Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 25, 2019)
For a fairly early directorial effort from Oscar-winning filmmaker Robert Wise, we go to 1949ís The Set-Up. The story introduces us to Stoker Thompson (Robert Ryan), a boxer who lives on the sportís margins.
This means Stoker scrambles to eke out a living, though he continues to dream heíll eventually hit the big time. Given his history of multiple losses and his advancing age, however, this seems unlikely.
While his wife Julie (Audrey Totter) begs him to quit, Stoker plugs away, and this leads to a big fight against Tiger Nelson (Hal Fieberling). Unbeknownst to Stoker, however, his manager Tiny (George Tobias) enters the ring with his own agenda, one that may not agree with Stokerís.
As I wrote the synopsis, I didnít want to give away too much about the movieís twist, but given the plotís progression, it wouldnít really qualify as a spoiler. We learn of Tinyís betrayal early in the film, so the tension arises from what Stoker will actually do.
Set-Up comes from an unusual source, as it stems from a 20-year-old narrative poem by Joseph Moncure March. Not many poems end up as features, though this does explain the filmís length, as Set-Up clocks in at a mere 72 minutes.
The movie uses that space well, as Wise paints an indelible picture across that brief running time. The tale opens on fight night, a surprising choice, as I expected the movie to offer some build prior to this event.
The decision to focus so strongly on the evening in question doesnít mean Set-Up skimps on character development, though, as it manages to give us plenty of relevant information. Most of the movie stays in the locker room, so we get to know Stoker and other pugilists there.
This becomes an effective choice, as it conveys enough character material to suffice, and it also humanizes the boxers. Set-Up focuses on the dark side of the boxing business, as we see a series of scared, beaten-down fighters.
These sad-sack boxers contrast with the blood lust from the crowd. Wise makes it clear that the audience just views the fighters as meat to be ground for their entertainment. That may not be an original concept, but Wise makes the experience more emotionally relevant than usual.
Because Stoker remains unaware of Tinyís betrayal, another good twist emerges. Most stories of this sort would look at the tale as a morality play in which the lead battles his conscience, but here, we get more suspense.
The narrative embraces the Hitchcockian conceit related to a bomb. When the audience knows of a danger that the characters donít realize, the tension lasts longer, and that becomes true here, as we feel anxious to see Stokerís fate.
Even without that element, Set-Up offers a satisfying character drama. It brings a gritty look at its subject matter and turns into a strong tale.