|Robert Ryan in "The Set-Up," 1949.|
|Robert Ryan and Audrey Totter.|
“The Set-Up,” is a taut film noir thriller from 1949. Running just 72 minutes, the story takes places in real time, one of the earliest movies to use this narrative technique. “The Set-Up” was expertly directed by Robert Wise, who started doing odd jobs in movies and eventually became an editor. He edited the first two films directed by a young theater director, Orson Welles. Those two movies were “Citizen Kane” and “The Magnificent Ambersons.” By the mid 1940’s Wise had become a director, and he had an extremely successful directing career, helming a number of notable movies in disparate genres, from science fiction, “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” to blockbuster musicals like “West Side Story” and “The Sound of Music.” (That was back when there was such a thing as a blockbuster musical.) Wise won 2 Best Director Oscars for his work on “West Side Story” and “The Sound of Music,” and won the Academy’s lifetime achievement award at the ripe old age of 52.
“The Set-Up” tells the story of an over the hill 35-year-old boxer Bill “Stoker” Thompson, who is supposed to take a dive in a fight against a much younger opponent. The fix has been arranged by a gangster, and Stoker’s manager is in on it. The only problem is that he neglects to tell Stoker about it before the fight.
The always underrated Robert Ryan played Stoker, and he did an excellent job. Ryan was 6’4” of lean muscle, and he had the right physicality to be very believable in the role. Ryan was a heavyweight boxing champ in college at Dartmouth, so he knew what he was doing inside the ring. Before he became an actor Ryan worked on a ship for two years. He also worked on a ranch in Montana, and he was a Marine drill instructor during World War II. So, yeah, he had the right tough guy credentials to play the part. Ryan had an interesting film career, giving excellent performances in many well-known movies, yet major stardom seemed to elude him.
Audrey Totter plays Stoker’s wife Julie, and she delivers a compelling performance. It’s easy for the audience to sympathize with her desire to have Stoker quit boxing. She recites the names of drab towns that they have just been in before this fight in Paradise City, and it’s clear that Stoker’s best days are long behind him. Totter has an interesting face, with extremely high and prominent cheekbones and a pointed nose.
“The Set-Up” expertly takes us into the world of prizefighting, as every boxer in the movie, Stoker included, thinks he's just a few punches away from a shot at the title. Even Gunboat, the sad old stumblebum fighter, keeps reciting the name of a fighter who lost 21 fights in a row before he became a champion. You can see in Ryan's eyes that even though he thinks the other fighters are deluded for thinking the way they do, he knows that he’s just the same.
Wise depicts the boxing fans as a bloodthirsty mob, the descendants of those people who happily cheered on the gladiator fights during the Roman Empire. Seemingly meek women turn into heartless harridans screaming "kill him!" Wise keeps showing a fat guy in the audience who just keeps eating. Every time we see him, he’s devouring a new food item. That's what the fight is all about, selling popcorn. It's bloody entertainment, even though these men are fighting for their lives.
“The Set-Up” is an excellently made film noir, and I would recommend it highly for any fans of the genre. Robert Ryan’s performance is superb, and fans of his will enjoy “The Set-Up.”