Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Set-Up (*****)

The Set-Up
Directed by Robert Wise
Screenplay by Art Cohn based on a poem by Joseph Moncure March
Cinematography by Milton R. Krasner
Music by C. Bakaleinikoff
Produced by Richard Goldstein
Cast: Robert Ryan (Stoker), Audrey Totter (Julie), George Tobias (Tiny), Alan Baxter (Little Boy), Wallace Ford (Gus), Percy Helton (Red), Hal Baylor (Tiger Nelson)
RKO Radio Pictures, 1949, 72 minutes, b&w

Caught this last night on Turner Classic Movies' "The Essentials" - featuring TCM host Robert Osburne and his new film buff sidekick, Alec Baldwin - and couldn't stop watching it, even though I have the DVD buried somewhere in one of my DVD towers-o-Babel. Like Hitchcock's Rope (1948) and Mike Figgis' Timecode (2000), it's one of those stories told in "real-time" narrative; that is, it's a 72-minute film recounting 72 minutes in the life of a lower-rung veteran boxer who's one punch away from some sort of resolution to his life of toil (which could be success, failure, retirement - or death). It plays out like a teleplay and its direction, editing, black-and-white cinematography, terse dialogue, and creative mis-en-scene are flawless.

My words can't do justice to just how great this Robert Wise film (his last for RKO) is, so I'll turn to one of my favorite film noir books, Nicholas Christopher's Somewhere in the Night: Film Noir & the American City:

Nicolas Christopher's essential film noir reader


The Set-Up, directed by Robert Wise, is the only film noir I know of in which screenplay is adapted from a narrative poem (by James Moncure March). A surprising winner of the Critic's Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1949, the film is a curiosity for a number of reasons. For one thing, like Rope, it is set in real time. Seventy-two minutes long, The Set-Up chronicles seventy-two minutes in the life of an aging journeyman fighter, played brilliantly by Robert Ryan. Like other noir icons, including Robert Mitchum, Jack Palance, John Huston, and Tom Neal, Ryan in his youth had boxed professionally. The film is set as far from the fast lane as one could get, in a hellish town called Paradise City, which is depicted solely through its shabby rooming houses, greasy spoons, dark filthy streets, and most important, through the warrens of a rundown, sweltering arena. The Set-Up is entirely nocturnal, much of the composition black on black and brilliantly cut (Wise was Orson Welles' editor on Citizen Kane). The film is hands down bleakest boxing film ever made - certainly the harshest ever to come out of Hollywood. Even the criminals are seedy, small-bore types who play viciously for penny-ante stakes - no big-time promoters here, with diamond rings, cashmere coats, and limousines. And the crowds in every way exceed the coarse, vulgar stock players we find in other boxing films; here they are outright sadistic, with a blood-lust verging on hysteria. When the hero's left eye is swollen shut by punches in the climatic fight, a blind man in the crowd shouts to the other boxer, "The other eye, Nelson, close the other eye!"

Ryan plays a fighter who wants only to make enough money in his last fight to open a beer hall or cigar stand" that's about as far as his dreams carry. Very soon it becomes clear that that is much too far. His manager has sold him out, accepting a bribe and promising that his fighter will take a dive; furthermore, the manager has so little faith in his fighter that he doesn't even inform him of the arrangement! And it happens that the latter, having promised his wife this will be his last fight - and thus his last shot at that cigar stand - takes a terrible beating in the early rounds, but fights his heart out, rallies, and emerges victorious. He's very pleased with himself, a terrible weight lifted from his shoulders - but, cruelly, in this universe only a few minutes - until he realizes that the double-crossed crooks are waiting on him. They've sealed off every exit in the arena. Trapped, he's taken refuge in the ring, of all places, and there's a memorable shot of him from on high in which we see the enforcers sauntering down ever aisle, converging on him. Aerially, the arena appears in the form of an infernal mandala that has come alive, spinning in black space. The thugs give him a terrible beating, breaking both his hands in he end and tossing him into the gutter in front of a dance hall called "Dreamland," where his wife finds him. he can never box again, and its doubtful he'll ever put enough money together for that cigar stand. Maybe he ought to feel lucky that he's not dead; maybe not.

And that's it. There's no saga of rise and fall here - no parabola of any kind - as in Champion and Body and Soul. For this boxer, we see only the tail end of a downward spiral that began a dozen years earlier, when he set out as a club fighter and never broke into the ranks of the contenders, much less the challengers, for a championship. The Set-Up is less a morality tale than a nihilistic sprint that skirts the abyss. It is worth noting that in this film the fighter is in no way a kid from the slums who craves sharp clothes and a snazzy pad, but rather a low-key working stiff - he has the demeanor of a weary plumber or handyman - faithful to his wife in her drab dresses, uncomplaining, a clock-puncher who happens to labor, and be exploited, in a sweaty arena rather than a sweatshop.


Oh, I'd be remiss not to mention a cameo in the arena audience by future Dennis the Menace TV dad "Henry Mitchell," Herbert Anderson. Other cast highlights for me were seeing the great Audrey Totter playing a nice gal (she wasn't always a femme fatale!) and, Dwight Martin as the uncredited "Happy Glutton" who consumes hot dogs, hamburgers, ice cream, beer, and soda throughout the the climactic fight. And I wonder who the blood-lusting dame was who shouted out "Moider him!" in the fight crowd? What a sports fan! (In fact, The Set-Up's cast of "characters" is the kind of "lively" audience I tend to dread at my film screenings!)

Related Links:
Film Poetry: James Moncure March and the Roots of "The Set-Up"

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