Movies Are My Wife

Married to the Movies — Mdino's Blog

THE SET-UP (1949)

When a filmmaker tries something different, it is often labeled a gimmick or a stunt.  So it was with Hitchcock’s ROPE (1948) and its continuous ten minute takes.  This was especially the case with Robert Montgomery’s LADY IN THE LAKE (1947) and its extensive use of the subjective camera.  Whatever the merits of these innovations, it is obvious that an infusion of new ideas – a new way of looking at things – is important from time to time, in cinema and any artistic pursuit.

THE SET-UP (1949) is a thrilling boxing picture presented in real-time – the innovation of director Robert Wise and screenwriter Art Cohn.  The film is seventy-two minutes long and the on-screen action takes place over seventy-two minutes in the lives of the characters.  We know this because the first shot after the opening credits is of a street corner clock telling us it is five minutes after nine.  The final shot of the film is of the same clock reading seventeen minutes after ten.  But before we get to this point we are lured into this busy evening scene, with people filing in and out of a bar called “Dreamland” and a sports complex named “Paradise City Arena.”  We are immediately aware that these names will be featured prominently and ironically in the film and we soon find out that this is a street where dreams are often crushed and the smokey atmosphere of these establishments are more closely related to hell than to heaven. 

It is fight night in Paradise City and we are whisked into the arena and introduced to a series of fascinating characters: A blind man (Archie Leonard) who has the action of the fights relayed to him by a friend who accompanies him.  An obese man (Dwight Martin) shoveling every imaginable food into his gaping mouth, waiting for the next burst of violence like he anticipates each bite of hot dog.  Another, older man who listens to a radio broadcast of a baseball game while eating up the fight action.  He is obviously a chronic gambler with bets on both sports.  There are also many woman, including one supposedly squeamish lady who refers to the last fight she attended by saying “I kept my hands over my eyes the whole time!” 

Across the street, in a seedy hotel room, is Bill “Stoker” Thompson (Robert Ryan) and his visiting girlfriend, Julie (Audrey Totter).  Stoker is a washed up fighter hoping for one big win so he can retire and open a cigar store or a beer joint.  Julie wants him to quit now.  But he has a fight scheduled for this evening.  He doesn’t know that his manager, Tiny (George Tobias) has agreed to have Stoker throw the fight in an unholy alliance with a local gangster, “Little Boy” (Alan Baxter).  Tiny, wishing to avoid upsetting Stoker, is not planning to reveal the scheme to him.  He is counting on the aging and inept hack to continue his losing ways naturally.  Big mistake…

Stoker’s dreams are always just out of his grasp – like the prizes in the claw game his trainer, Red (Percy Helton) seems obsessed with in the early scenes at an arcade.  He finds inspiration in the stories of other fighters, and then is horrified when they return from the ring pummeled and delirious.  Now he waits his turn and Julie has torn up her ticket.  He will go it alone.  A trainer named Gus (Wallace Ford) reads a “True Romance” type magazine called “Love” as he awaits the outcomes of the fights in the locker room.  We cannot help but think of Stoker’s situation.  Julie does indeed love him – and she hates boxing.  In the hotel, we discover that she avoids calling him by his boxing handle, and only refers to him as “Bill.”  To everyone else it is always “Stoker.” 

The fight world is presented as an atmosphere ripe with corruption, and it is not difficult to understand Tiny’s throwing the fight for money.  One trainer even cheats at solitaire!  When it comes time for Stoker’s match, the ring announcer’s words “Ladies and gentlemen” are met with boos from the crowd.  The fans are well aware that they are as corrupt as the game they celebrate. 

The scenes that follow are some of the most exciting in all of cinema.  They are also fascinating for their incisive depiction of the human comedy.  Stoker is not only battling his opponent “Tiger” Nelson (Hal Fieberling), but for the soul of everyone involved in this blood sport.  When Stoker’s eye is closed and bloodied, the blind man, hanging on every word of his companion and the announcer, screams out viciously “The other eye Nelson!  Close the other eye!”  As a blind man yearns for the blinding of another human being, the brutality becomes overwhelming. 

But Stoker fights back, causing Tiny to worry.  Between rounds, his manager begs Stoker to just “go the distance” and not to fight so passionately.  He feigns concern that his boxer may be injured.  As Stoker is implored to lay off, a barker can be heard in the background shouting “Get your cold beer here!”, reminding him and the audience of his dream.  He will fight on – with everything he has.  This is too much for Tiny who, during another break in the fighting, finally spills the beans to Stoker.  He comes out fighting harder than ever.  Proving everyone loves a winner, the blind man begins rooting for Stoker, who knocks out Nelson.  Tiny and Red beat it. 

Cornered in an alley by Little Boy and his goons, Stoker is pounded into unconsciousness and has his hand smashed.  This fight is a natural extension of what goes on in the ring.  There is a jazz club adjacent to the alley and as the thugs wail on Stoker, Wise cuts to shadows on the alley wall of a swing band wailing away.  Both beat downs are the music of the night in Paradise City.  Later, he wakes up and staggers into the street.  The “Dreamland” sign is partially obscured by buildings and is distorted in such a way that it appears to say “I Dream.”  Julie arrives in time to cradle Stoker in her arms.  He reveals the whole sordid tale and states proudly “I won.”  And he has – not just the match – but his freedom.  The broken hand means nothing as he was planning on retiring anyway.  “We both won tonight”, says Julie.  In a beautiful crane shot, the camera pulls back to reveal that clock, once again.  Seventy two minutes have passed for Stoker and Julie as well as the audience.  This brief running time and real-time approach to the film makes for a more immediate, moving and suspenseful experience.  It has been a memorable night at the fights, indeed, for all concerned. 
CREDITS: Produced by Richard Goldstone. Directed by Robert Wise. Written by Art Cohn. Based on the poem (that’s right, poem!) by Joseph Moncure March. Photographed by Milton Krasner. Edited by Roland Gross. Music by Roy Webb. With: Robert Ryan, Audrey Totter, George Tobias, Alan Baxter, Percy Helton, Wallace Ford, Hal Fieberling, Archie Leonard, Dwight Martin.              

   

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May 15, 2013 - Posted by | 1940s cinema, boxing films, film directors, screenwriters | , , , , , , , , , , ,

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