'The Set-Up' has a pretty basic plot with no real surprises, but it still manages to pack a punch and hide a few tricks up its sleeve. Bill 'Stoker' Thompson (Robert Ryan) is a boxer with a 20-year career who's well past his prime. His latest fight is against up-and-coming talent Tiger Nelson (Hal Baylor). Local promotor and gambler Little Boy (Alan Baxter) wants Nelson to win, and has paid off Stoker's manager Tiny (George Tobias) and trainer Red (Percy Helton) to have Stoker take a dive in the 3rd round. But Tiny doesn't want to tell this to Stoker as he figures Nelson will win easily anyways, so he won't have to pay Stoker his share. Stoker however feels he can take this new kid on the block. All it takes is one shot...
It is good to remember that this movie is from 1949, movies like 'Raging Bull' and 'Rocky' hadn't been made yet. Yes, Stoker does win, that should not come as a real surprise, but no, this does not mean there's a happy ending. The arena is a seedy place, the fights are for handouts, not for titles. The audience will cheer on whoever's got the upper hand in a fight, all they care about is getting their money's worth in blood, sweat and tears. After Stoker wins, the hall clears out instantly, there are no celebrations, no heroics. Hell, Stoker's fight isn't even the main bout of the evening, the main fight's pushed to an earlier spot due to the local radio station's schedule. Only the fighters themselves care, and Little Boy. Little Boy cares... It's not even about Stoker beating Tiger Nelson, it's about Stoker not doing what he's told, even if nobody told him what to do. Stoker has no control over his fate and doesn't realize it, and when he finally does, he still makes the wrong choice. That's noir.
Stoker! Stoker! Kill him! Kill him!The main trick played on the audience is that the movie takes place in real time. Lasting 72 minutes, the whole story plays out from roughly 9.10pm to 10.22pm. This was, and still is, a rarely used device, but it works remarkably well here. The movie starts out before the fight, alternating between the locker room and Julie (Audrey Totter), Stoker's wife, then shows the fight itself, and finally it focuses on the aftermath. And unlike most boxing movies where the underdog beats all the odds and wins, Stoker's win will also prove to be his undoing.
The scenes in the lockerroom are magnificent, and have a very touching side to them. Even though most of the fighters that night are either washed up like Stoker, or just starting out, they all share the same dreams of becoming a world champion. But they're not alike, all fighters have distinct personalities in this movie. If Stoker is washed up, 'Gunboat' Thompson (David Clarke) is all dried up with too many losses behind his name to keep count of. He keeps talking about Frankie Manilla, a fighter who had a losing streak of 21 losses but still managed to become middleweight world-champion. When Gunboat is carried back into the lockerroom all beat up after yet another loss, the doctor checks up on him and asks him who he is. Gunboat mumbles 'Frankie Manilla. I am Frankie Manilla.' It's a very intense and profound moment that explains this movie better than anything else. But the lockerroom scenes also show the comradery between the fighters, how everybody's on equal footing. Nobody pays any attention to fellow boxer Luther Hawkins's skin color inside the lockerroom, played by James Edwards, until his manager comes to pick him up for his fight and calls him 'boy'.
On the other end of the first act of the movie is Julie's story, played by one of the true dames of noir, Audrey Totter. In this movie however, she's anything but a femme fatale, but a demure and loving wife who's worried about her husband's health. She can't even bear to see him fight anymore, and so she wanders around the aptly named Paradise City before and during the fight. There is a great scene on an overpass overlooking the traffic where Totter shows she could really act with her face, showing her inner struggles. But all in all, her role is fairly wasted, and Totter is not the right actress for this kind of part, some of the lines she speaks come out in an over-the-top melodramatic kind of way, as if she didn't really know how to play Julie. It's a shame because Totter is one of my favorite ladies of noir.
Robert Ryan however was made to play these kinds of complex, world-weary, tortured souls. His performance here is truly great. You can see in his eyes and his body that he knows he's over and done with, that he's reached the end of his career, but you can also see that he still has his dreams, that he truly believes he can win against Tiger Nelson and that he's only one fight away from a shot at the title. The poem the movie was based on, Joseph Moncure March's 'The Set-Up' was about a black boxer, but according to director Robert Wise there was no black actor under contract with RKO at the time who fit the boxer profile. Ryan had been a heavyweight champion during his college years and was still in great shape (so great in fact that he had to really work to fight with a scrappy, stumbling style that an over-the-hill fighter like Stoker Thompson would have), so he was the natural choice for the part.
There's no percentage in smartening up a chump.The fight, which takes up roughly 20+ minutes of the movie, is shown from start to finish, every second of it, and it's quite the slugfest. Johnny Indrisano was hired as a consultant for the fight, a retired pro-boxer. It also didn't hurt that not just Ryan but also Hal Baylor (still working under his first acting name here, Hal Fieberling) had extensive boxing experience. Baylor was a recently retired pro-boxer with a 15-8-2 career (and close to 60 amateur fights). All that experience makes the fight painful to watch because they really do slug it out. Because of them really going for it with constant barrages of hits, the fight does become unrealistic as well, because in reality somebody would've gone down way quicker. But that minor quibble aside, it's a really gritty and brutal fight to watch.
Robert Wise ('Odds Against Tomorrow', but also 'The Sound Of Music'!) directed the movie, which was based on a screenplay by Art Cohn, based on the aforementioned poem. Milton Krasner ('No Way Out', 'House Of Strangers') did the cinematography which really shines during the third part of the movie with the aftermath of the fight, which sees Stoker's last shred of a boxing career destroyed by Little Boy and, ironically, Tiger Nelson. There is no music in the movie except for some music being played in a penny-arcade and a club next to the arena, which adds to the overall grittiness of the movie. All in all 'The Set-Up' stands out in the boxing movie pantheon for more than one reason, and should not be overlooked.