Friday Editor’s Pick: The Set-Up (1949)

by on August 5, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Fri Aug 12 & Sat Aug 13 at 2:40, 5:45, 8:50 at Film Forum [Program & Tix]


Cinephiles have been grumbling about an overdue retrospective of actor Robert Ryan for some time now, and Film Forum delivers with a two-week commemoration running August 12 – 25. This underknown “real-time” boxing picture, cited frequently by Martin Scorsese as a major inspiration (so much so he had to consciously avoid copying it in Raging Bull), kicks off the series, on a double-bill with one of Ryan’s great evil turns in Crossfire (1947).


Make sure to read Imogen Smith’s essay on Ryan for Alt Screen.
Manohla Dargis in her feature for the Film Forum series, in The New York Times:

Ryan made “The Set-Up,” one of his favorites and most indelible films, two years later. Directed by Robert Wise (who had edited “Citizen Kane”), “The Set-Up” is a tight, intensely moving, pocket-size masterwork about Stoker Thompson, a washed-up, 35-year-old heavyweight who believes he’s just “one punch away” from changing his lousy luck. Part redemption story, part romance (his wife is played by Audrey Totter), the film unfolds in close to real time and takes place in the cruelly named Paradise City. Ryan, all muscle, sinew and heart-rending longing, slugs through one punishing round after another — look for the photographer Weegee hitting the bell as the timekeeper — creating a portrait of a man who endures ghastly physical punishment on his way to redemption.



Mark Asch in his profile of “probably the greatest actor in the history of cinema,” for L Mag:

Wise had cast Ryan as the soul of naïveté in his domestic boxing drama The Set-Up (1949)—the film’s a bit too midcentury mythpoetic about the modest dreams of little people, but effective for the “Paradise City” set, a backlot dream of Americana, and for Ryan, who plays a similarly idealized role, for once, with punch-drunk cadences turning slowly to self-discovery. He’s so open, which is also the source of his damage. Ryan had a big, sheepish smile and a soft, hoarse voice; his laugh was a sort of indulgent chuckle, which could be either sweet or terrifying.


His career spanned a little more than a quarter century, from WWII up not quite to the fall of Saigon, and tells a secret history of America in decline and fighting madly not to know it.

Nicholas Christopher in Somewhere in the Night: Film Noir and the American City:

The only film noir I know of in which the screenplay is adapted from a narrative poem. A surprising winner of the Critic’s Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1949, the film is a curiosity for a number of reasons. For one thing, like Hitchcock’s Rope, it is set in real time. Seventy-two minutes long, The Set-Up chronicles seventy-two minutes in the life of an aging journeyman fighter, played brilliantly by Ryan. Like other noir icons, including Robert Mitchum, Jack Palance, John Huston, and Ton Neal, Ryan in his youth had boxed professionally. The film is set about as far from the fast lane as one could get, in a hellish town called Paradise City, which is depicted solely through its shabby rooming houses, greasy spoons, dark filthy streets, and most important, through the warrens of a rundown, sweltering arena. The Set-Up is entirely nocturnal, much of the composition black on black and brilliantly cut. The film is hands down the bleakest boxing film ever made – certainly the harshest ever to come out of Hollywood. Even the criminals are seedy, small-bore types who play viciously for penny-ante stakes – no big-time promoters here, with diamond rings, cashmere coats, and limousines. And the crowds in every way exceed the coarse, vulgar stock players we find in other boxing films: here they are outright sadistic, with a blood-lust verging on hysteria. When the hero’s left eye is swollen shut by punches in the climactic fight, a blind man in the crowd shouts to the boxer, “The other eye, Nelson, close the other eye!”


[…] There’s no saga of rise and fall here – no parabola of any kind. The Set-Up is less a morality tale than a nihilistic spring that skirts the abyss.



Paul Tatara gives some background, for TCM:

The Set-Up had a documentary feel to it long before that sort of thing became commonplace in American narrative films. Wise went out of his way to make sure the picture was as accurate as possible. “I spent night after night doing research in the arenas around town,” he once said. “There was a little crummy one down in Long Beach I went to several times on their fight night. I would go down there early and go to the dressing rooms to watch the fighters, their managers, and handlers coming in from the street. I would watch a whole evening of their actions and activities, making notes, getting pictures and lots of ideas.”


Wise credited screenwriter Art Cohn, who was a former sportswriter, with much of the picture’s realism. Cohn knew a thing or two about boxing, and many of the script’s colorful supporting characters, such as a blind man who has to have the fight described to him, came from his own experiences. After attending several matches, Wise added other characters himself, including the sports nut who listens to a ballgame on the radio during the brawl.


Johnny Indrisano, a former professional fighter, was enlisted to choreograph the match, blow by blow. Three cameras were used during filming – one in a wide shot, one covering the two fighters, and one hand-held to photograph close-ups and evocative details like flying sweat. Wise, who began his career editing such classic films as Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), was greatly impressed with the resulting footage. “When it came to editing that sequence,” he said, “we had so much film that the editor, Roland Gross, couldn’t come up with a cut that satisfied me. So I did it myself.” This was the last major piece of editing Wise would ever perform.


Manny Farber, in Negative Space:

Its fighters aren’t champions but the derelicts, beginners, old men who fight four-rounders in arenas that have more trash on the floor than the seats – [The Set-Up] is a rhetorical Robert Wise film, overstating the malice in ordinary people, but often good in the intermediate nonbrutal scenes in a penny arcade and a cheap hotel room. Alan Baxter is good in a bad all-black fight-fixing role; whatever strength comes second-hand from the unity of a 1920’s poem on which the film is based. The movie’s honest comes from the ruminating, suspicious performances of Robert Ryan, a prelim fighter one punch away from punch-drunk, and the same distanced performance of his wife, Audrey Totter. a lot of intelligent in-fighting acting technique seeps in around the edges of what seems a static approach: don’t act, move a muscle, or smile.



Time Out (London):

One for the Ten Best lists. This is the boxing movie to lick all others, with Ryan impeccable as the ageing fighter gearing up for a bout he’s expected to lose; Audrey Totter leaving him because she can’t stand the mental and physical battering of the fight business, wandering the streets amid snatches of ringside radio commentary; and an invading sense of desolation the result. Great blue moments in black-and-white from a director whose early work is still outstanding: the film burns with the humanity that Raging Bull never quite achieves, an expression of masochism mixed with futile pride that is the essence of boxing as a movie myth.



Pauline Kael in 5001 Nights at the Movies:

This intelligently modest, low-budget film about a shabby, aging prizefighter… touches one’s experience in a way that makes it hard to forget. (Maybe that’s why so many movies have imitated it, even though it wasn’t a commercial success.) Based on a narrative poem by Joseph Moncure March and written by Art Cohn, it was directed by Robert Wise and shot (by Milton Krasner) in actual locations. Ryan–his face never more craggily heroic than in defeat–raised the picture above its poetry-of-realism aspirations.


Daniel Kasman in his screening log:

Not noir by a long stretch, but Wise’s unity of time (told in real time) and unity of space (everything literally existed on the same studio street, except for the girlfriend’s step out into the city to re-evaluate her life), along with Robert Ryan’s amazing performance and some of the best and most convincing boxing footage (and fans!) in any movie make this an easy winner.



Ed Howard for the blog Only the Cinema:

Robert Wise’s The Set-Up is one of the great noirs, a crisp and economical B-movie, its gritty, stripped-down story told almost entirely in real-time, with not a second of excess…Stoker’s fight itself is fierce and energetic, as good a staging of a boxing match as there’s ever been in the cinema. The camera maintains a low angle, looking up at the boxers, mostly lingering at the edge of the ring, watching through the ropes as these men pound away at one another. When the camera cuts in close, it catches the boxers in blurry, shaky closeups, the sweat beading on their skin, their faces bloodied and distorted. Wise also captures the bloodlust of the crowd, frequently cutting away to various caricatured audience members cheering on the carnage: a frenzied woman who gets angry anytime the ref threatens to break up the brawling, a man who keeps throwing imaginary punches of his own as he watches the fight, and various others who get charged up by seeing these men hurting one another. Most of all, though, there’s the gangster “Little Boy” (Alan Baxter), a Richard Widmark-esque sadistic creep with a sinister grin and an over-eager moll gambling by his side. This is the man who has his money riding on Stoker taking a dive; that’s his sole interest in the brutality on display here.


The Set-Up is a harsh, tough movie, with Ryan’s bruised, battered Stoker the ultimate noir hero, way out of his depth, lost in the shadows. It’s a film about a desperate man trying to prove himself, pushing himself past his limits without realizing that his big moment will be a Pyrrhic victory at best.


Eddie Muller in Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir:

The Set-Up is Noir boiled down to its existential essence: this is the way the world works, make your choices, and be prepared to live, or die, by them.


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