The seedy worlds of professional boxing and film noir were made for each other. Both are filled with corruption, crime, and desperate characters trapped in situations beyond their control. Movies like CHAMPION, BODY AND SOUL, and THE HARDER THEY FALL expose the dark underbelly of pugilism. One of the best of this sub-genre is THE SET-UP, Robert Wise’s last film for RKO studios. He doesn’t fail to deliver the goods, directing a noir that packs a wallop!
THE SET-UP follows one night in the life of aging, washed up fighter Stoker Thompson ( Robert Ryan ). Stoker’s 35 now, ancient in boxing terms, but still has delusions of making the big time. Wife Julie (Audrey Totter ) is tired of going from one tank town to the next, and fears for Stoker’s safety. She refuses to go to tonight’s fight, a matchup with up and coming young contender Tiger Nelson. Julie, unlike Stoker, knows the man is running out of time.
Time plays an important role in this movie, as the script is laid out in real-time, three years prior to the Oscar-winning HIGH NOON. The clock in Paradise City’s town square looms large in the film’s beginning (9:05) and end (10:16). Clocks pop up frequently throughout the movie, letting us know, as Julie already does, that Stoker’s time is running out. Wise’s brisk direction keeps the 72 minute film marching towards Stoker’s inevitable date with destiny.
Stoker’s manager Tiny (George Tobias) and trainer Red (Percy Helton) have made a deal with crooked gambler Big Boy (Alan Baxter) for Stoker to lose in the third round. But they don’t tell Stoker because they assume the bum will lose anyway, and why split the dough three ways? But they fail to realize the fighter in him, angry his wife hasn’t shown up and determined to prove himself worthy, won’t allow him to do anything but his best.
The locker room is filled with fighters on their way up and down. Young Shanley (Daryl Hickman) is a bundle of nerves before his first professional bout. Cocky Danny (Edwin Max) lives for wine, women, and song, while devout Tony (Phillip Pine) depends on a Higher Power. Black fighter Luther (James Edwards) has big dreams ahead, but punchy Gunboat (David Clarke) has taken one too many blows to the head. The locker room is held together by cynical Gus ( Wallace Ford ) who’s seen ’em come and go, and knows that no one here gets out alive.
The main event between Stoker and Tiger Nelson is well choreographed by ex-welterweight Johnny Indrisano, a stuntman and bit player (GUYS & DOLLS, SOME LIKE IT HOT, JAILHOUSE ROCK ). The bout is intense and realistic, with Wise using three cameras to capture the brutality. DP Milton Krasner’s use of shadows and light should’ve been Oscar nominated, but wasn’t (Paul Vogel won B&W cinematography that year for BATTLEGROUND). Editor Roland Gross ( THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD ) intersperses the action with shots of the bloodthirsty crowd, including a fat man who keeps stuffing his face, a blind spectator and his pal who interprets the carnage, a young couple, an older couple (the husband seems appalled at his wife’s blood lust), and a gentleman trying to watch the fight and listen to the ballgame on his transistor radio.
Tiny and Red finally tell Stoker to lay down, but the proud fighter is determined to prove himself one more time, and winds up knocking Tiger out. This doesn’t sit well with Big Boy, who just lost a bundle. The gambler, Nelson, and his people confront Stoker in the locker room. He tells them the truth, he didn’t know the fix was in. Tiny and Red have taken a powder, and now Stoker is truly alone. He attempts to leave through the arena, which is locked, and has no recourse than to head out through the alley, where Big Boy and his crew await. He valiantly fights back, but the odds are against him once again, and he’s held down as Big Boy crushes his hand with a brick. Julie sees her husband stagger out of the alley through their hotel window and rushes to him. Bloodied but unbowed, his meal ticket hand ruined, Stoker tells his wife “They wanted me to lay down… I took that kid… I can’t fight no more”. “I won tonight. I won”, he says, and Julie tells him “We both won tonight”, as the camera pulls back to show the town square clock, signaling time has finally run out for Stoker Thompson.
The powerhouse script is by ex-sportswriter Art Cohn, who died in the same 1958 plane crash as producer Mike Todd. It’s based on a poem by Joseph Moncure Marsh, with the protagonist changed from a black man to white due to the unsteady race relations of the era (RKO didn’t think a film starring a black boxer would sell in the segregated South). The casting of James Edwards (HOME OF THE BRAVE) was a crumb tossed to black audiences. Even with the change of race, THE SET-UP is still one of the best boxing films in film noir, and holds up well today. Special mention should be made to the use of sound in the movie, with Phil Brigandi and Clem Portman’s work outstanding. Plenty of Familiar Faces show up, like Herbert Anderson, Bernard Gorcey (Louie Dumbrowski of THE BOWERY BOYS series), Donald Kerr ( THE DEVIL BAT ), Tommy Noonan , Charles Wagenheim, and Constance Worth. Famed New York crime photographer Arthur “Weegee” Fellig has a cameo as the timekeeper.
THE SET-UP is downbeat as all hell, but that’s what makes a good noir, a glimpse into the dark side of life. With its squalid boxing milieu and shady cast of characters, this is one movie fans of the genre will not want to miss.