Noirvember: Robert Wise’s ‘The Set-Up’ – One Punch Away

Films that take place in real time are unique experiments, but Robert Wise’s 1949 film The Set-Up is far more. It is an exploration into the depths of a man’s soul, what drives him to put his life in danger just to draw a few cheers from a crowd and go for that one last shot at glory.

Robert Ryan stars as Bill “Stoker” Thompson, a 25-year-old boxer at the end of his ropes. He is set to fight the much-younger Tiger Nelson (Hal Fieberling) at a match in the fictional Paradise City Arena. His wife, Julie (Audrey Totter) is sure Stoker has no chance and should retire so they could live a peaceful life. Still, Stoker is sure he is “one more punch away” from a title shot. Unbeknownst to him, Stoker’s manager also has no faith in his boxer and has fixed the fight with local racketeer Little Boy (Alan Baxter).

The film, running at just 72 minutes, features many of the qualities of film noir. There might be no femme fetale, but there’s so much desperation in everyone’s faces that this one element would be superfluous. Perhaps the real femme fetale of the movie is boxing itself. Like those women drawing men into a flytrap, Stoker can never escape boxing until it is too late.

Being powerless in the sight of fate is a theme running throughout the film. Everyone is just like the man fated to never catch the toy in the claw machine or the broken down boxer holding out hope for a title shot because someone else lost 21 times in a row. Wise spreads it throughout the film. Stoker’s manager Tiny (George Tobias) laughs in the face of chance, but the always-trailing Red (Percy Helton) is obsessed with everything being tidied up. But it is impossible to always know the outcome of a boxing match, even when you think it’s fixed.

Lost dreams run through The Set-Up as well, particularly from Julie’s perspective. It’s not clear what she thought she was getting herself into when she married a boxer, but it is clear that she loves him deeply. The scene where she passes the penny arcade and has a chance to look at the fun she never had, the weight of broken dreams is palpable. That the moment ends with her being disgusted by a group of kids playing a mechanical boxing game makes the heart break more. It is all thanks to Audrey Totter’s wordless performance, moving her face from emotion to emotion in moments.

Joseph Moncure March’s original epic poem the film is based on centered on an African-American boxer. According to Wise’s commentary, RKO did not have any African-American stars in 1949, so Ryan was picked as the lead. While it’s true the film is gutted of racial politics, Wise found some way to keep an iota of it by casting James Edwards as the boxer Luther Hawkins.

The Set-Up is a perfectly orchestrated drama, a window into a dirty and dingy world we no longer have. In fact, we probably never did. In his comments during the commentary track, Martin Scorsese compares the film to an Edward Hopper painting. It seeks to bring out real feelings, real emotions and drama by heightening reality.

There’s much more to The Set-Up, from the realistic dialogue by sportswriter Art Cohn to the editing by Roland Gross that is clearly influenced by Wise’s own editing experience. The wonderful performance by Ryan seems to predict the other great boxing performances the movies gave us. And the central fight sequence between Stoker and Tiger is breathtaking, a wonderful example of how to really tell a story with a fight.

The Blu-Ray

I saw The Set-Up for the first time at the 2018 TCM Classic Film Festival on 35mm. It is hard to replicate the experience of seeing this movie on a big screen, but Warner Archive Collection’s Blu-ray release does a good job of it. The transfer is sourced form a recent 2K scan and it looks marvelous.

The single-layer disc only includes one supplement, but it’s a big one. We get an audio commentary featuring Wise and Scorsese. They were clearly recorded separately and there are quite a few long gaps, but when they are talking their comments are eye-opening. It’s always fascinating to hear Scorsese – the greatest living film fan – break down the movie piece by piece and explaining its influences on his own work. The track was recorded while he was making The Aviator (2004), and he discussed showing The Set-Up to the cast and crew. When Wise talks, you’re hearing first-hand stories of working in the Hollywood studio system.

The Set-Up is a classic sports film, and one of the very best. You cannot look away from the movie during its 72 minutes. Wise grabs your attention, holds it there and never lets up on the tension. He told stories by bringing every element of filmmaking together. The Wise who made The Set-Up, Executive Suite and The Day The Earth Stood Still is the same man who made The Sound of Music, West Side Story and Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Towards the end of the commentary, Scorsese describes The Set-Up as a resurrection picture, which is perfect. Stoker might never box again, but there’s still hope he can find a life without it, but with his wife Julie.

Thanks to Warner Archive for providing this disc to review!

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