Director: Robert Wise; Screenplay: Art Cohn based on a poem by Joseph Moncure March; Cinematography: Milton R. Krasner; Music: C. Bakaleinikoff; Producer: Richard Goldstone; Studio: RKO Radio Pictures
Cast: Robert Ryan (Bill “Stoker” Thompson), Audrey Totter (Julie Thompson), George Tobias (Tiny), Alan Baxter (Little Boy), Wallace Ford (Gus), Percy Helton (Red), Hal Baylor (“Tiger” Nelson), Darryl Hickman (Shanley), Kenny O’Morrison (Moore), James Edwards (Luther Hawkins), David Clarke (Gunboat Johnson), Phillip Pine (Tony Souza), Edwin Max (Dann)
- “I’m just one punch away…”
A film noir based on a… poem? This tidbit of trivia was news to me and something that I learned only when typing out the short credits section that opens each post in the countdown. I realize that this observation adds very little to the actual entry, but I found it fascinating nonetheless and thought I’d bring it to everyone’s attention. Surely it is the only noir to be based on a poem? There’s a trivia question for someone reading this. Is there another film noir that is adapted from or based on a poem? I am unaware of another example.
Now, back to more pertinent things… when Body and Soul checked in at #34 in the countdown, I said that I only knew of two other boxing films that topped that Robert Rossen gem – Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull and Robert Wise’s The Set-Up. I still place Scorsese’s 1980 release at the top, but The Set-Up sits not too far behind it. But they are masterpieces for entirely different reasons. Where Raging Bull is extensive, stretching out to cover the rise and fall of virtually Jake LaMotta’s entire career, The Set-Up has a much more narrow scope. It shows a little over an hour in the life of an over-the-hill heavyweight, but its succinctness is a key component of what makes it great. Telling a complete, fulfilling story in just 72-minutes is a task that very few could successfully pull off. The Set-Up manages to do it because everything about it is as tight as a dead-heat – direction, photography, script, acting. Everything.
The story is an incredibly simple one. Stoker Thompson (Robert Ryan) is a boxer in the twilight of his career. He was once an up-and-coming prospect, but now in his mid-thirties he is nothing but a name opponent for young fighters. Everyone but Stoker recognizes this fact – his wife begs him to quit working as the equivalent of a human punching bag, while his manager Tiny (George Tobias) gives him fights and then accepts bribes as if Stoker is taking a dive rather than simply losing because he is past his prime. In Stoker’s mind, he is only one punch away from being back in title contention. So he continues fighting, in hopes that he will muster one more great performance that will land him a final payday to retire on. On this night, though, he runs into trouble when Tiny again accepts a payoff from feared gangster Little Boy (Alan Baxter) for Stoker to drop his fight against Tiger Nelson (Hal Baylor). But rather than let Stoker in on the fix, Tiny is so sure that Stoker will lose anyway that he pockets the entire payoff for himself and never lets his fighter know. So when Stoker endures all the punishment that Nelson can hand out and then begins to win the fight, the rest of his night – and possibly life – are put in jeopardy.
Sorry to repeat myself, but I am still amazed at how air-tight this movie is. The movie unfolds in real time – as evidenced by the opening and closing shots of a clock – so there is not screen time to fill in gaps in Stoker’s story or allow background for any of the characters. Even so, nearly everyone that is encountered in the film feels like a fully-developed personality, as Wise and the actors are very quickly able to make them come alive. After just a single conversation we know what makes Stoker tick. Tiny comes across as the sleazy manager that one would expect in the fight game of the 1940s. By spending time in the shared dressing rooms of the stadium, Wise introduces the different personalities of the fighters of the era. These are actually my favorite scenes in the film. Some of the fighters are delusional, like Stoker, dreaming of being “just one punch away.” We meet a baby-faced amateur who is scared stiff to be making his pro debut. One contemplative pug reads a Bible as he waits for his fight, prompting a cornerman to joke about him “making book on the hereafter.” And we also see the inherent danger of the sport, as one overmatched fighter is dragged back to the dressing room in dreadful shape. The audience only sees these characters for brief bursts, but everything is made to count, and we learn enough about them to care. It is a testament to the strength of Art Cohn’s screenplay that this holds true for every character in the film.
Robert Wise and cinematographer Milton Krasner probably deserve some credit for this element as well, but I’ll give them props in how they magnificently flesh out the feel of a fight town. Paradise City at night comes alive, with everyone bustling to and from the stadium as the night’s fights are beginning. Krasner manages to evoke both a smalltown and menacing feel to the city streets – he makes great use of shadows, light and dark contrasts, and unceasingly flashing lights. Everything happens at night and Wise and Krasner make sure that this fact is never forgotten. The crane shot that starts the film is textbook moviemaking. And the fight scenes are intense and dramatic. The brilliance of the work of Wise and Krasner cannot be overstated. This is one of the best look films of the decade, which thankfully has a wonderful DVD release form Warner Brothers so that it can really be taken in and appreciated.
I don’t want to give the actors short shrift, but I have to keep this to a reasonable length in comparison to the other essays! Robert Ryan really does turn in an outstanding performance. Where he normally played brooding characters in noirs, here his Stoker is a much more likable hero and Ryan is equally as adept. Still, no matter how good the performances, I remain transfixed by the taut technical components of the entire film. Some might dispute this claim (I know Sam loves West Side Story!), but I think that The Set-Up tops anything that Robert Wise ever directed. It is noir, sports, and drama at the highest level. I'll close with some beautiful shots from the gut-wrenching conclusion.