Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Review: The Set-Up (1949)

Some thirteen years after making a DVD debut as part of Warner's "Film Noir Collection Vol. 1," The Set-Up makes a triumphant appearance on Blu-ray thanks to Warner Archive. The film is a seminal work of crime/noir, and its influence can be seen in dozens of movies and television specials that came after it. Each of these ripples in the pop culture waters testifies to the power of the 1949 crime film masterpiece. One of the most powerful homages comes from none other than Quentin Tarantino himself, who pays his respects to the film with the entire segment of Pulp Fiction that deals with Bruce Willis' defiant boxer, Butch. Granted, Tarantino's tale seems to offer a tangential "what if" riff on the famous film, but the influence--and thus respect--is impossible to deny.

In the 1949 classic, Robert Ryan (The Dirty Dozen, The Wild Bunch) stars as a down-on-his-luck boxer. He's probably too old to still be stepping into the ring, and his streak of losses seems to affirm this. His romantic partner, played by Audrey Totter (The Postman Always Rings Twice), has seen her lover come back from the ring battered and bloody so many times that she can hardly bear to watch him compete anymore. In fact, the set-up of The Set-Up shows Totter ready to walk away once and for all, simply too in love with Ryan's lovable loser to see him take any more damage. If he won't quit, she will.

The film is an exercise in economy. Over the course of a mere 73 minutes, we're introduced to this domestic heartbreak as Ryan heads to the rink, convinced that THIS is his night. He's come close to victory in the past, but this particular match will finally be the one that results in his redemption. With this win will come respect, accolades, and the break he's been looking for. We spend time in the locker rooms as Ryan and his fellow boxers (think a room full of Spider Ricos from Rocky, which itself owes a tremendous debt to The Set-Up) dream impossible dreams, plan bright futures, and fantasize about success that may never come.
But what Robert Ryan's character doesn't know is that his own trainer, played by the great Hollywood character actor George Tobias (who would eventually become a household name as one of the neighbors on Bewitched) has placed a bet against him with the local loan shark and mob persona Little Boy, played by Alan Baxter (Saboteur). Our battered hero is intended to take a fall, take a payoff, and take a hike. The problem is, no one bothered to inform the boxer of this. Everyone just assumes he'll lose like he always does.

What follows is not necessarily a surprise for those who are versed in a cinesphere drenched with the influence of this film, but remains incredibly tense, powerful, and dramatic over seventy years since it was first released. In the execution of this premise, the film manages to straddle all sorts of powerful genres, including crime, noir, drama, sports, and even action. Even though we as the audience have not spent a great length of time with these characters, the script is so succinct, the performances so finely-tuned and believable, that we can't help but find ourselves deeply invested in their lives, or the potential loss thereof.
Somehow, this remarkable screenplay is the first script effort from Art Cohn, who adapted it from a poem written by Joseph Moncure March. Perhaps the greatness of this premise is captured to maximum potential by the director himself, Robert Wise. Wise's film-making resume reads like an education in cinema history, with The Day the Earth Stood Still, Run Silent Run Deep, West Side Story, The Haunting, The Sound of Music, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture standing as mere highlights on a lengthy resume. What Wise accomplishes here, with Cohn's script, and the performances from all the actors involved, adds up to a powerful example of what cinema can accomplish.

Warner Archive's recent Blu-ray does incredible justice to the film. One of the many things that's so appealing about The Set-Up is the cinematography, taking us from bright city streets to the madness of the boxing arena, and ultimately to the shadow-drenched, hopeless hallways and alleys of the criminal underworld. This incredible visual treat is depicted wonderfully in the strong transfer from Warner Brothers, presenting the deep blacks of classic noir cinematography, lensed here by Milton R. Krasner, the man who captured both Scarlet Street (1945) and No Way Out (1950) with his camera. The disc also includes an audio commentary featuring both director Robert Wise and Martin Scorsese.

The Set-Up feels nothing short of magical. The world it presents is populated by battered boxers with hearts of gold and dreams of a better life, by gangsters and crooks, and by men so compromised that they willingly bet against themselves. And for those 73 minutes, it's also populated by us, the viewer. The magic trick that the filmmakers pulled off is that it somehow invites us to return, over and over again. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.




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