The Set-Up (Robert Wise, 1949)

Jeez, who’d have thought an hour and 12 minute film would have so much depth?  And an hour and 12 minute film that encompasses…an hour and 12 minutes at that?  Yes, “The Set-Up” occurs completely in real-time, three years before “High Noon” did it, so obviously you have a very limited window in which to get to know characters like Stoker, his girl Julie, his crooked trainer, the feared mobster who organizes the dive that Stoker’s supposed to take in his boxing match, and many other faces and voices in the night street or the smoky boxing hall.  It’s impossible to really get to know these people in 1+ hour of their lives, but nevertheless, that forlorn look on Stoker’s face when he sees that Julie isn’t in the crowd to cheer him on, or that look of sadness from Julie as she walks the streets with that ticket in her hand, or the look of ominous disappointment and suppressed rage on the face of the mobster Little Boy as Stoker fights on, answer nothing about who these people really are, but bring about just enough questions in our minds to make us care.  In just over one hour, Stoker Thompson will meet his destiny – seems hardly plausible within the confines of a hour-long sampling of melodramatic fiction, but still, what an open-ended slice of riveting drama.

Considering a large portion of “The Set-Up” is nothing more than Stoker’s match against his younger and heavily-favored opponent in its entirety, it’s surprising how much depth and plot/character development this film really has, and it’s all in the setting and the faces – what everyone does, not what they say.  I was impressed at how much was going on from the outset, and it all takes place within the confines of one little section the city, in a single town square.  As fans make their way into the arena, the camera sweeps down from a few stories up, gliding through the crowd as they discuss the odds, the fighters, and what-not, and then focuses on a single lit apartment a block away, where Stoker takes a nap before his big fight.  That fluid camera is stylish and highly noticeable, perhaps overly-so, but if anything it makes it all the more apparent that this is all in real-time, that every person in this little berg is connected in some way, that one person’s actions have consequences for someone else – basically that time is fluid – so what can it hurt?  But what I was most impressed with was the setting, and how the characters are affected by that atmosphere and interact with it.  In any given scene, whether it’s outside the boxing hall, or in Stoker’s apartment or in a back alley or in the crowded stands or in the ring or in the cramped but intimate training room where all the fighters prep for their bouts (and where the sense of camaraderie amongst the fighters is wonderful), you can feel how hot and stifling it is.  I don’t think I’ve noticed sweat on character after character as much in any other film as I’ve noticed here – I mean, every single person has sweat pouring off their faces, it seemed like.  What a quick and easy way to tell you that a setting is hot and cramped, and in short order I felt the sweaty, unbreatheable air in that training room, or the hot breath of screaming fan after screaming fan surrounding the ring.  Quite a depiction of place – you the viewer feel nearly as uncomfortable as Stoker, the has-been fighter out of place amongst all these up-and-comers.

Faces and places really did it for me, while a lot of the dialogue, typically forced in that 1940s cinema kind of way, left something to be desired.  In particular, I was disappointed that Stoker’s wife Julie, at least at the outset, was little more than a worried what’s-the-point-of-getting-your-brains-based-in, nagging, overacting stereotype that did little to further the depiction of women in movies back in that day…until she’s on her own once Stoker leaves for his match.  Unsure of whether or not she wants to go to the match, as Stoker wants her to, she simply wanders the streets, with that ticket in her hand taunting her and beckoning her to make a decision.  Finally, she comes to an indoor arcade with carnival games, music and bells and whistles and laughing permeating the air in just one instance of the film’s outstanding use of sound, but then, having second thoughts, she leaves, and walks a few blocks until all that sound gradually dies out, replaced by silence, save for the traffic beneath her as she stands on a foot-bridge, looking off into oblivion.  Even those cars are partially drowned out, so that we experience what she experiences, as the world is drowned out and she’s left to consider many things about her life, her husband’s life, the universe, and everything.  We can’t be sure of what exactly is going through her mind, but that look of pained indecision on Audrey Totter’s face, coupled with the image of her hands wringing that ticket, tells us all we need to know – she’s in agony, and what good would it do to confine that to one particular reason?  Sure she’s made it known that she wants Stoker to hang up his gloves so they can lead a quiet life together, but this moment of dialogue-free silence suggests that that was just one of many thoughts going through Julie’s head.  After one of the ickiest moments of stereotypically melodramatic dialogue I’ve seen in some time, Julie just needed to shut up and take a walk through a few blocks portrayed using dynamic cinematography, shadows, and sound to become one of the most fully-realized and conflicted characters imaginable, just by standing on a bridge and holding a ticket to a boxing match.  One of the finest scenes in the film.

It’s a tough sell for a movie fan who doesn’t want sports anywhere near their precious medium to plop a complete and uncut boxing match smack-dab in the middle of your movie.  It’s bad enough that most horrendous sports movies make the main event the big climax, complete with stupid commentary that basically makes it Sports for Dummies, right?  But to show a boxing match from start to finish, with nothing else to further the narrative?  Inconceivable!  Or not.  This match was thrilling, gritty, raw, and powerful.  So it doesn’t have the animal noises or extreme close-ups or slow-mo/fast-mo that made the fights in “Raging Bull” so compelling…so what?  This is just two men, one of whom we get to know very intimately beforehand, punching each other in the face – does it get any more intimate than that?  One the bell rings to start every round, the lights go down – literally.  As the men fight, the background is nothing but pure blackness, and the occasional wisps of smoke – they’re in their own world when they’re bashing each other’s face in, and even though the sound of the crowd cheering becomes nearly deafening, everything else becomes secondary to the two men in the ring.  I wouldn’t say it’s like they’re in Hell, with the black backdrop and the smoke, but more like purgatory: literally, they’re in no-place, except within themselves.  And even if you were to brush this off as just any other boxing match that happens to be surrounded by a narrative, that in and of itself deserves credit – seriously, were these two actually fighting?  Sure looked that way – I haven’t seen a more convincing fight in a fictional film before or since, “Raging Bull’s” hyper-reality aside. 

You instinctually get caught up in the excitement of a boxing match, but here, the stakes are raised when you consider just how great Robert Ryan is as Stoker.  His performance as the reformed but internally conflicted outlaw in “The Wild Bunch” is already one of my favorite performances ever, but this one, from twenty years earlier, is right up there with it, and it’s all in how subdued and plain natural he is.  There’s those forlorn looks he gives when he unsuccessfully scans the crowd for Julie, or looks out the window in the training room and sees that the lights in his apartment are off, and starts beaming with the thought that Julie’s coming after all, or that look of bafflement and then defiance when his trainer finally tells him after the 3rd round that he has to take the fall.  What an expressive face, and he barely needs to move a facial muscle to express!  His unassuming and low-key demeanor, and those looks on that face that gets more and more swollen as the fight progresses, are key to making Stoker a compelling character, and it’s why what happens after the fight is so suspenseful, where the screams of a crowd and a full arena are replaced with dead silence, expressionistic shadows, and sheer desperation.  This film is a tiny blip on the radar of these characters’ lives, but because of this longing glance here or that quiet moment of reflection there, you can start to piece together the complexities of these peoples’ relationships with each other – it really feels like they’ve known each other for years, and we start watching right in the middle of that.  Why the hell does Stoker do what he does when he’s made aware that the fix is in?  Machismo?  Pride?  Who knows…I can’t presume to speculate after knowing this guy for just an hour and 12 minutes, but it might just have something to do with a woman standing on a bridge with a ticket.  When we’re shown this time and place, how it looks and sounds and feels and smells – when we see the weight of the world on Stoker and Julie’s shoulders, rather than told about it in their own corny words – this is an astonishing piece of filmmaking.


1 comment so far

  1. ShotgunAndy on

    Dammit Simon! Once again you’ve gotten severely interested in a film. 🙂

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