Review: The Set-Up (1949)
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.
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.
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.