(director: Robert Wise; screenwriters: from poem by Joseph Moncure March/Art Cohn; cinematographer: Milton Krasner; editor: Roland Gross; cast: Robert Ryan (Bill “Stoker” Thompson), Audrey Totter (Julie Thompson), George Tobias (Tiny), Alan Baxter (Little Boy), Wallace Ford (Gus), Percy Helton (Red), Hal Fieberling (Tiger Nelson), Archie Leonard (Blindman), Dwight Martin (Glutton), James Edwards (Luther Hawkins), Darryl Hickman (Shanley), David Clarke (Gunboat Johnson), Edwin Max (Danny), Lynn Millan (Bunny); Runtime: 72; RKO; 1949-B/W)
“This is one of the top boxing films ever made.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
This is one of the top boxing films ever made, along with Raging Bull and Body and Soul. It is reportedly the role Robert Ryan, the college boxing whiz, liked the best of all his films and the one he probably gave his best performance. It is the only boxing film developed from a poem. It was fleshed out into a screenplay by boxing aficionado Art Cohn. The director, Robert Wise, wanted to use the ring for a metaphor about the corrupt world, using the innocence of a boxer against those in the business who tried to make him take a dive. Wise captured the mood of the smoked-filled arena, the fans’ reactions, and the dirtiness of the boxing world. He also captured the griminess of the dark streets of Los Angeles, the brutality of the sport, and the seedy hotels where the struggling boxers reside.
Stoker (Ryan) is a 35-year-old washed-up fighter. He is on the card for tonight’s fight at the Paradise City arena, a second-rate boxing venue. Stoker’s wife Julie (Totter) can’t stand to see him fight any more so she waits for him back in their seedy hotel, though he is hoping she shows up to watch him. Becoming restless, Julie wanders the streets that are filled with arcades, bars, and chop suey places. She stops on a bridge to watch the passing trolleys below and then listens intently to a radio ringside report of the boxing match coming from a newspaper stand, and is relieved to find that it was not her husband who was knocked out.
Tiny (Tobias), Stoker’s manager, has arranged with the underlings of a notorious gangster, Little Boy (Baxter), to fix the four round fight after the second round. After receiving fifty dollars for the fix he decides not to tell Stoker, figuring he couldn’t beat the much younger fighter, Tiger Nelson (Hal), anyway. His cut man, veteran character actor with the high-pitched, squeaky voice, Red (Percy), who is falsely told by Tiny that he got thirty dollars for the fix, receives his cut of ten dollars but thinks it is a mistake not to tell Stoker about the fix.
The film looks as if it is being shot in real time. Stoker awaits in the dressing room, exchanging good-natured barbs with the other boxers and listening to their nervous chatter. They are all dreamers, filled with their own apprehensions and wants, men caught in a world where they have little chance of succeeding but that million-to-one shot to make it to the top is what motivates them.
Stoker feeling he could win goes all out, even as his face is pummeled. The crowd was made up fans who wager and others just to enjoy the bloody spectacle. A blind man has his pal give him a detailed description of the fight–just loving the violence, cringing with delight when told there was blood on one of the boxer’s.
After the third round Little Boy’s cronies realized they had been double-crossed as Stoker was holding his own, refusing to go down. At this point, Tiny tells his fighter the fix is in. But it is too late, Stoker’s pride makes him want to win the fight as he proceeds to knock out Tiger.
Warning: spoiler to follow in the next paragraph.
Confronted alone after the fight in the dressing room by the gangsters, the boxer runs into an alley. But the gang catches him and breaks his hands with a brick so that he’ll never box again. This turns out to be a blessing in disguise for Julie, who calls for an ambulance for her noble husband. She asks his forgiveness for not attending the fight, then assures him that they “both won tonight.”
Ryan’s performance gives this film the human drama most of the other great boxing movies just couldn’t deliver. His drive to win despite knowing what that victory will ultimately mean and the noble way he handles himself, provides this film with an insiders look into the boxer’s virile nature and their foolish pride.
The Set-Up was one of the few films ever made in which narrative time and screen time are the same — 72 minutes. Wise brought in former boxing professional John Indrisano to make sure the choreographed fight scenes were realistic. Wise, striving for realism above all, visited the boxing venues around the Long Beach area, basing the boxing fans chosen for the film on the same type of people he saw while attending those matches.
REVIEWED ON 2/22/2000 GRADE: A-