Stoker Thompson (Robert Ryan) is a veteran of the boxing world, with twenty years of experience under his belt. His wife Julie (Audrey Totter) has begged him to give up boxing for good, fearing that he’ll end up taking one punch too many and either become seriously injured or die from it. But he’s a very stubborn man, insisting that he can still win matches at the age of 35, despite the fact that most of his competitors are barely out of high school.
Stoker’s manager, Tiny (George Tobias), apparently isn’t quite so confident. Tiny decides to take money from a tough gambler known as Little Boy (Alan Baxter) who wants to fix the next match, leading Stoker’s opponent to victory. Tiny promises that Stoker will essentially throw the match, leading Little Boy to rake in loads of cash from those who bet against him. But Stoker knows nothing about this payoff, and tension builds as he attempts to overtake his opponent in the ring.
From RKO Pictures and director Robert Wise, The Set-Up was released in 1949. It is based on a poem from the 1920s.
I’m certainly not a fan of boxing or any similar fight-based sport, so the general premise of this film isn’t something I’d usually be attracted to. As a result, it was a bit difficult for the boxing scenes to hold my interest. That’s not to say these scenes are boring or that the film as a whole is dull. It’s a very honest and violent look at the world of boxing. But as with any boxing match, I found myself turning away and flinching during these scenes rather than watching them with great interest.
Now, I know what you’re thinking — Lindsey, if you hate boxing, why did you choose to check out a film that’s all about the sport? The answer is that I was hoping for it to be more than a slew of punches and bloodied faces. And luckily, this film did deliver in giving the viewer more than just violence. Though it’s certainly full of cringe-worthy injuries, the film is about more than just the fights themselves. It makes a wider commentary on betrayal and the bloodthirsty nature of the audience, which is a message that can be carried outside of boxing and outside of the world of sports in general.
Another interesting aspect of The Set-Up is that it’s told in real time, which is quite a unique approach to telling a story on film. This format lends itself to a lot of suspense and anxiety.
Robert Ryan also gives a brilliant performance as Stoker. Despite the fact that he’s so stubborn and unwilling to take his wife’s concerns into consideration, his perseverance gives him a sort of “common man” quality that the audience can easily relate to and get behind. He also, for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on, reminded me a bit of Gary Cooper in this performance.
Overall, 1949’s The Set-Up is a dramatic, violent and somewhat tragic look at the sport of boxing. The mood is certainly bleak, but the audience is given a slight ray of hope at the end. A strong cast, an interesting format and a number of very memorable scenes make this film worth watching even if you aren’t a fan of the sport that it is focused on. The score: 3/5
*All images in this post are credited to Dr. Macro’s High Quality Movie Scans at doctormacro.com!