THE SET-UP was 1949s other boxing picture, but despite good reviews it was lost in the wake of Champion, which punched Kirk Douglas to stardom, received five Oscar nominations and made a lot more money. This tight, trim and tough contender only scratched up $2,300,000, a lowly 130th place for the year. Yet the reputation of the more popular picture has declined, and admiration for this harsh-as-hell assault & battery on the “fight ‘game'” has kept rising. Robert Wise directed, and did it so well that three decades later, when Martin Scorsese exorcised Raging Bull, Marty took pains to avoid replicating the superb shots that Wise and cameraman Milton R. Krasner crafted. It helps immensely that star Robert Ryan, along with being a commanding actor, had spent his four years at Dartmouth College as the school’s heavyweight pugilist. *
At 35, ‘Bill “Stoker” Thompson’ (Ryan) is on the glove-edge of being just another washed-up palooka. His despairing wife ‘Julie’ (Audrey Totter) can’t stand to attend another match, and his sleazeball manager ‘Tiny’ (George Tobias) even has the fix “set-up” with local hoodlum ‘Little Boy’ (Alan Baxter) to make sure the innocent Stoker takes a dive. Stoker’s got too much pride and dignity, and it’ll cost him.
Joseph Moncure March wrote the original piece back in 1928 as a narrative poem, and the lead character was African-American, which, for several decades, was not going to go anywhere insofar as a movie version was concerned. As if prejudice wasn’t enough, the main character also had the less-than-right-hook name ‘Pansy Jones’. **
The taut screenplay adaptation was done by former sportswriter-turned-script jockey and author Art Cohn. Wise, Cohn and editor Roland Gross make things crackle with an early employ of the ‘real-time device’ later used in pictures like High Noon, where the narrative length of the story fits the actual running time, a no-frills 72 minutes. Milton R. Krasner’s camera allows for no pity.
STOKER: “Yeah, top spot. And I’m just one punch away.” JULIE: “I remember the first time you told me that. You were just one punch away from the title shot then. Don’t you see, Bill, you’ll always be just one punch away.”
With his dogged self-deception about his chance at making it, Stoker’s not the sharpest cookie in the jar, but he’s a good-hearted guy in a mean-souled business. Ryan: “I thought the story was wonderful, because it had none of the usual mawkish glamour that is falsely attached to prize fight stories. It’s not a glamorous business.” The actor’s favorite role is one of his very best, not just using his powerful physique and duking prowess in the brutal ring action, but his quiet contemplation of the other hard-luck/hard-case figures surrounding him. Every aspect of the picture rings true–direction, writing, casting, cinematography, art direction, editing, makeup. The blood-lusting ‘fans’ come off like hyenas.
In ace support, scoring with sad & ugly honesty: Wallace Ford, Hal Baylor, Percy Helton, David Clarke, James Edwards, Darryl Hickman, Philip Pine, Edwin Max, Frank Richards, Paul Dubov, Bernard Gorcey, Tommy Noonan.
*Robert Ryan could’ve cleaned Kirk Douglas’ clock. Time for a personal aside—my late brother-in-law, actor Larry Pennell, was showcased in a number of roles for his boxing skill. I recall him saying, regarding so many actor’s publicity claims about having boxed, that 90% of it was bull. He made a notable exception: Robert Ryan. Larry also had the pleasure of guest-starring on a good episode of The Big Valley, playing a fighter. His opponent in the episode (“The Price of Victory”, Season 2, 1967, while we’re at it) was Ryan’s ring foe in The Set-Up, Hal Baylor. Larry said Hal (who had been a boxer) was a wonderful guy. Plus, the legendary John Indrisano, who helped coordinate the fights in The Set-Up, played referee in that same show.
** Wise originally wanted the film to feature an African-American lead, as per what March conceived in the original. He favored Canada Lee, but beyond the obvious color barrier of the day, Lee was politically controversial, and at the time was a target of the blacklist scourge (Canada Lee–1907-1952–a fascinating person–do your own digging, people). Wise’s career as a director was well under way, but he was still some years away from having enough clout to dictate terms to issue-sensitive studios. Ryan got the job, and nailed it to perfection. The liberal Wise and screenwriter Cohn (who railed against racism as a sportswriter) at least managed to include an African-American among The Set-Up‘s lineup of fighters, by giving newcomer James Edwards his first movie role. Edwards made a big impression that same year, in his second film gig, playing the lead in Stanley Kramer’s Home Of The Brave, the first postwar Hollywood picture to deal with racism (in this case, in the Army, in the South Pacific). Irony always getting a late-stage laugh, it’s notable that, with a nod to it in The Set-Up, racial equality moved up a notch when the characters share getting their brains knocked out, and in Home Of The Brave, when they engaged in that other favorite guy pastime: war.