The Set-Up

The Set-Up ★★★★½

Joseph Moncure March was inspired to write his poem “The Set-up” in 1927 by a painting, one by James Chapin showing a black boxer sitting in his corner battered and acquiescent while his white manager, wearing an inscrutable smile, gestures to someone in the crowd. And so The Set-up is the only film noir based on a poem that’s based on a painting.

The theme of fatalism is baked into the title. Wise explores the noir existential crisis: the fix is in, buddy. Either way you’re gonna lose. You just get to choose how you’re gonna loose.

Playing against type, Robert Ryan (who’d been the undefeated boxing champ all four years at his Ivy League college) is a washed up pug trying to keep going past his expiration date, telling himself and his girl that “all it takes is one punch.”

Like all great boxing movies, it’s more exciting than an actual boxing match, especially today’s desaturated version of the sport. Wise’s and Milton Krasner’s boxing cinematography reminded me of dynamism of another artist George Bellows’ fight paintings, balletic and savage and as good as it gets.

However, outside the ring itself is where The Set-up achieves is greatness. Wise approaches the world of boxing with the naturalist’s eye that Émile Zola’s turned the Paris demimonde. He focuses on the dirtiness and cheapness surrounding the boxing world.

First, in the training room in the faces of the the boxers, cauliflower ears, ill-ventilated rooms and dreams. The ironically named Paradise City, is a house of delusions, filled with assortment of boxers on transecting trajectories.

“The arena reeked with age, It smelled like the bottom of a monkey cage,” is how March described it in his poem, and Wise picks up on that when showing us the ringside types: the bloodlust of a woman screaming “kill him!”, the blind man getting commentary from his friend, the guy listening to the baseball game on the portable radio, a fat guy working his way round-by-round through all the aren’s concessions, the punchy program seller, Ryan’s dodgy “management” team of Tiny & Red (George Tobias and Percy Helton), a pack of slick gangers and a moll.

Finally, outside the arena Wise stages some of the film’s high points: Audrey Totter worriedly waiting back in the room for Ryan warming soup on a hot plate. Wise shows us her face reflected in the glass clock face. The scene after the fight of Ryan trying to escape the empty arena and a dark alley. Wise’s use of shadows and empty space to build terror shows what he learned in Val Lewton’s workshop.

My only disappointment was that the film ended before we got to see what the ring announcer promised was coming next:

“And don’t forget, Friday night is Wrestling Night: The Lithuanian Angel against the Masked Mastodon. And for the first time in Paradise City, they will wrestle in a ring filled with fish.”

Recommended extra-credit reading: A.J. Liebling’s The Sweet Science

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