This week it’s time to once again disappear into the shadows and seedy alleys. This week my salute to film noir in honor of Noirvember continues with another favorite film. This week’s selection on the surface is a boxing movie. But it’s so much more than that. It’s The Set-Up from 1949 directed by Robert Wise.
The Set-Up features two gifted, but in my opinion underrated actors, Robert Ryan and Audrey Totter. The plot involves boxing, gangsters, and corruption,
Over-the-hill boxer Bill ‘Stoker’ Thompson (Robert Ryan) insists he can still win, though his sexy wife Julie (Audrey Totter) pleads with him to quit. But his manager Tiny (George Tobias) is so confident he will lose, he takes money for a “dive” from tough gambler Little Boy (Alan Baxter)…without bothering to tell Stoker. Tension builds as Stoker hopes to “take” Tiger Nelson (Hal Baylor), unaware of what will happen to him if he does.–IMDB
It’s fascinating how The Set-Up manages to weave together the genres of sports and crime in a way that is absolutely fascinating. That’s a credit to director Robert Wise, who I’ll get to shortly. But there are a number of reasons I’ve chosen The Ser-Up.
First of all, even though the film is about much more than boxing, the scenes in the ring are just riveting. You really feel in the ring and can feel the blood and sweat on the camera lens. If the look of the film feels familiar when you see it the first time, it’s likely because it inspired the look of another great boxing movie: Raging Bull. As Internet Movie Database notes:
Martin Scorsese is a big fan of the film and was so impressed by the boxing sequences that he had to deliberately avoid copying any of Robert Wise’s camera tricks when it came his turn to make a boxing movie, Raging Bull.
Credit the great look of the boxing scenes, and for that matter, the whole movie, to cinematographer Mlton R. Krasner. Among Krasner’s other credits? All About Eve and How The West Was Won. He had an impressive range.
On top of the great look, another reason The Set-Up is such an effective noir is that it takes place in real-time. It adds to the tension of a crime story. Knowing the clock is ticking just raises the stakes that much higher.
Of course, none of this would make any difference without strong performances from the cast. Robert Ryan in the lead role delivers one of the best performances of his storied career. He’s believable as a boxer, but also as a vulnerable struggling athlete on the downside of his career. The other performance I want to mention is Audrey Totter. I must admit I haven’t become very familiar with her work until recently. But her work in The Set-Up and Lady and the Lake establish her as one of the quintessential film noir actresses.
The film also benefits from a screenplay Art Cohn, working from a poem by Joseph Moncure March. And The Set-Up also wouldn’t be the great movie it is without director Robert Wise at the helm. Wise was one of the most versatile people to ever work in Hollywood. He started out as an editor at RKO Pictures. In fact, one of his editing credits was for a little movie you may have heard of: Citizen Kane. Wise eventually moved up to directing, working early on for legendary horror producer Val Lewton on films such as The Curse of the Cat People and The Body Snatcher. Wise went on to direct the great musicals West Side Story and The Sound of Music as well as the horror masterpiece The Haunting. Wise could direct for any genre. In The Set-Up he shows he has an ability to tell a taut crime story as well as show us a great song and dance number. The world lost a great talent when he passed away in 2005 at the age of 91.
If you like sports movies, The Set-Up is for you. It’s also for you if you enjoy a good, twisted crime story or are fans of Ryan and Totter. It’s just a great movie period. I can’t say enough good things about The Set-Up. It’s as good the first time as it is the 50th time.