Nov 12, 2019
On Blu-ray: Robert Ryan and Audrey Totter in the Boxing Noir The Set-Up (1949)
The rough-edged boxing noir The Set-up (1949) is notable for starring two of the best movie villains, Robert Ryan and Audrey Totter, as a loving married couple. It’s nice to see them be the good guys for once in a film where the rest of the world feels rotten to the core. I recently watched the film on a new Blu-ray release from Warner Archive.
Ryan is Stoker Thompson, a boxer past his prime whose wife (Totter) is desperate for him to stop fighting before he destroys himself. His manager also sees how damaged his client has become, but tries to use it to his advantage by telling a gangster the fighter will take a dive in his next bout. He doesn’t bother to tell Stoker about the deal, because he assumes he will lose.
The Set-up is based on Joseph Moncure March’s 1928 epic poem novella of the same name about an aging African-American boxer. According to Wise, a white actor was cast because at the time there wasn’t a black star with the stature to star in the film. As Robert Ryan had boxed in college, he was thought to have the skills necessary to convincingly play a boxer.
The film is notable for running in real time, which makes the action feel immediate and true-to-life. That trait is emphasized by a street clock that marks the time at the beginning and the end of the film. It is a characteristic at the heart of film noir: life can change on you very quickly and without warning.
There’s excellent attention to detail here, from the grimy feel of the Thompson’s hotel room to the cauliflower ears sported by the boxers. It’s an airless, sweat-stained milieu full of characters grabbing for what riches they can get, because the minute they stepped into the game, the clock started ticking on their self-destruction.
As Stoker’s worried wife, Totter painfully embodies the grief of a woman well aware of that inevitable decline. She loves him so much that she has gotten to the point that she can’t watch him crumble anymore, a decision he views as a lack of support or even the end of their love. With all the corruption around them, their fight to find each other becomes the core of the film and gives it heart.
This was one of director Robert Wise’s favorite early films, and for good reason. He makes a lot of a spare setting and a bleak situation, creating a compelling and in some ways hopeful story in the process.
Special features include separately recorded commentaries by Marin Scorsese and Robert Wise which are a carryover from the DVD release.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.