The Set-Up

The Set-Up ★★★★★

Featuring a tight real time narrative and intensely evocative direction from the great Robert Wise, The Set-Up is a true blue highlight not just of Wise’s filmography (he cited it as one of his personal favorites), but also star Robert Ryan, who plays an over-the-hill boxer who, unbeknownst to himself, has been chosen to take a dive. What follows is a taunt showcase of tension building and characterization, as we see a man prepare himself for one last go at glory, even as the world around seems to want to drag him into the mud.

Wise always held this film as one of his career highlights, and it’s easy to see why. With its razor sharp direction and dynamic understanding of the sweet brutality of boxing, Wise creates a vivid portrait of the boxing underworld filled with punch-drunk has-beens, starry eyed new meat, and positively bloodthirsty fans flanked by heartless and manipulative promoters, with the film’s narrative playing out in real time, an innovation that was groundbreaking for the era. Wise’s kinetic direction finds a balance between an emotional intensity in examining the interior mindset of our worn down but determined protagonist, and the pure physicality of boxing itself, captured with a breathtaking vividness and uncompromising realism by Wise and his cameras, an explosive combination that was an explicit influence on later classics like Rocky or Raging Bull.

Robert Ryan agreed with Wise, and cited this film as one of his favorite performances, as it gave him the (relatively) rare opportunity to play the protagonist, in a career defined by being one of Hollywood’s best heavies. Ryan’s famously intense, boiling style of coiled physicality is perfectly suited to being an on-screen boxer (indeed, in real life, Ryan was a boxer once himself), and his trademark ability to lace archetypical characters with a sense of complexity and inner pathos is beautifully showcased as we trace the anxiety crackling across his worn face as he sees each of the fellow boxers before him head out to the ring, either to glorious victories, or soul crushing defeats. Audrey Totter’s turn as Ryan’s loving wife, who spends the evening battling her own anxiety over her husband’s fate, is a highlight as well, and their scenes together have a genuine truthful tenderness. Supporting roles by the likes of George Tobias, Alan Baxter, Wallace Ford, Percy Helton, Hal Fieberling, Darryl Hickman, James Edwards, and David Clarke, among others, round out the small but sharply etched cast.

Milton R. Krasner’s gritty cinematography, which earned him the Best Cinematography prize at the 1949 Cannes Film Festival, blends intense noir lighting with dynamic camera movements, be it the shooting of dingy hotel rooms and the rotting backrooms of a boxing arena, or the technical showcase of capturing the unrelenting final boxing match, his trio of cameras capturing wide shots of the ring, peering through the ropes, or looking down from above.

A fantastic example of less is more in cinematic storytelling, The Set-Up is one of the best entries in an already famously stellar genre, with it’s rewarding focus on psychology, and explosive in-ring action finding a perfect balance.

5 out of 5 stars.