The Set-Up (1949, Robert Wise)
If there is ever one type of sports film people never seem to tire of, it is undoubtedly the boxing-themed picture. Hockey is not really part of the equation, basketball a bit more so, and baseball has had its heyday of great films but few of have emerged over the past while. American football is has also been the basis of a fair amount of solid movies, but it is boxing which, for many reasons, is ripe for cinematic drama. One need only look back approximately one year ago when The Fighter was released and recollect its gargantuan popularity. Good, dramatic cinema should about interesting characters, their story arcs and how they culminate with a memorable, gut wrenching climax. In the case of boxing, the gut wrench might even be literal. If one is to take those notions and thrust them into a sports related story, what better athletic profession than that of boxing? Man versus man, emotional and physical well being put to the test with each successive round, and of course the crowds who, with vested interests sometimes, gather around to witness two fine specimens whack the silly putty out of each other.
We go back to 1949 for this particular boxing-themed film. Bill ‘Stoker’ Thompson, played by one of the best actors of the time, Robert Ryan, is a mid-thirties boxer whose best days are clearly long behind him. At his age, one should be mindful of eventual retirement, making plans for what is to follow. Still, Stoker sticks around on the boxing circuit, hopeful that one of these days he will in fact land a good punch on someone in a tilt and earn some more respectable income, with more high profile matches to follow. His wife, Julie (Audrey Totter), is far less certain of that potentiality. She is a good and caring wife, hence her willingness to stick around with Stoker, although he patience is wearing thin. Poor faith in our hero ‘s talents becomes all the more evident when his manager, Tiny (George Tobias), actually bets against his own fighter in cahoots with that evening’s opposing manager and a feared gangster named Little Boy (Alan Baxter). Tiny’s greed gets the better of him as he wilfully chooses not to mention the set-up to Stoker, so confident is he that the up and coming Tiger Nelson (Hal Baylor) will land his man the knockout, allowing Tiny to keep his profits to himself. However, as Tiny’s assistant warns, one should be mindful about the odds because, no matter what the numbers are, there is always the ‘1.’
To say that the film’s strengths totally surround the casting and performance of star Robert Ryan would be unfair to the hard work put in by everybody else involved in the creation of the picture, yet also quite difficult to avoid. Please allow this blogger to indulge in hyperbole, if only this one time. After watching On Dangerous Ground, The Racket and The Wild Bunch earlier this year, the actor’s sheer strength had become quite evident. The word ‘strength’ is used to a near-literal degree, with the characters he portrayed in all three of those films being men of action, who spent little time thinking about how to go about what they were after and simply ‘behaved’, frequently employing brute force. Robert Ryan was not merely a good actor, but a powerful one. Equipped with a booming voice and sense of dangerous bravado, he was to be reckoned with. What a difference a film can make. In The Set-Up, he does not necessarily someone who is smarter than those portrayed in the aforementioned trio of movies, but someone who is far more down to earth, decent and downright likeable. He is a boxer, dare we say a run down and beaten up boxer, who stubbornly holds on to a prayer’s hope that he can still make it (there’s that slightly ‘stupid’ factor again), but we know, right from the first few moments he appears on screen, that he is an alright bloke. His general demeanour, the love he has for his wife, his attitude towards his fellow boxers in the locker room and, when it matters most (in more ways than just one), his determination to prove that he still has something left in him to pull out a victory against all foreseeable odds. Naturally the script plays a role in making Stoker an enjoyable figure, one that deserves some empathy from the audience, but it is Ryan that takes the material, and with those wry smiles, that glint in his eye, creates the character to make it his own. To see Robert Ryan play such a diametrically opposed character to much of the other famous work he has done is a real treat further solidifies his status, in this reviewer’s opinion, as one of Hollywood’s great, if too infrequently mentioned, male actors.
In conjunction with the performance put on by Ryan and the personality of Bill ‘Stoker’ Thompson is the sharp direction and script. Robert Wise, famous for such films as The Haunting and The Andromeda Strain among many, many others, is the sort of director who plays things according to the story and the details of the characters. The previous film in the marathon, Gun Crazy, was a fine example of exquisite photography and editing bringing characters and themes to full front of the picture. Wise is a different director in The Set-Up, working in a much different manner, but no less efficient. This film has very little flash, very few visual moments which call attention to themselves. Nevertheless, the attention paid to the details of the characters give the film a life of its own. One of the movie’s nicest moments is when Stoker, already nervous about whether or not his wife Julie will decide to attend the upcoming tilt or not, keeps peeking outside the locker room window across the street to their hotel room. Is the lights go off, it must mean Julie has made her decision and is on her way despite what reservations she has about her husband’s profession. The lights do go off, producing a much welcome sign of relief and satisfaction on Stoker’s face, although only a few moments later, without his knowledge since he is still in the locker readying up for his fight, Julie walks away from the arena, having convinced herself at last that she does not, after all, want to see Stoker get smashed to bits once again. It is a wonderful little sequence which serves not only to help build the two central characters of Stoker and Julie, but give some emotional depth to the story. Robert Wise is quite good at this sort of direction, paying respect to what the story wants and where the characters should be heading, emotionally speaking. It is not the sort of direction that cries out for attention, but it works very well.
This tribute to detail helps contribute to creating a mythos of sorts for Stoker. At first, all we know is that he is a boxer too old to be still hanging around in the ring, so says his wife. Upon arrival at the arena, people recognize him and even greet him cheerfully. Clearly, this man still owns some piece of respect in the world. Then, in the locker room, the viewer meets a series of fellow boxers who each mirror Stoker in some way. There is the first timer whose nerves almost get the better of him (Stoker admits to feeling the same some 20 years prior), the near delusional fighter who keeps repeating some statistic about a former boxer who was knocked out 21times before becoming champion (Stoker, as a boxer, as seen better days, frequently getting knocked out) and the current main even fighter, who predicts that just one good punch can give him victory (something Stoker tells his wife earlier that same evening). The detail also to the crowd in attendance, whose thirst for violence cares not so much for who wins, but for how much punching they get see two men deliver to one another. It is actually quite impressive the number of unique little characters in the crowd the film creates. It adds a lot to the world this story takes place in. At the center of it all is the overarching plot, which sees forces beyond Stoker’s control converge against him just as he has a real sense that, for once, the tide will turn in his favour.
What we witness is a man facing his ultimate destiny in what may be his final fight ever regardless of the outcome. Place your bets, people.