Spending Time with Turner Classic Movies: THE SET-UP (1949)

Some time ago I asked for suggestions of films I should watch and post about here.  Among the suggestions was a movie called THE SET-UP starring Robert Ryan, which was recommended to me by Karen of Shadows and Satin.  Well thanks to the Summer Under the Stars my DVR has been working overtime and I am now finally getting a chance to watch some of the films I recorded in the previous months in an effort to make more space!  Which leads me to this post as I finally watched THE SET-UP.

Stoker Thompson (Robert Ryan) is an aging boxer.  At the age of thirty-five he is considered ancient by his sport’s standards.  He is also not a very successful boxer, usually being the one down on the mat rather than standing up and basking in the cheers of the crowd.  Thanks to his reputation pretty much everyone has counted Stoker out.  The older boxers have a fondness for him but for the most part Stoker is a joke to everyone else.  Among those who have little respect for Stoker are his manager Tiny (George Tobias) and his trainer Red (Percy Helton).  So it should come as very little surprise to anyone that Tiny and Red have very little compunction about taking bribes.  They are doing just that on the night of Stoker’s fight against a new boxer.  Apparently the new kid is the personal fighter of  one Little Boy, a gambler with big dreams for his new champion and even bigger threats to back them up.  Little Boy’s man offers Tiny money in exchange for Stoker to take a dive in the second round.  Tiny and Red agree but don’t tell Stoker, figuring he is bound to get beaten anyway, and pocket the money for themselves.

In the hotel across the street from the boxing arena, Stoker and his wife Julie (Audrey Totter) are arguing.  Stoker wants Julie to come and see him fight just like she always has.  But Julie, after dutifully supporting her husband all these years, is tired of watching the man she loves be beaten to a pulp night after night.  She is tired of hearing that he is just “one punch away from the top”.  She tells Stoker that she has a headache and will not be going to the fight.  She begs him to retire from the ring, fearing that the fights will one day kill him.  Stoker is hurt but leaves any way, telling Julie “when you’re a fighter, you fight”.

Backstage at the arena Stoker is surrounded by fighters old and new.  The older fighters chat easily while they prepare, while the new guys are more energetic.  One young kid prepares for his very first fight with a few trips to the bathroom before heading out.  Some fighters win and others lose.  Stoker watches them all, pensive and disturbed by Julie’s words.  He believes that he can beat his opponent, that he can come out on top this time, but he feels Julie’s sadness and concern.  It all becomes too possible when the door to the backroom bursts open and one of Stoker’s buddies, a washed up fighter named Gunboat Johnson, is rushed in in bad shape from a severe pummeling.

Stoker prepares for his fight and looks out the window to the hotel across the street.  Julie begins to head out and at the last minute takes the ticket her husband left her.  Stoker sees the light go out and happily believes his wife is coming to see him fight.  Julie makes her way to the arena but as she enters the door she hears the familiar sounds of the crowd reacting to a man being beaten to within an inch of his life.  She turns and hurries away into the night.  Stoker heads to the ring full of confidence, unaware of what awaits him.  Tiny and Red advise him to hold back and keep away from his opponent but Stoker insists that he is going to beat the newcomer.  Tiny and Red share a look and a smirk as they send Stoker off to meet his fate.

This is one of the first movies to utilize the concept of taking place in real-time.  The film lasts little more than seventy-two minutes and packs quite a bit of action into that short amount of time.  The various clocks shown during the film not only give a sense of the passage of time but they also give a feeling of doom as the countdown closes in on an unsuspecting Stoker.  It is a very similar experience to that of watching HIGH NOON, as the audience knows what is coming for the main character and we can see time slipping away as he tries to prepare.

Watching THE SET-UP I noticed how much of the action and drama actually takes place in the facial expressions, reactions, and unheard thoughts of the characters.  The noises and conversations of the other people often seem to be just so much noise as we try to watch the faces of Stoker, Julie, Tiny, and Red.  Robert Ryan is just fantastic at this, often saying so much with just one look.  He is definitely an actor that I am growing in appreciation of.  He brings a quietness and a stillness to his role, one that gives the viewer the feeling of a man who has been beaten down and made fun of for so long that he has almost started to believe it.  Almost.

THE SET-UP also gives a look at the corruption of the boxing world without being too heavy handed.  Instead of holding Stoker up on the moral high-ground and having Tiny get what should be coming to him, director Robert Wise simply shows the corruption as part of the environment that everyone acknowledges and accepts.  THE SET-UP is a fast, tense, and brutal film about a man surrounded by darkness with no way out except to fight.

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