Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Set-Up (1949)

RKO Radio's Film Noir TKO

- Washed up and down on his luck boxer Bill 'Stoker' Thompson has a fight tonight; but drawing from his recent losing streak, the odds are very much against him. The stakes are higher than simple gambling numbers for Stoker however, as his career has begun to run towards the white light ("35 in this business and you're an old man") and his relationship with his wife Julie has gotten a little rocky. Still, despite everything riding against him, Stoker has a gut feeling that he can take the hot-shot kid that he is up against in the ring; of course that does not stop his manager, absolutely confident that Stoker will lose, from making a secret side deal with the mob that Stoker will take a dive. But can you quiet the spirit that burns in Stoker's heart? More importantly, can you quiet the mob if Stoker comes out the winner? The Set-Up is a total film noir knock out from versatile director Robert Wise.

A former boxer himself, Robert Ryan is terrific as Stoker Thompson. Far from his usual typecast role as the vicious villain, Ryan embodies the average American blue-collar worker in this sincere and easily relatable boxer character fighting for his dignity and the American Dream. Stoker might be a slave to fate and betrayal, but he manages to be in good spirits within his downtrodden life; caring for his wife, looking at the optimistic angles of things ("always just one punch away"), and working hard at a sport he loves. Ryan simply delivers a very powerful performance that is easily one of his greatest here in The Set-Up.

Audrey Totter also brings another fine performance to the film as Stoker's wife Julie. Totter is sweet and passionate in the role but she also brings out the conflicted side of her character superbly: Julie just cannot take one more night of watching her man beaten to a pulp and then have to nurse him back to health only to start the experience all over again - but she also wants to support him and see him succeed.

The Set-Up is an extremely well crafted film from all other angles. The film has a very real but also very surreal feel thanks to the featured film world, excellent lighting, tight editing, progression in real time (clocking in at only 72 minutes), and, of course, Robert Wise's masterful direction. Some of Wise's best known films are remembered most for their musical soundtrack (The Sound Of Music (1965), West Side Story (1961)), but The Set-Up actually has no score. Surprisingly, as a music lover, I hardly even notice it because the film has plenty of feeling on its own despite the lack of a score.

Since this is a film about a boxer, you would probably expect to see a boxing scene or two, but you might not immediately expect to see the picturesque clashing of brutes and emotions that you do here in The Set-Up. Perfectly formed with an authentic looking and feeling boxing match mixed with the surreal atmosphere of the film, these boxing scenes are some of the best ever put on film. The viewer is plunged into a down-and-dirty smoke-filled snake pit of a boxing arena, where the spectators are just as violent as the men in the ring, fists fly at the speed of sound, and sweat explodes off the fighters like fireworks on the Fourth of July.

When it comes to the sub-genre of boxing films, such titles as Rocky (1976) and Raging Bull (1980) are unfortunately remembered and celebrated far more than the largely overlooked The Set-Up. But do not let that stop you from checking out the film! Under Wise's watch, The Set-Up is a heartfelt, dark, and exceptional film noir character piece; and, despite its relatively low level of recognition, The Set-Up also exists as one of the best boxing films ever made.

CBC Rating: 10/10

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