[This is a contribution to the Robert Wise Blogathon being hosted at Octopus Cinema from September 1-7.]
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. The film is as lean and punchy as its washed-up boxer hero, Stoker (Robert Ryan). Stoker's a struggling boxer who can't win a fight, who always seems to be one punch away from a big break; he can never quite manage but he can never quite give up either, even though his miserable wife Julie (Audrey Totter) wants him to quit. Nobody has any faith in him, least of all his manager (George Tobias), who sets him up to throw his next fight, against Tiger Nelson (Hal Baylor), but is so confident Stoker will lose he doesn't even tell his fighter about the score. The film tracks Stoker from before the fight, arguing with Julie in their hotel room, then the long period of waiting in the locker room, laconically trading stories with the other boxers as they all try to warm themselves up for their fights, then watching as the boxers come back afterward, some of them jubilant and victorious, others carried in nearly incoherent. In these men, Stoker sees his future, his brains scrambled by one too many punch, never making it past this low level of the sport.
After all this build-up and waiting — which also includes periodic cutaways to Julie wandering around the city, utterly depressed, not wanting to see her man get beaten yet again — 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.