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The Set-Up Movie Poster

Year: 1949
Director: Robert Wise

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Cast:

Robert Ryan (Stoker), Audrey Totter (Julie), George Tobias (Tiny), Alan Baxter (Little Boy), Wallace Ford (Gus), Percy Helton (Red), Hal Baylor (Tiger Nelson (as Hal Fieberling)), Darryl Hickman (Shanley), Kenny O'Morrison (Moore), James Edwards (Luther Hawkins), David Clarke (Gunboat Johnson), Phillip Pine (Souza), Edwin Max (Danny), Herbert Anderson (Husband (uncredited)), Burman Bodel (Man (uncredited)), Herman Bodel (Man (uncredited)), Ruth Brennan (Woman (uncredited)), Helen Brown (Wife (uncredited)), John Butler (Blind Man's Buddy (uncredited)), Andy Carillo (Man (uncredited))

Storyline:

Over-the-hill boxer Bill 'Stoker' Thompson insists he can still win, though his sexy wife Julie pleads with him to quit. But his manager Tiny is so confident he will lose, he takes money for a "dive" from tough gambler Little Boy...without bothering to tell Stoker. Tension builds as Stoker hopes to "take" Tiger Nelson, unaware of what will happen to him if he does. Written by Rod Crawford <puffinus@u.washington.edu>

Reviews:

This is an awfully hard and brutal movie, produced at the end of the brief, rather high end Dore Schary regime at RKO (1946-48), just prior to Howard Hughes' purchase of the studio, which led to the company's slow, agonizing decline that forced it, or rather its new owners, to close it down ten years later. It's the story of an aging boxer, over the hill but still harboring a measure of optimism, really a sort of pride. In this tragic role Robert Ryan is superb. Tough, compassionate, deeply ethical, realistic, and yet with just enough of the dreamer in him to keep him emotionally afloat, Stoker Thompson represents the best qualities of the so-called common man. In an earlier, more heroic age, he might have been a knight; but alas we do not live in such a time, thus his personal qualities go unnoticed by all but his wife. In this role, Audrey Totter is almost as good as Ryan. Some of her scenes are unforgettable, as when she tears up the ticket to her husband's fight and throws it over the bridge into the steam of an oncoming train; or when she watches a bunch of silly teenagers "play" at boxing with a couple of performing puppets, which at first amuses her, then horrify her when she realizes her own and her husband's fate in this little "play" scene.

The film is a masterpiece of design and composition. Director Robert Wise never made a better picture than this. The movie, like High Noon, plays out in real time, and as a result has an air of urgency to it. Adapted from a poem by Joseph Moncure March, which tells essentially the same story, but with the main character a black man, Wise and scenarist Art Cohn take considerable liberties here that purists' might not care for. In the poem the setting is New York, while in the movie it's a tank town called Paradise City, a far cry from New York even if it's in fact less than a hundred miles away, upstate, or in New Jersey or Pennsylvania. The film never makes this clear. Here and there hints are dropped that the setting might be California. It doesn't matter. The Paradise City boxing arena is a place for young guys on their way up and old guys on their way down. It's a million miles from Madison Square Garden, and that's all that counts.

The film's settings are beautifully realized; and Milton Krasner's photography is no less brilliant. The central street, all blinking lights, and yet shadowy and black in odd places, is a perfect visual metaphor for the action of the film; while seldom have the denizens of a small city looked more menacing. Men in garish ties and fedoras jostle each other on the sidewalk as they pass by. They are a hard, apathetic breed, and hungry for sensation. Inside the arena we see humanity at its least admirable, as there is an undercurrent of sadism in even the most innocuous-seeming fight fans, such as a blind man ("go for his eyes!). We sense that these people come not so much to see a favorite boxer win as a hapless boxer lose.

In the center of all this is Stoker, a man with character surrounded by people who couldn't care less. As his handlers, a porcine, toothpick-chewing Percy Helton, and a thick-witted George Tobias, are superb. In a somewhat smaller role, Edwin Max, in pinstripe suit, with pencil-line mustache's, and what look like three soggy Salada tea bags under each eye, is visually perfect as a small-time something, not even hood, just a guy who runs around and does things for the big guy, played by Alan Baxter, a sort of anti-Stoker, a man without qualities who goes to great lengths to show that he has class and principles, when in fact he has neither. The man is a monster, and he doesn't even have guts. When Stoker punches him in the face he lets his goons do the dirty work.

The interior lives of the two main characters in this film suggest an affinity with the humanistic stoicism Hemingway, while the surface is closer to Weegee and Walker Evans. Overall, though, the movie is pure RKO; its courage-in-the-face-of-adversity theme suggests, almost uncannily, this odd man out among the major studios' history and future, and the best qualities of those who worked there.

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Robert Wise was one of Hollywood's most versatile and talented directors, but amidst all the classic films he made, this one was purportedly his personal favourite. It's easy to see why. Seedy, gritty, and stark, it's about as subtle as a hard right to the jaw. Ryan - one of the most underrated actors in American cinema - delivers a superb performance as Stoker, an aging boxer looking to salvage his dignity if not his career. It's a moral choice that could cost him his friends, his marriage and his future. Among the many interesting facets of the film is the use of other boxers on the night's ticket to reflect and reveal aspects of Stoker's own character - the loss of his youthful dreams, the fear of pain and permanent damage. Wise reserves such subtle devices for Stoker alone - every other character is rather one-dimensional, though this came across to me as a conscious choice to better fit the story into the 'real time' format, and to keep us focused solely on Stoker's story. The camera work and visuals are as stark and as potent as the story, carefully chosen to reflect the emotional beats of the story. Overall, an archetypal example of film noir not to be missed. Don't consider yourself a true film buff until you've seen this movie!

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Categories: Film-Noir Sport 1949 Tags: