|The Set-Up, 1949. Directed by Robert Wise.
Robert Ryan, Audrey Totter, George Tobias, Alan Baxter.
Synopsis: It's fight night and Stoker Thompson is on the last bout on the card. At 35, he's in the twilight of his boxing career. His wife can't bear to see him take another beating. His manager has so much trust in him that he takes a pittance from Thompson's opponent to throw the fight and doesn't bother to tell Thompson about it. Why cut him in if he's going to lose anyway? The only problem is that Thompson feels good about his chances, good enough to offer a real battle to his younger opponent, and after he lasts past the third round--the round in which he was supposed to hit the canvas--all bets are off. He soon finds himself surrounded by circumstances beyond his control...
The Sweet Science: After the last Olympic games, I ran across a sports column describing the difference between a "sport" and a "competition." A "sport" has a concrete way of determining a winner--a tape at the end of the race, a tally of goals scored, what have you--while a "competition" is judged. By this reasoning, diving is a competition while chess would be a sport. The fly in the ointment, of course, is boxing. Boxing is determined by both methods: it is judged AND it can be won outright by knocking out the other guy. The column in question noted this in due course and suggested that this dual nature is the reason that boxing is the most corrupt of all sports (recent scandals in baseball, cycling, and track and field not withstanding). Boxing is by its very nature a brutal sport, and an elemental one, too. It doesn't abstract the nature of sports--all sports are rehearsal for the red of fang and claw in their way--it presents sports at their most animalistic. The corruption of boxing and the elemental nature of boxing make it an ideal vehicle for drama. There's a reason that the only sports movies to win a best picture Oscar are boxing movies.
Auteurist film critics haven't been kind to Robert Wise. On the one hand, he was a professional director working within the studio system without putting a personal imprint on his movies--a personal imprint being somewhat overvalued by critics of this bent. On the other, he is seen as the hatchet man behind the butchery of The Magnificent Ambersons, which, of course, is unforgivable. Obviously the man was a hack. At best, he was a competent "craftsman." There's only one problem with this line of thinking. Wise's body of work is too damned good to support it. The ideal auteur--Hitchcock for one example--makes the same film over and over again, performing variations on personal themes within the boundaries of a preferred idiom. Wise, on the other hand, made films in every genre you can imagine, including the relatively despised genres of science fiction and horror. Often, as with his submarine film, Run Silent, Run Deep or with his sober sci-fi film, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Wise's films are at the very top of the heap in those genres. The Set-up is one such film. If it's not the best boxing film ever made--such things are subject to personal taste--it is at the very least among the best.
The Set-up is a compact masterpiece, running some 72 minutes in real time. The real-time structure of the film is a virtuoso act that trumps similar gimmicks in High Noon or Rope by virtue of playing like a movie rather than as an experiment. Subtract the shots of clocks that remind the audience that the film is unfolding in the time it takes to watch it and the movie still works. Where the "gimmick" really comes into its own is during the boxing match. We get the whole match, rather than a match as edited for a movie a la Rocky. Sporting events--particularly fights--have their own drama to them and the movie seizes hold of that drama and milks it for all it's worth. And Wise, after all, was the man who edited Citizen Kane. He knew a thing or two about non-traditional chronologies and how to make them feel natural. He's abetted in this pursuit by having a humdinger of a story and performances from his principals to match. Robert Ryan was never better than he was here, playing a decent guy in tune with disappointment and disillusion. Resigned to it, no less, but not a slave to it either. This sets him apart from most film noir heroes. He doesn't have a tragic flaw, per se, and the movie grants him a state of grace after the downward spiral in the film's last act. Ryan sells it to the audience. (As a side note, it's interesting to compare and contrast Stoker Thompson to the Kirk Douglas character, Midge Kelly, in Champion, a film from the same year from fellow Lewton alum Mark Robson). That Ryan himself was a former boxer adds immeasurably to his performance. He looks like he knows what he's doing in the ring, which is not always the case in boxing movies.
The Noir Landscape: Wise has placed this dissection of the American dream in an allegorically named "Paradise City" and the summary of the film's major thematic preoccupation is found in a penny arcade crane game, the ones where you drop a crane into a pile of prizes and hope to come up with something. No one playing it is ever shown to win. This is a disillusioned film. The last act of the film is fully appointed in the noir style, a style heightened dramatically by the absence of a score on the soundtrack (all of the music in the film, and there's not much, is diegetic). The film to this point has hinted at an uncaring universe, represented variously by the audience members for the fight who don't particularly care who wins so long as someone bleeds for their entertainment. At the end, the fatalism of film noir blows in at full strength. This is a universe where, to quote another great film noir, "Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all."
It's a bitter little world.