Raphael Georg Klopper’s review published on Letterboxd:
Formally known and hailed as the epitome of the Boxing Noir sub-genre, and rightfully so! Robert Wise’s The Set-Up is so freaking great that it should serve as the ultimate proof on how Noir should forever be the filmmaking household of such sport-film potential of drama, because instead of focusing on the sport dynamic itself, it takes its world, rules and universe through exploring the harsh reality of the same. Is not just a “boxing-film” as it is what all define him as, a perfect excellent Noir, and as such, from the get go on, you know you’re in for something that by the end might be far from being pleasantly happy. On the perfect contrary, The Set-Up is the perfect example of the tragic-Noir with its main character heading in to a path where no comeuppance will come and destiny is the real cruel antagonist!
The film’s uniqueness comes from the sport-stage itself, even if it wasn’t the only one exploring the sport within this same Noirish world, but in many ways the co-founder of such inspiring storytelling idea, but also as in the way that is made. Wise as a director by that point was only known for the horror B classics such as The Curse of the Cat People, The Body Snatcher, and Noir-ish melodramas like Born to Kill, all most fairly competent, if more automatic-made projects than authorial ones, but it was after the highly snubbed Blood on the Moon and finally with this one where he could show that his dramatic range could go much beyond the textual level and common structure, while telling its center story with a magnetic visual flair that speaks more volumes than the script even dares to!
It sure was FAR from being the first Noir to achieve such remark, but it was one of the main ones whom show why later the French became so inspired and hailed so much real artistic level coming from these types of films where, as lower the budget was, more the freedom to create met at hand for a director to grasp on to and make something that feels tremendously unique! The Set-Up is not only unique for mixing Boxing within what one may call a typical Noir plot, involvement with criminals, and the rules of the world are turning against the unlucky protagonist destined for a tragic end; but on how it builds the world around it as much away from any sign of classic glamour. Is dirty, depressingly downgrading, where the gorgeous B&W cinematography not only serves a cheap-production role but is a dramatic showcase of the sadden tone of these character’s lives living in the brick of bad-luck, having to work for no-good brutal characters to survive or grasping in straws to survive with little as possible.
Where boxing is way more than just a dirty brutal sport of gladiatorial violence as it much serves the purpose of a direct allegorical mirror to society itself. A world of cold corrupt laws of work, and where a bunch of nobodies fight for title, importance, success, acceptance, or religious redemption, as well represented in Stoker (Robert Ryan)’s fellow boxers in the locker room. Fighters that stand together rooting and admiring one another’s dreaming strengths and feeding hopes to keep them going, but only to a certain extent when their own lives gets on the line, and only their one-selves matters, and nobody can blame them seeing the dreadful situations they are put into.
All the while and amidst of all that, only poor soul one went against the rules of this system and paid a cruel price. Putting Robert Ryan in that role, you can do no wrong about it! We instantly feel for his Stoker, a down to earth every day man wanting to succeed in life doing what he does best, with a slightly fading but still bright sign of hope shining in his eyes. Not much doing for a fighter’s legacy pride, but as a way to show himself worthy of living by his own merits and efforts, and to prove that in the eyes of his wife Julie (a depressed face Audrey Totter) that more and more frightfully doubts of his chances of surviving another fight and living in the cliché delusion of being one-punch away from success in his way of living, that is now cursed and corrupt, where all odds, bets and people are against him.
It’s really a film that comes down to this, the fight against the destiny of living in a world that is clearly against you, with a character that goes directly against the corrupt rule of his acting sport, his superiors and life itself, even if without ever realizing it, because he is just being loyal to his instincts and ideals and not knowing that everyone was betting for him to lose and underestimated his willpower and passion for what he does. But as this is such a son of a bitch world that even victory possess no sense of ‘victory’ at all, no glory, not even…satisfaction, there are no allies to represent us with their reactions because even they were rooting against Stoker (his manager Tiny - George Tobias, and his assistant Red - Percy Helton), and the crowd only cheered for the one who drew most blood and bruises out of the other.
Is all a turmoil of pity for the extreme sympathy we grow to feel for Stoker in such short amount of time, as relief maybe by the end when he manages to survive only to win a empty victory, but one that is about to end when the entire sad portrait of Stoker’s life comes back falling on top of him where life itself is ought to punishes him for winning by the end. And his upcoming boxing match becomes a pre-announcement of his death, from the locker room rising tension to the harrowing final act that turns into a small scale horror film, where the character’s fears is transferred to ours while watching in a immersed feeling of claustrophobic anxiety and dread of what may come out of the dark (Wise’s rehearsal for The Haunting); Wise’s construction and command stands nothing short of masterful!
He is a ballerina with the camera, where every little movement feels highly planned and calculated to capture exactly what each shot needs to sewn in the progressive visual and textual narrative of the film without ever losing a piece of its content or cohesion, with each scenic piece hitting all the notes it seeks to create. Be it the growing pre-fight apprehension alongside the psychological drama occurring in the head of Stoker and his colleagues inside the locker room, and in the interconnections that the film makes with the scenes of Stoker’s wife Julie wandering around the city in a hopeless despair, practically accepting the fact that her husband has already died and that she doesn't have the courage to put up with it nor to face it.
And how the entire runtime manages to fit all that together goes both to a wonderful script work, but specially to Wise’s genius sense of pacing construction, that’s flawlessly uninterrupted with ceaseless coherent energy and building the main story happening at real freaking time, smartly signed by the clocks images throughout the film that just adds in both to the frantic sense of the experience while watching, as to the downgrading atmospheric tone of the film that passes as a real-life purgatory with lifeless hope haunting everyone that passes along the screen, staged in what is a ironically named town of "Paradise City". All coming into a supreme head on the brilliant 20 minutes final fight that are inquisitively amazing as purposefully clumsy, with both Ryan and Hal Baylor’s Tiger Nelson throwing at each other in real punching brutality (Ryan being an ex-boxer adds to the verisimilitude of the sequence), while Wise’s camera keeps jumping around between the reaction shots from the crowd, awakening all the feelings at play and upping the already perpetuated tension.
With so much greatness filling up the ante of the film, it feels somewhat disappointing how everything gets wrapped it up by the end after so much of the sadden tone of the film had already emotionally scarred you by then. Is not exactly bad, but the “uplifting” and hopeful send-off, even if indeed having a bittersweet taste to it, kind of feels out of place from the fatalistic tone from the rest of the film. It rather comes to serve much more the role of a middle finger to the Noir usual pessimism, which I’m up to bet it was something that Wise wanted himself to differentiate his own film out of the “common trend”. But, it might as well just be a nitckpick from me, because the scene doesn’t deviate from the rest of the film’s weight and it does carry out the emotional resonance from it in a heartfelt and cute note, but perhaps...too fictional to be believable inside the cruel world that the film captured so well on creating this nightmare existence of the impossibilities of a doomed faith.