Thursday, September 3, 2009

Films I Love #42: The Set-Up (Robert Wise, 1949)

[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.


Troy Olson said...

I caught the last half of this on TCM a few weeks back while I was doing some chores...needless to say after about 5 minutes of viewing, my chores stopped (much to my wife's chagrin) as I was enthralled with the film.

You captured my initial feeling of the movie in your first line -- "not a second of excess." Wise squeezes every ounce of emotion possible out of each scene.

Also terrific were the boxing scenes, which I felt had a realism to them that is absent in most boxing movies -- I haven't checked, but I'm guessing Scorsese was influenced by this movie.

And the ending is great, pulling no punches (eep -- didn't mean to make a pun there). It's what makes the B-movies of the era so fantastic, in that they could get away with the not-so-happy ending, leading to much more interesting situations.

All that and I only saw 40 minutes of the movie. I'll be sure to check out the whole thing when I get a chance. Wise seems to be quite the underrated director considering some of the great films he helmed.

Joshua said...

Great post, and I appreciate the contribution! I find your description of the boxing match particularly striking as it's very visually compelling that all of the close ups are of minuscule details like you mention, the sweat, the gloves, etc.

As for the film itself, 'economical' is probably the best descriptor for it, as you say, there's not a wasted shot.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Troy. I'd imagine you're right that Scorsese was influenced by this movie -- Ryan's character also seems like one big influence on Bruce Willis' Butch in Pulp Fiction.

I also love the ambiguity and complicated emotions of the ending, the way failure and triumph are inextricably intertwined in the reactions of Stoker and Julie; it's a definite bittersweet resolution. Stoker has had his first big victory only to have it end his career, which means he goes out on a moment of triumph and pride, knowing he didn't sell himself out. And Julie, of course, despite being devastated by seeing her man this way, can't contain her own note of triumph and happiness, knowing that his boxing career as over, that this will be his last beating.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks Joshua. I love this film and I'm glad you've decided to showcase Wise's great and too-often overlooked work in this blogathon.

Sam Juliano said...

When the contributions of Robert Wise to the cinematic landscape are assessed, he is of course celebrated as the co-director of WEST SIDE STORY, as the helmer of one of the most beloved films, THE SOUND OF MUSIC, not to mention as a cutter for Orson Welles. His work for Val Lewton and in film noir is sometimes overlooked, but THE SET-UP makes fair claim to be his best-directed film.
As to what you pose here in your opening sentences about cinematic economy, I'd suggest that THE SET-UP is the HIGH NOON of film noirs, as like Zinnemann's film the running time corresponds with real time. Indeed, it's a brick, trenchant and riveting film that is authentic, stark and uncompromising. Fans of RAGING BULL will rightly protest, but this may well be the great boxing film ever in a competitive genre that also includes CHAMPION, BODY AND SOUL, CITY OF CONQUEST, THE HARDER THEY FALL and BATTLIN BUTLER. Let's noy even broach

The personification of fight fans here is telling as one is more sadistic than the next, and I guess it's fair game to say that in many ways the film is a predessesor to John Huston's terrific FAT CITY years later. The seedy backrounds, which are set exclusively at night are perfectly realized by cinematographer Milton Krasner, and there has rarely been such a cynical, if brutally honest depiction of the boxing world.

Sam Juliano said...

Needless to say that this is a terrific capsule, as direct, uncompromising and economical as the film it assesses. The caps are nice too.

Anonymous said...

I haven't seen this movie as yet, but have just been re-watching a slightly later Wise boxing movie, 'Somebody Up There Likes Me', which does include comments by Scorsese in the commentary about how important a movie it was to him - so it seems quite likely he would have studied this one too. I seem to find more movies that I want to see every time I go online, but, after reading the fine reviews by both you and Joshua, this one is a must. I also agree it is good that Wise has been put in the spotlight in this blogathon - for a director whose films are so well-known, he himself is strangely under-appreciated. Judy

Dave said...

Love seeing this review, as possibly the only thing I'm more passionate about than movies is boxing... so how can I not love a well-done combination of the two? :)

The thing that has always stuck with me, though, more than the story is the brilliant black and white cinematography. This looks actually exactly like I would imagine such a situation.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Sam, I agree with you about the High Noon comparison, since both are formalist, austere and direct in their themes, working with slowly building suspense and tension. I think The Set-Up is the more emotionally satisfying and complex work, by far, however.

Judy, I haven't seen Somebody Up There Likes Me, but I'm sure it's worth seeing. I'm honestly not usually into boxing movies, and don't like boxing as a sport, but this one is something special for me.

Dave, agreed about the cinematography, which is just gorgeous and consistently inventive: love that shot (seen above) from in Stoker's corner, with the other fighter seen framed between Stoker's dangling glove and his leg. And of course the final alley scene is just stunning, with all its heavy noir shadows.

Aion kinah said...

It is very nice