Monday, April 19, 2010

Reeling Backward: "The Set-Up" (1949)

"The Set-Up" is as lean and spare as star Robert Ryan's sinewy body.

Ryan, a character actor who occasionally was blessed with leading roles, did not have an ounce of fat on him. He actually seemed to grow thinner as he aged, and by age 60, his rawboned face had sunken in enough to play the regretful Deke Thornton, let out of prison to pursue his old gang of outlaws in "The Wild Bunch."

It was the perfect role for Ryan, who always seemed more comfortable playing characters with some measure of shadow looming across their souls, usually through circumstance rather than choosing. "A good man in a bad spot" is a pretty decent way to sum up his most memorable roles. "Noble loser" is another, and it certainly applies to this boxing picture.

"The Set-Up" was one of director Robert Wise's early efforts, a tightly-wound film noir about an aging boxer desperate for one last score. Midway through his epic bout against a hot young prospect, Stoker Thompson learns that his manager and trainer have sold him out, accepting a mobster's bribe to take a dive without even bothering to cut him in on it.

Tiny (George Tobias), his cynical inkspot of a manager, figures Stoker is sure to lose, so why share part of the $50 bribe with him? "There's no percentage in smartening up a chump," is the gruff justification Tiny provides.

Even Stoker's wife Julie (Audrey Totter) fails to show up for his big fight, sick of the endless life on the road -- picking him up after each fight and patching him up in time for the next slaughter.

So Stoker has, quite literally, no one in his corner. After he takes a hard shot and appears to be down for the count, Tiny and his trainer Gus (Wallace Ford) put their coats on and head for the exits, only to return disappointed when Stoker struggles back to his feet.

But the old man -- he's 35, practically ancient by boxing standards in the 1940s -- still has a strong punch, and knows that all he needs to do is land one good one on Tiger Nelson (Hal Baylor) to turn things his way. What's more, he may be just this side of a stumblebum, but at least he's one who doesn't take a dive.

Things do go his way, and he scores an upset victory through sheer grit and determination. Unfortunately, the mob boss Little Boy (Alan Baxter) doesn't like being double-crossed, and makes Stoker pay for it by smashing his right hand with a brick.

In the last scene, Julie finds her husband staggering through the streets barely conscious. Looking at his mangled hand, their regret and anger turns to relief, as they both realize his boxing days are finished. Whatever their future holds -- good, bad or somewhere in between -- they've escaped the cruel chains of bloodsport.

"The Set-Up" is based on a poem by Joseph Moncure March, although screenwriter Art Cohn changed things around considerably. For starters, the protagonist is African-American in the poem, and is thrown under a subway rather than being merely crippled.

The film is a spare 72 minutes, and several years before "High Noon" was lauded for it, the story unspools in real time. We observe Stoker as he argues with his wife, gets ready for the fight, and interacts with other boxers before their fights. All shoved into one tiny locker room, they range from a total rookie, up-and-comer Luther Hawkins (James Edwards), to punchy wash-up Gunboat Johnson (David Clarke).

The compassionate way Stoker, who still commands some measure of respect from the younger fighters, protects Gunboat from their catcalls indicates his knowledge that a few more wrong ends of a knockout, and he'll be just like Gunboat. There's also a pathetic hulk of a man peddling boxing programs to the crowd who would seem to be a former fighter himself.

"Well, that's the way it is. You're a fighter, you gotta fight," Stoker reasons.

The cinematography by Milton R. Krasner is simply terrific, a slash of shadow and light that informs and comments upon the characters' various shades of morality. Little Boy, a chilling figure of pure malevolence, wears a startlingly white hat.

I do have to say that the boxing action is the weakest part of the film. Wise stages the bout with a lot of kinetic energy -- although, like most Hollywood depictions of the sport, more punches are landed in a half a round than an entire real match.

Beyond that, Ryan doesn't look or move like a boxer. He's continually dipping his head and lunging forward in an ungainly way. Balance is everything to a fighter, and it doesn't stand to reason that a seasoned pro like Stoker would make such rookie mistakes.

The other notable thing about "The Set-Up" is the extremely negative portrayal of the crowd. They're bloodthirsty, of course, and Wise keeps revisiting a dozen or so particular members of the audience, and always in a harsh light. There's the immensely fat man who's chowing down on a different kind of food every time we see him, smiling at the gladiators spilling blood while he engorges himself.

Most affecting is an older woman who was seen reluctantly entering the coliseum at the beginning of the film, making an audacious display of her ladylike revulsion of boxing. She then becomes the most savage witness, even shouting at Stoker to pull himself off the canvas -- not because she thinks he can win, but so his horrible, bloody beating can go on a little longer.

3 stars

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