Boxing films have been a popular genre since the very beginning of motion pictures, and those who like them usually have a favorite. Probably the most acclaimed examples would be Body and Soul from 1947, and Raging Bull from 1980, and they’re both important and deserving films. The best among those I’ve seen, however, is a bit less famous. The Set-Up, from 1949, directed by Robert Wise, has only three or four sets and a modest length of 76 minutes, and with the help of Robert Ryan in one of his finest performances, delivers a tougher and more intense experience than other movies with three times its budget.
Ryan plays “Stoker” Thompson, a nearly washed-up 35-year-old boxer who has agreed to a bout with a much younger fighter for a $500 prize. In their seedy hotel room across the street from the boxing venue, he and his wife Julie, played by Audrey Totter, argue about whether or not he should fight. He thinks he can win, but she’s seen all of this before, and when he refuses to listen, she wearily tells him that she won’t go to see the match this time.
In the dressing room where the boxers get ready, mill around and talk, and nervously await their turn in the ring, we see Stoker’s uneasy relationship with his manager and fellow fighters; and the verbal interplay in these scenes is excellent. Wise creates an atmosphere of narrow confinement that was inspired by the real thing. He spent time doing research at little run down gyms and arenas in Long Beach, using the people and places he saw to add flavor to the film. They also brought in a sports writer named Art Cohn to do the screenplay, and he made the pungent language of boxing come alive without exaggeration.
The story was taken from a narrative poem by Joseph March, which included a significant commentary on racism, but the studio changed the protagonist from black to white, so that aspect was of course lost. RKO, like every other studio at the time, wasn’t eager to treat the topic of race. One of the other fighters in the movie is African American, although that fact is never remarked upon.
The fight sequences themselves are extremely accurate—they brought in a former professional fighter to help choreograph them—and the footage was so complex that Wise ended up editing those scenes himself. One of the really wonderful things about the picture is how the fans are depicted, the people watching the fights. The camera gives us full-on portraits of the human face contorted by rage, brutal excitement, fear, or rapt absorption. One overweight man, staring intently while eating junk food, a different kind each time we see him, has an effect that is both hilarious and repellent.
Wise also creates the impression of real time in The Set-Up. In other words, the clock in the story runs for 76 minutes, the same length as the movie. If you think about it later in the context of all that happens, this isn’t really plausible, but the illusion created by this device heightens the tension and makes a taut film seem even tauter. On top of everything else, you get Robert Ryan at his best, his grim and determined expression not quite concealing the soul-crushing anxiety and dread underneath. The Set-Up takes a genre usually rife with cliché and makes it fresh and meaningful.