(After skipping May, we’re back with my series on classic black-and-white movies. The Set-Up is a gloomy, muscular boxing tale from 1949 that focuses on “Stoker” Thompson and his ill-fated fight against “Tiger” Nelson.)
By Glen Sparks
The boxing world takes a tough punch to the face in the 1949 movie The Set-Up.
Directed by Robert Wise, The Set-Up tells the story of a veteran fighter, Bill “Stoker” Thompson (played by Robert Ryan), still looking for that one big payday. He doesn’t know, though, that the fix is in on this steamy Wednesday night at the Paradise City Athletic Club.
Thompson, 20 years into a mediocre career, insists that this may be the night. He is, he says, just one punch away from financial security.
His wife, Julie (Audrey Trotter), looks at him with alarm as he gets ready to leave their musty hotel room—the Hotel Cozy–and walk across the street to the Club. She has seen him take countless punches, watched him collapse onto the canvass of numerous boxing rings, and wonders if this fight might be his last.
“You’ll always be one punch away,” she says. … “How many more beatings do you have to take?”
Stoker, though, dismisses any thought of backing out and forfeiting this bout. His thought is simple: “If you’re a fighter, you gotta fight.” So, he heads to the club. Julie, though, stays behind.
Just about everyone smokes, and everyone sweats a gallon in this picture. Paradise City looks every bit like a stale, hot, crowded arena stuck in a has-been town. Boxing fans, though, gladly buck up to cheer on the fights.
Stoker goes up against the much younger “Tiger” Nelson. Stoker’s manager has cut a deal with a well-known local mobster to throw the fight. But, why tell Stoker, he figures. He’s going to lose anyway.
But, is he? Maybe Stoker can take this guy. Maybe Tiger isn’t so tough, after all. But, then what happens when gangsters, betting big money on the other guy to win, insist they’ve been double-crossed?
The Set-Up, based on a narrative poem written in 1928 by John Moncure March, plays out in real time. The movie begins at 9:05 p.m., as indicted by a clock in the Paradise City town square. An alarm clock wakes up Stoker at 9:11, Stoker leaves for the arena at 9:17 and so on. Three years later, the classic western High Noon famously used this device. The Set-Up ends on the Paradise City streets at 10:16.
Over the 71 minutes, we see fight-frenzied fans shout for more action. A female fan screams “Kill him!” One man shadow boxes and is so nerve-racked he can barely light his wife’s cigarette. A blind man, listening to a punch-by-punch account, screams for Tiger to “go for (Stoker’s) eye!” Meanwhile, the mobster, Little Boy (Alan Baxter), waits for the fix to set in.
Stoker’s manager (George Tobias, more famous as hen-pecked husband Abner Kravitz on Bewitched) and trainer Red (Percy Helton) finally let Stoker in on the plan at the start of the fourth and final round. But, will Stoker go along?
Wise (most famous for directing Sound of Music) does a great job with this muscular movie. He brings the viewer into the ring and onto the streets of Paradise City as Julie waits for the evening to end and walks the seedy streets. Ryan gives a sympathetic performance as Stoker and handles his ring work like a pro. Which he nearly was. The actor (Bad Day at Black Rock, The Dirty Dozen, The Wild Bunch) held the heavyweight title all four of his years at Dartmouth College.
Critics liked The Set-Up. “This RKO production … is a sizzling melodrama,” a New York Times critic wrote after the film’s release. “The sweaty, stale-smoke atmosphere of an ill-ventilated smalltime arena and the ringside types who work themselves into a savage frenzy have been put on the screen in harsh, realistic terms.”