Set-Up, The (1949)

The Set-Up (1949), directed by Robert Wise.

"Stoker" Thompson is an aging boxer still hoping for his big chance; no one else believes it is going to happen. His wife wants him out of the game and they dream of managing another fighter, or getting a beer joint or even just a cigar stand.

One night his managers take a little money from a gangster and promise that Stoker will take a dive. They neglect to tell him this. Why cut him in when he is bound to lose anyway? Right?

A gritty tale of unrelieved cruelty (those awful boxing crowds) told in real time. The film is only 72m minutes long and the big fight at the center is fully 18m of that.

As always, Robert Ryan is terrific, my favorite actor of that era. He boxed at Dartmouth and his opponent Hal Baylor boxed in the Army and as an amateur and pro. They know how to make it look real, giving a famous, brutal fight sequence.

Audrey Totter gets a break from femme fatale roles to play the loving but troubled wife. She takes a long meditative walk during the fight and we wonder if she has had enough.

Many familiar faces: George Tobias (sleazy manager), Percy Helton (sleazy trainer), and Darryl Hickman (young boxer). Ryan watches the other fighters in the locker room: the kid is his past but he knows the punchy guy with a face of scar tissue is his future.

I want to make particular note of James Edwards who plays another boxer:

He never got noticed as much as other black actors who emerged in the 1940s and 1950s, but I always look out for him. He made films with a remarkable set of directors:

The Set-Up was written for a black character but RKO didn't have any black stars under contract. I would have tried Edwards in the role. He took the lead in Home of the Brave (1949) directed by Mark Robson that same year.

Available on DVD. An edited commentary track has brief memories by the director and a heartfelt appreciation by Martin Scorsese, who has seen both this and Wise's The Body Snatcher (1945) projected in 35mm. He says they are completely different experiences when seen that way, which makes me jealous.

In film he distinguishes between "realism" and "naturalism". This is a realistic story in a "heightened" sense, an artistic interpretation that is real without looking like a documentary.