The Set-Up, 1949, 73 mins, cable TV (Great! Movies Classic)
Robert Ryan delivers, again. While he could be regarded as one of Hollywood’s forgotten actors, I’d argue from the evidence of the films I’ve seen him in recently (Crossfire, On Dangerous Ground, Born To Be Bad, The Woman on the Beach, The Racket and House of Bamboo), and now in Robert Wise’s brilliant boxing-noir The Set-Up, that Ryan was one of the screen’s most dependable and solid actors who didn’t get the roles/films he truly deserved. His lower-tier casting, often with him portraying a film’s villain, is attributed to his intensity and his hard, life-worn looks that suggested a weary coolness rather than the romantic warmth of the typical lead.
The Set-Up is one of those rare entries that cast him as the protagonist but it certainly benefits from his wary stare and gritty countenance. Ryan plays ageing washed-up boxer Bill ‘Stoker’ Thompson whose run of twenty-one defeats finds him facing the end of his boxing career but who insists that he can win one more fight to get him back in the running for a stab at decent money. His wife Julie (Audrey Totter) pleads with him to quit, terrified that another fight will possibly kill him. Stoker’s next fight is against young rising star Tiger Nelson (Hal Baylor), who unbeknown to Stoker is backed by tough gangland gambler Little Boy (Alan Baxter). Little Boy has made a deal with Stoker’s manager Tiny (George Tobias) that Stoker will take a dive in the third round, but Tiny is so confident that his fighter will lose anyway that he doesn’t cut Stoker in on the deal, keeping the bribe to himself. So Stoker’s fighting with everything to prove -to his wife, his manager, and the baying fans in the crowd- not realising that if the fight doesn’t kill him, actually winning the fight might too.
The Set-Up is one of those films that is to all intents and purposes, perfect. Its a film with a tight, efficient script with a lean, taut running time of just 73 minutes, its well cast with excellent performances and is beautifully photographed. For what it wants to be – a brutal thriller about corruption in the boxing game of its day, and how it chews up the fighters who can never escape the gutter- its brutally effective. The fight scenes are surprisingly violent and ugly, the close-ups of the crowd who in the film degenerate from fine citizens to frenzied fans baying for blood; its all brilliantly choreographed by Wise, and just as impressive are the scenes of the night-time streets through which Stoker’s wife Julie wanders, fearing the worst. Its a solid noir that I can’t really find any fault with- its not exactly sophisticated cinematic art but as I have noted, for all intents and purposes, its perfect. One of the best noir I’ve yet seen; I absolutely loved it from start to finish.
Watching this on a cable tv channel with a typically inferior print/compression, I’ll certainly be buying the film on Blu-ray soon, to be able to enjoy it again in better quality. At just 73 minutes long, like many of these noir, I can see myself putting this on again several times late in the evening to just soak it up again. Available on Warner Archive in the US, its recently been released as part of the Premier Collection unique to HMV here in the UK. Warner’s actually have a trailer for their Blu-ray release on YouTube which features roughly the first four minutes of the film, and even there it looks so much better than the copy I watched last night: thank goodness so many of these older films are resurfacing restored on Blu-ray disc. Physical media seems to be becoming a bastion of catalogue releases through archive releases and boutique labels, and while more newer films seem to be getting half-hearted physical releases if at all (no 4K edition of Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley here in the UK?) in favour of pushing streaming channels, at least these classics are getting decently curated editions for posterity.