October 7, 2019
Available via Warner Archive;
Stars Robert Ryan, Audrey Totter, George Tobias, Alan Baxter.
To some extent overlooked when it came out the same year (1949) as Kirk Douglas’s star-making rival boxing drama Champion, Robert Wise’s The Set-Up finally attained the rep it deserves after many years. Even Raging Bull’s director (you know who, and he’s not an Irishman) says he was struck by how good it is when he belatedly got to see it on a 35mm print. We’re dealing here, of course, with a Blu-ray taken off a 35 — but it’s a Blu-ray with the usual high Warner Archive standards, and Milton Krasner’s photography captures every drop of the picture’s sweaty locker room squalor. How did cinematographer Milton Krasner so easily transition from small-screen black-and-white (say, All About Eve and this) to CinemaScope and DeLuxe Color (Three Coins in the Fountain, The Seven-Year Itch, An Affair To Remember)? Write it down as a subject for another day.
The day in The Set-Up is actually a night — and one shot in what’s pretty close to real time. The great Robert Ryan, who was a successful real-life boxer at Dartmouth, is here a tank-town puncher at the end of what career he’s had — age 35 (around the time a boxer had better look around for other employment) and relegated to a bout to take place after the evening’s Main Event has already taken place but with still more beer and popcorn to unload to the crowd of predominantly slugs who’ve been watching. Just across the street on one of the most expressive “outdoor” movie sets I can ever recall seeing is the spartan room Ryan’s “Stoker” character shares with a wife (Audrey Totter) in the ill-named “Hotel Cozy.” (The size of it probably does mandate intimacy.) She’s finally had it — not with him (on the contrary) but with using the free ticket provided by the event’s so-called management. Even that price isn’t right to watch her husband getting pummeled.
Two other subplots dominate a very tight screenplay (from a Joseph Moncure March poem about a black boxer) by Art Cohn, the Mike Todd biographer who was killed in the same New Mexico plane crash that also took that producer’s life when he was married to Elizabeth Taylor. One deals with the overall locker room retinue of attending physician, all-round nurse/cut-man (played by one of my favorite character actors, Wallace Ford) and an array of dubious boxing hopefuls and never-were punch-drunks who are awaiting their own bouts to begin. The remaining co-narrative deals with a despicably cruel act of duplicity: Stoker/Ryan’s manager (George Tobias) has sold him out to take a fall because a low-end mobster wants to groom Stoker’s opponent for better things (which likely means a few quick-money bouts before this rookie lunk, who’s unlikely ever to see any of the cash, gets discarded as well). This is bad enough, but no one in Stoker’s corner has told him about the fix, so sure are they that he can lose the fight all by himself.
There’s something close to another subplot as well, and this one involves the so-called fans, who are even more bloodthirsty than the grandmothers in tennis shoes who filled the stands during the local fixed wrestling matches in my hometown — televised on Saturday afternoons and sponsored by a Chevy dealer. There’s one guy played by Herbert Anderson, later the father on TV’s “Dennis the Menace,” whose approach to the role too directly hits the nail on the head in cornball fashion and thus always takes me out of the film.
But the others are pretty colorful, including a woman fan who looks a little like a worn or stressed-out version of “Father Knows Best” star Jane Wyatt might have had husband Robert Young (who played an insurance salesman on that enormously popular Emmy magnet) just admitted at the family dinner table that he’s just a double-indemnity “unusual death” life insurance policy to a Bond villain. There’s also a blind guy whose companion describes the ring carnage to him and a double-dipper who listens to a baseball game on a portable radio. Director Wise, who shares separate, unintegrated commentaries by Martin Scorsese (lotta Oscars in that combo) notes that a lot of this fan material came from what he personally observed in the pre-filming research he did. Wise was such a stickler for prep that he even watched an execution before he made I Want to Live!).
This is an impressive amount of material to cover in a short running time (72 minutes) as the main narrative time bomb ticks: What’s the wronged fighter, who, for starters, is suddenly feeling his oats in the ring, going to do when he learns that he’s supposed to take a dive? The fight scenes here are rough and convincing; not only had actor Ryan boxed at Dartmouth, but so had the actor playing his opponent: Hal Fieberling, who not long after changed his screen name to Hal Baylor. (He later had an elaborate screen brawl with John Wayne in the climax of the HUAC camp-fest Big Jim McLain.) The stalwarts still remaining in the stands after the main event get more than they could have anticipated — major if monetary crowd thrills that pay the guys in the ring so little that only dreams of some future “big score” (fortunes controlled, of course, by hoods) that might bring them fame, hot women and, in the dreams of one self-deluder here, a Hollywood contract. If Humphrey Bogart’s swan song The Harder They Fall is still perhaps the toughest screen indictment of boxing’s underbelly, The Set-Up probably ranks second.
Ryan, who so often played malevolent sociopaths in this period at RKO, is here not just a sympathetic character but one with something close to dignity when he gently chastises the crass behaviors of other fighters as they await their turn in the arena. Totter is his match, and their scenes together are heartfelt as she looks at her husband’s whopper of a cauliflower ear. This is another Warner Archive release where the classic black-and-white cinematography leaps off the screen in all its crispness and depth of field. In an aside on this long ago, carried-over commentary (Wise died in 2005), the director bemoans the inability of today’s young audiences to appreciate black-and-white. He does this without being churlish about it because he was one of the all-time nice guys — and besides, on this subject, I can easily be churlish enough for the both of us.
If anything, Scorsese is on the Blu-ray commentary even more than Wise is, and what better choice than the director of Raging Bull — who, in an admission I recall from other interviews, had no interest in boxing when he took on the project that couldn’t quite make Jake LaMotta a matinee idol. (Scorsese adds, however, that his father and uncles were huge fight fans and passed along lore.)
As it turns out, though, the younger director was a huge Wise fan, which given Scorsese’s love for the editing room, isn’t any knock-you-down surprise when you remember that Wise was the editor of Citizen Kane before he began directing. Marty goes on a lot about Wise’s career in general, noting, for instance, that neither The Set-Up nor Executive Suite (a different milieu entirely) has a musical score, which turned out in both cases to be an effective artistic decision. Scorsese even has not unfavorable things here to say about Wise’s late-career The Hindenburg and Audrey Rose (which I believe Andrew Sarris picked as worst movie of its year), which makes him the friend that every movie needs. There’s no question, though, that The Set-Up is a minor classic that was Wise’s personal favorite of his early RKO period — which also included The Body Snatcher, the deliciously nasty Born to Kill and the underrated Blood in the Moon.