The Set-Up

The Set-Up ★★★★½

"Don't you see, Bill? You'll always be just one punch away."

Former Orson Welles editor Robert Wise manages a lean noir classic with The Set-Up. Liberally adapted by screenwriter Art Cohn from a 1928 long narrative poem by Joseph Moncure March, the scenario chronicles a fateful day in the life of washed-up prizefighter Bill "Stoker" Thompson (Robert Ryan). Riding an extensive losing streak already, Thompson is slated as sacrificial fodder for up-and-comer Tiger Nelson (Hal Fieberling). Convinced that his fighter has no chance to win, Thompson's double-dealing manager Tiny (George Tobias) strikes a deal with cagey gangster Little Boy (Alan Baxter) to throw the bout without bothering to inform Thompson—who would then have to be cut in of course. Propelled by indignation over the conspicuous absence of his anti-pugilistic wife Julie (Audrey Totter) as well as Tiny's mid-match disclosure that winning may spell curtains, Thompson stoically absorbs a hellacious beating before administering a cathartic knockout blow to the exhausted Nelson—thereby painfully redefining the term 'Pyrrhic victory', especially given what awaits him outside the ring.

The tight seventy-three minute run time mirrors the narrative's compression, making The Set-Up a model of concision, even while it periodically pauses to thicken the vibe with bits of engrossing minutia (such as repeated cuts to a ringside gambler simultaneously tracking a baseball game on a portable radio). The film's striking seediness is a testament to the value of good location scouting, as I can easily picture (and in fact expected) an unbearable soundstage version. Totter is affecting in a sort of Gloria-Grahame-at-the-end-of-her-tether register, while Baxter comes off like a psychotic amalgam of Frank Sinatra and Dan Duryea. Ryan gives the most assured, natural performance I've seen him deliver and looks like an Adonis when shirtless; I was therefore unsurprised to learn that he was a former college boxing champion.  

Some stray notes:
-DON'T THAT GUY GET ENOUGH SLEEP IN THE RING?
-THEY'RE ALL FOR YOU, AS LONG AS YOU'RE IN THE CHIPS
-USING THE BIBLE FOR A SCRATCH SHEET?
-THERE'S NO PERCENTAGE IN SMARTENING UP A CHUMP

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