I’m a fan of the Rocky film franchise, so with the release of Rocky spinoff, Creed, I have decided to look at one of Hollywood’s best boxing contenders.
Robert Wise was an incredibly versatile director and one of Hollywood’s most accomplished. He helmed a long list of films in a variety of genres that have become indisputable screen classics, from westerns, war (Run Silent, Run Deep and The Desert Rats) and crime films to spectacular musicals (The Sound of Music and West Side Story), horror (The Haunting), science fiction (the still unrivalled The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Andromeda Strain) and classic underdog boxing films (The Set-Up and Somebody Up There Likes Me). He tackled such subjects as capital punishment (I Want to Live) and racism (Odds Against Tomorrow). His filmography is well-established and it is not surprising that he is well known throughout the world from the critical and commercial successes of these films.
In the midst of all the classic films Robert Wise directed, The Set-Up to me stood alone. It is an overlooked classic. If you’re a film buff, this is a must on your list. Wise himself listed it as his personal favourite from his RKO films and one of his top ten from his entire career. This film brought humanity to the film noir and is rightly regarded as the best boxing film ever made.
This is not an easy movie to watch, not even for someone like me who grew up watching championship boxing matches on tv with my dad and brother. I’d been hearing about it for a few years before I actually took the time to sit down and watch it.
The Set-Up is a dark exposé on the world of the professional boxer. The film like High Noon, plays out in real time which as a result lends an air of urgency to the film. It is second by second of a boxer’s brutal life. It is packed into 72 minutes, lean with not one second of excess. According to publicity written for the film incidents were filmed exactly as they happened, and in accurate chronological order.
The real-time compression is amazingly effective. It’s gritty, seedy and brutal. Watching it is like getting a hard right and then an immediate left to the jaw.
Robert Ryan delivers a superb performance and is clearly one of the most underrated actors in American cinema. Ryan is quietly magnificent as the aging boxer Stoker Thompson. Bruised and battered, Ryan’s performance is fearless and pitch-perfect. He is a desperate man out to prove himself, he is way out of his depth. A lost soul, we see our hero in the opening scenes in the corner, a stark contrast from the young hopefuls. It’s fight night and he is alone, one fighter clinging with heartbreaking desperation to his dreams. It is agonizing as we watch him try to salvage his battered aspirations and dignity.
Over the hill yet he stands straight, a man of character, he’s tough, sensitive, honest and realistic. Yet despite his harsh realities he still possesses a measure of optimism, just enough of the dreamer in him to keep him from drowning. Such noble qualities are largely ignored by all but his long-suffering wife. Audrey Trotter delivers a performance to match that of Ryan’s. The only touch of kindness in this brutal film comes from the hero’s wife Julie. It is a cruel irony that she, too in her profound sensibility also works against him. The anguish drawn by the director from Robert Ryan and Audrey Trotter’s performances is remarkable. They are surrounded by an amazing supporting cast. seemingly one-dimensional characters but this is deliberate, surely to focus our attention on the hero’s story.
The Set-Up was filmed at night on a studio lot. The boxing scenes are real and clearly effective. Robert Ryan held his national collegiate heavyweight championship boxing title for four years at Dartmouth Collage. He retired undefeated in his senior year.
The film’s settings are brilliantly accomplished … a backwater town, the fleabag flophouse, shadowy nightmarish streets. The arena is brilliantly filmed, the scenes interspersed with focused and repeated shots of specific spectators which not only captures the excitement of the late evening but also the mob brutality, the crowd looking for bloody mayhem as the fighters struggle. These little things add up to a lot as they seem to comment on the character’s shattered emotions.
Wise’s brilliant direction won him the International Federation of Film Critics Award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1949.
Some of the scenes will make even the hardest of hearts melt, no spoilers here, you have to watch it if you want to know more.