Friday, January 13, 2012

Film Noir Series: The Set-Up (1949)

Robert Ryan as Stoker Thompson
My latest Film Noir Spotlight entry for Next Projection. The sixth film on my list is The Set-Up (1949).

Before there was Raging Bull, there was The Set-Up, Robert Wise’s brutally devastating glimpse into one night in the life of an aging, struggling boxer. It’s no great surprise, then, to hear Martin Scorsese waxing poetic about the influential merit of the film on the DVD’s commentary track. The Set-Up is a potent noir classic; a gritty documentary-type film made well before such a style even existed.

Right from the opening frame, it sets itself apart from other Hollywood releases in the late-1940s. Devoid of any soundtrack, the opening credits pan over a brutal fight in a boxing ring – a perverse, violent “dance” that only ends when one man is finally knocked out, to the crowd’s roaring approval. Robert Wise, a director often associated with his upscale musicals like West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965), zeros in on the sights and sounds of a boxing match to recreate an authentic atmosphere.

Based on a Joseph Moncure March poem (which, in actuality, had a black ex-convict at the heart of its narrative, not a white boxer), The Set-Up moves along briskly in real time. At 35 years of age, Bill ‘Stoker’ Thompson (Robert Ryan) is considered “over-the-hill” by the bloodthirsty mobs that flock to the sweat-drenched boxing matches at the Paradise City arena. His own manager (George Tobias) is so sure that Stoker will go down in his match that he takes “dive” money from a gambler who goes by the pseudonym Little Boy (Alan Baxter) – and neglects to inform Stoker. Despite desperate pleas from his wife, Julie (Audrey Totter), to retire, Stoker insists he has one more big fight left in him.

The film unfurls slowly, gradually familiarizing the audience with Stoker as he prepares for his duel in the ring against a much younger opponent. With its revolving door of compelling secondary characters, all of whom offer their own personal tales of woe and victory, The Set-Up is a stripped down tale of the physical and psychological struggles of men like Stoker. All the boxers in the room are big dreamers although, judging from their anxious chatter, they are all too aware that their one-time shot at fame is fleeting.

Lensed by cameraman Milton Krasner, you can practically smell the stale air and feel each punch thrown. Alternating between intimately brutal, bloody close-ups and jarring wide shots, the fight scenes demonstrate both stunning choreography on the part of the actors and superior camerawork by the crew. Like gladiators in the Coliseum, the men in the ring are modern day warriors, complete with a powerful fan base that can be heard screaming and stomping from their dressing room. The crowd is comprised of those who place the bets and those who just love a bloody exhibition – like the blind man who has his friend narrate the fight sequences and the housewife who embarrasses her husband by screaming obscenities in her quest for more blood.

With his weathered features – complete with cauliflower ears, five o’clock shadow and upper lip sweat – Ryan breathes life into the role of Stoker. Considering his years as a boxer in college prior to acting, Ryan is a natural, carrying himself like a battered, yet determined, athlete. Looking as though he carries the weight of the world on his shoulders, Ryan gives a remarkable performance. His Stoker is one of the finest incarnations of a struggling athlete in film. His scenes with Audrey Totter as his wife, Julie, are particularly compelling, adding depth to both of their characterizations.

The Set-Up remains a startlingly raw slice-of-life narrative that more than earns its place as an influential noir classic. It balances a superbly crafted story with exquisitely choreographed fight sequences, all of which is anchored by an understated, naturalistic performance from Robert Ryan. It’s a knockout.