By Jeffrey M. Anderson
Director Robert Wise had as good a beginning as anyone, editing Orson Welles' first two projects at RKO ("Citizen Kane" and "The Magnificent Ambersons"), then becoming a director for that studio's genius B-unit producer Val Lewton, helming "Curse of the Cat People," "Mademoiselle Fifi" and "The Body Snatcher."
But like most other directors of the period (George Cukor, William Wyler and George Stevens included), Wise kept moving toward bigger things, little realizing that he was best suited for the small stuff. As he progressed towards huge, juggernaut films like "West Side Story" and "The Sound of Music," it became apparent that he was at his best when he returned to his early stomping grounds, as in "The Haunting."
Made in 1949, Wise's "The Set-Up" marked a peculiar and highly successful marriage of these two tendencies. On the one hand, it's a terrific pulpy boxing story and on the other, it's a landmark of technical brilliance.
Running just 72 minutes, The Set-Up tells the story of a nearly washed-up 35 year-old boxer, Stoker Thompson (Robert Ryan), who prepares to enter the ring against an up-and-coming 23 year-old. Unbeknownst to him, his managers have set him up to take a fall against the newcomer, but they don't bother telling him, figuring he's going to lose anyway.
The first half of the film takes place in the dressing room. Stoker waits to go on last, watching all his pals leave the dressing room for the ring and watching them come back either victorious or beaten.
Meanwhile, Stoker's wife (Audrey Totter) spends her time arguing with herself, trying to decide if she wants to see her husband get his brains bashed in for the umpteenth time.
It's clear that Stoker is going to win, but Wise stages the fight scenes with beautiful rhythm, clarity and suspense, dragging them out to a point that we get into the action. His cutaways to the excited crowds -- people nervously munching food or mime-boxing -- help a great deal. The overall effect captures the seedy atmosphere of the business, so alluring and repellent at the same time.
"The Set-Up" was not based on a pulp novel, but on an epic poem by Joseph Moncure March ("The Wild Party"). It was adapted by sportswriter and journalist Art Cohn, who went on to become a full time screenwriter afterward. These two odd sources combine to make a film with a unique feel, artistic and authentic, not unlike Martin Scorsese's "Raging Bull." It's no surprise that Scorsese is a big fan of "The Set-Up" -- he even helps out with a partial commentary track on this new DVD.
The real-time gimmick works fairly well in that it gives Stoker's life a crushing inevitability, that time keeps marching on and he will enter the ring sooner or later. But it also makes us question whether or not five complete fights could happen in the space of about 40 minutes. Wouldn't boxing fans demand their money back?
Real time has been attempted sporadically over the years since, but most of the efforts either lack conviction or quality. Agnes Varda's "Cleo from 5 to 7" (1962) was one of the best of them, while John Badham's "Nick of Time" (1995) was one of the worst.
Warner Home Video has released this great film noir in conjunction with four other top-notch titles. "The Set-Up" comes with a commentary track by director Wise and Scorsese, who, unfortunately are not in the same room at the same time. Their comments tend to overlap and the camaraderie that would have occurred with two great directors talking is severely missed.
Other than that, the film is presented in a very nice transfer, with optional English, French and Spanish subtitles.
**** out of ****
(72m | NR)