like these two men were really going after each other, landing punches and going fullsteam into this sequence.
Some people might read the ending as being a downer, but I saw it in a completely different way. I think it’s very hopeful and that the characters might be better off than they were when the picture started.
Final Thoughts: I’ve talked about Robert Ryan a lot in this column. He was a fanastic actor and the more I see of his work the more depressed I get that he’s not more well known or respected. He’s wonderful here, Robert Wise’s direction is outstanding, the supporting cast are great, the black and white photography by Milton R. Krasner is shocking and perfect… And it’s all packed into a tight 72 minute story. It’s a fascinating angle into a boxing flick that completely works, thanks to all the above-mentioned people involved as well as Art Cohn’s great script.