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A Movie A Day: THE SET-UP (1949)
Remember, now. Take it easy for two heats, then you can finish him. That’s the set-up

Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with today’s installment of A Movie A Day. [For those now joining us, A Movie A Day is my attempt at filling in gaps in my film knowledge. My DVD collection is thousands strong, many of them films I haven’t seen yet, but picked up as I scoured used DVD stores. Each day I’ll pull a previously unseen film from my collection and discuss it here. Each movie will have some sort of connection to the one before it, be it cast or crew member.] Yeah, it’s late today, but it’s here. Can’t blame me, can ya’? Had a full, full day exploring Vegas. Caught the Star Trek Experience at the Las Vegas Hilton a scant few days before it’s shut down forever (it was pretty sweet if a little overprised… gotta love the Klingon attack ride, but the Borg one sucked a little bit) before some gambling, some great Indian food and, finally, Penn & Teller’s awesome show at the Rio. I’m a huge fan of their Showtime series BULLSHIT! and their live show was awesome. They hung out afterwards talking and autographing programs… Yeah, Teller spoke to me! I feel blessed… Apparently they are about to begin the next season… Anyway, you see my full, packed day, but I still found time to watch Robert Wise’s THE SET-UP, about a washed up boxer played by the awesome Robert Ryan. See how clever I was programming this after SOMEBODY UP THERE LIKES ME, another Robert Wise boxing flick involving a pay-off of some sort.

What I loved about this film was the simplicity of the story. It’s a little refreshing coming off of a run of really great, sprawling semi-epic dramas, like yesterday’s film. Here you have a story told in one night, a story about a boxer who is set to take a dive, but doesn’t know it. Robert Ryan is Stoker, a 35 year old boxer who is still stubbornly holding on to the dream of becoming a champ even though he hasn’t won a fight in recent memory. His wife, Julie (played by Audrey Totter), is fed up with this life, not being able to stand the bloodlust of the crowd as her husband gets pummeled night after night. She can’t stand it anymore, but his point is that he’s a boxer. That’s what he does… maybe someday he can settle down, start his own cigar stand or something, but he won’t ever willingly go down this path. He’s past his prime already, but the carrot is always just out of reach. His dickhead management are introduced by having one of them, George Tobias, inadvertently crossing out Stoker’s name on the bill when striking a match. Or maybe advertently. He is a douche. He has accepted a bribe, but decided to not tell his fighter. It’s not because he believes Ryan is such a noble gentleman. Hell no. It’s because he knows the old wash-out will dive by himself and he can save cutting him in on the take. What he doesn’t understand is that Ryan is fired up. He’s out to prove to his wife that he can do this.

Much like yesterday’s movie, Wise doesn’t show you the fights going on. You see the boxers in the locker room as they one by one go out and fight. They run all types… You have the title bout with a young enthusiastic black dude, his life ahead of him, dreams ripe for the picking. You have the preliminary bouts which consist of another young guy a kid entering the ring for the first time. He’s nervous, throwing up beforehand, but it goes very well for him. Then you have another older fighter who is in an even deeper set of denial than Ryan. Or maybe not. Maybe it’s the exact same level, but Ryan sees what happens to this poor guy, sees how out of it he is when they carry him back in from his “this is the one, I’m sure it is” fight and, I’m sure, sees what his wife sees every time he is knocked silly. Maybe he sees this and draws back a little. The point is we see the results of the fights without seeing the fights themselves. Even the winners come in bloody and swollen. The roar of the crowd is not friendly, but angry, full of hatred. It’s the kind of roar you imagine when you read about the gladiators fighting to the death. They want to see someone hurt real bad. It all serves to psychologically torture us, the audience, and dread Ryan’s turn up to bat. No, don’t go out there! You’re old! You’re supposed to take a fall, so even if you somehow pull this off it’s not going to turn out good for you anyway! The only time we cut out of locker room is to follow Ryan’s wife as she takes a walk around the gorgeous RKO noir city street sets in great black and white. The blacks are deep, shadows swallowing people whole. She first attempts to go and watch the fight, composing herself for her husband’s sake, but entering the crowd and hearing them calling for blood, she just can’t take it and wanders the city, even going so far as to subtly consider suicide after being reminded of her husband’s pending doom everywhere she looks (from a radio in a newsstand discussing a current fight to a Rock-Em Sock-Em Robots style game in a game hall).

When the time comes, Ryan steps into the ring and shows every bit of heart we expect him to. Now he’s fighting a young kid, Tiger Nelson (played by real life heavyweight champion Hal Baylor), but Nelson isn’t his main competition. The crowd is.

My God, the picture Wise paints of us, the voyeurs, is not a pretty one. The people in the crowd are animals, shouting for death, blood, brutality. There’s a sweaty fat man who shovels food into his face, something new and different each time we see him, lost in the battles taking place in front of him. There’s a blind man having the fight repeated to him as he clutches his cane and stares out with dead eyes, screaming for more. There’s a housewife who is almost zealous, cultlike, in her obsession with the brutality on display. Those last two are my favorites. Check ‘em out:

The fight between Ryan and Baylor is everybit as dirty and raw as we were worried it was going to be, incredibly well choreographed. It looked to me like these two men were really going after each other, landing punches and going fullsteam into this sequence. Some people might read the ending as being a downer, but I saw it in a completely different way. I think it’s very hopeful and that the characters might be better off than they were when the picture started. Final Thoughts: I’ve talked about Robert Ryan a lot in this column. He was a fanastic actor and the more I see of his work the more depressed I get that he’s not more well known or respected. He’s wonderful here, Robert Wise’s direction is outstanding, the supporting cast are great, the black and white photography by Milton R. Krasner is shocking and perfect… And it’s all packed into a tight 72 minute story. It’s a fascinating angle into a boxing flick that completely works, thanks to all the above-mentioned people involved as well as Art Cohn’s great script.

The schedule for the next 7 days is: Thursday, August 28th: THE DEVIL & DANIEL WEBSTER (1941) Friday, August 29th: CAT PEOPLE (1942) Saturday, August 30th: CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE (1944) Sunday, August 31st: THE 7TH VICTIM (1943) Monday, September 1st: THE GHOST SHIP (1943) Tuesday, September 2nd: ISLE OF THE DEAD (1945) Wednesday, September 3rd: BEDLAM (1946) I’ll probably be catching THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER tomorrow on the plane back home, so look for that one late tomorrow night. We follow over Robert Wise once more. He directed today’s picture and edited tomorrow’s. See you folks then! -Quint

Previous Movies: June 2nd: Harper
June 3rd: The Drowning Pool
June 4th: Papillon
June 5th: Gun Crazy
June 6th: Never So Few
June 7th: A Hole In The Head
June 8th: Some Came Running
June 9th: Rio Bravo
June 10th: Point Blank
June 11th: Pocket Money
June 12th: Cool Hand Luke
June 13th: The Asphalt Jungle
June 14th: Clash By Night
June 15th: Scarlet Street
June 16th: Killer Bait (aka Too Late For Tears)
June 17th: Robinson Crusoe On Mars
June 18th: City For Conquest
June 19th: San Quentin
June 20th: 42nd Street
June 21st: Dames
June 22nd: Gold Diggers of 1935
June 23rd: Murder, My Sweet
June 24th: Born To Kill
June 25th: The Sound of Music
June 26th: Torn Curtain
June 27th: The Left Handed Gun
June 28th: Caligula
June 29th: The Elephant Man
June 30th: The Good Father
July 1st: Shock Treatment
July 2nd: Flashback
July 3rd: Klute
July 4th: On Golden Pond
July 5th: The Cowboys
July 6th: The Alamo
July 7th: Sands of Iwo Jima
July 8th: Wake of the Red Witch
July 9th: D.O.A.
July 10th: Shadow of A Doubt
July 11th: The Matchmaker
July 12th: The Black Hole
July 13th: Vengeance Is Mine
July 14th: Strange Invaders
July 15th: Sleuth
July 16th: Frenzy
July 17th: Kingdom of Heaven: The Director’s Cut
July 18th: Cadillac Man
July 19th: The Sure Thing
July 20th: Moving Violations
July 21st: Meatballs
July 22nd: Cast a Giant Shadow
July 23rd: Out of the Past
July 24th: The Big Steal
July 25th: Where Danger Lives
July 26th: Crossfire
July 27th: Ricco, The Mean Machine
July 28th: In Harm’s Way
July 29th: Firecreek
July 30th: The Cheyenne Social Club
July 31st: The Man Who Knew Too Much
August 1st: The Spirit of St. Louis
August 2nd: Von Ryan’s Express
August 3rd: Can-Can
August 4th: Desperate Characters
August 5th: The Possession of Joel Delaney
August 6th: Quackser Fortune Has A Cousin In The Bronx
August 7th: Start the Revolution Without Me
August 8th: Hell Is A City
August 9th: The Pied Piper
August 10th: Partners
August 11th: Barry Lyndon
August 12th: The Skull
August 13th: The Hellfire Club
August 14th: Blood of the Vampire
August 15th: Terror of the Tongs
August 16th: Pirates of Blood River
August 17th: The Devil-Ship Pirates
August 18th: Jess Franco’s Count Dracula
August 19th: Dracula A.D. 1972
August 20th: The Stranglers of Bombay
August 21st: Man, Woman & Child
August 22nd: The Little Girl Who Lives Down The Lane
August 23rd: The Young Philadelphians
August 24th: The Rack
August 25th: Until They Sail
August 26th: Somebody Up There Likes Me

Readers Talkback
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  • Aug. 28, 2008, 4:42 a.m. CST

    Looks good

    by mrfan

    Will have to check it out.

  • Aug. 28, 2008, 4:44 a.m. CST

    pen and teller suck

    by ironic_name


  • Aug. 28, 2008, 4:44 a.m. CST

    Sorry to hear about the Star Trek Experience

    by mrfan

    Been there and enjoyed it.

  • Aug. 28, 2008, 4:44 a.m. CST

    good lookin' flick.

    by ironic_name

  • Aug. 28, 2008, 4:46 a.m. CST

    I congratulate you, mrfan

    by ironic_name

    to those about to first, we salut you.

  • Aug. 28, 2008, 5:15 a.m. CST

    Set-Up thoughts

    by psychedelic

    The Set-Up is an overlooked gem that at least deserves a reputation equal to the best film noirs. It’s without doubt a top highlight of Robert Wise’s career. I enjoyed it more on a second viewing though my feelings were as strong the first time. Gratifyingly, Martin Scorsese does commentary on the DVD which hopefully will bring The Set-Up more attention. I haven’t listened to the Wise-Scorsese commentary yet, but look forward to it.<p>The boxing arena is a seamy underbelly of sweat and smoke. Everyone is against Stoker. His wife, his manager, the crowd, and his age. This gloom mixed with the fragile dreams of the locker room creates grim mood reflective of the best hard-knuckled noir. Lovely evocative cinematography enhances the tone. Robert Ryan as Stoker bares the brunt with a relaxed confidence trying to ignore that his best days are behind him. He has to stop what he loves sooner rather than later. The supporting cast in the locker room does an excellent job of creating a desperate dreams atmosphere, not a weak link in the bunch. Once again, Wise captures a brutal boxing match but with more emphasis on the ring’s isolation. Though the “real time” clocks feel a bit self-conscious, it’s a lean mean film with very little waste. I give it the strongest recommendation.

  • Aug. 28, 2008, 5:51 a.m. CST

    So this is the Sensational Picture I've Been Hearing About!

    by brokentusk

    Great write-up Quint, I love that gladiatorial combat parallel.

  • Aug. 28, 2008, 7:28 a.m. CST


    by RenoNevada2000

    Man did classic Hollywood have great extras, as Quint points out. Look at those faces. You don't see mugs with character like that in H'Wood today outside of a few specific directors' films like the Coens.

  • Aug. 28, 2008, 7:30 a.m. CST

    Old black and white movies

    by Napoleon Park

    I grew up in the era when late night Tv and even afternoons were filled with old black and white movies and, as a kid, I wasn't that appreciative. I wish there were a station or two carrying that stuff now (on basic cable, which is all I can afford). I might appreciate the characterization and plot twists not, as an adult. but as a kid... well, consider the description. a movie about boxing mostly set in a locker room where we never see most of the fights. you can see where a little kid would have a problem with something like that.<p>Of course in these PC times I'd be offended by the fat guy stuffing his face with a variety of snacks. Oh, how funny, where did he gat all that food from? I know, let's do a movie with only one fat person in it and call him Porkins.

  • Aug. 28, 2008, 7:44 a.m. CST

    Robert Ryan...

    by drew mcweeny

    ... is probably better-regarded than you realize, Quint. I think anyone familiar with the era when he worked would agree that he was one of those guys who served as a backbone to the industry, solid and dependable every single time. I can't think of a Robert Ryan performance that was anything less than real, and in many films, he was transcendent. Peckinpah was a particular fan, and really knew how to get the best out of him. Glad to see you're digging him, and this was one of the best written reviews you've published in this series so far. The film really seems to have struck a chord with you. It should. It's a good one.

  • Aug. 28, 2008, 8:10 a.m. CST

    Quint, Teller will speak

    by Grammaton Cleric Binks

    I've seen documentaries on magic, and he is a very eloquent speaker. But, if he's on stage or in character like in Run DMC's It's Tricky video... forget it.

  • Aug. 28, 2008, 8:41 a.m. CST

    Any chance of

    by Mr Sidney James

    Watching someing that wasn't made in the '40s. something us bright young things can relate to from the '80s or '90s I'm starting to get bored.

  • Aug. 28, 2008, 9:05 a.m. CST

    a movie a day?

    by s0beurself

    I hope you don't burn yourself out. I'd rather a movie a week on your favorite for that week. Anyone can churn out daily reviews.

  • Aug. 28, 2008, 9:11 a.m. CST

    Superb movie

    by Nasty In The Pasty

    One of the best in the first Warner Bros. film noir boxed sets.

  • Aug. 28, 2008, 9:11 a.m. CST

    I did not know about that Wise/Scorsese commentary.

    by Knuckleduster

    As if the movie alone wasn't cool enough. Always thought this would make a great play.

  • Aug. 28, 2008, 9:41 a.m. CST


    by Bloo

    I just happened to catch a movie with him and Jimmy Stewart and Janet Leigh the other night on TCM called The Naked Spur...a hell of a good western, was totally mesmerized by his performance and watching it I thought "this is the movie that 3:10 To Yuma (the Mangold version) wishes it could be"<P>I haven't seen this film but the review alone and the strength of Ryan's performance makes me want to see it, the cherry is the Wise/Scorcese commentary

  • Aug. 28, 2008, 10:05 a.m. CST

    Mr Sidney James, I guess you missed

    by jim

    The Elephant Man, Flashback, On Golden Pond, Strange Invaders, Kingdom of Heaven, Cadillac Man, The Sure Thing, Moving Violations. I'm sure Quint will swing back around to that era again.

  • Aug. 28, 2008, 10:13 a.m. CST

    Sounds like a great film - I'll have to search it out.

    by jim

    Too bad no studio exec. has had the notion to get today's generation interested in the classics by putting them on new releases as bonus features. Wouldn't this film have been a great addition to the latest Raging Bull DVD? Or put Start the Revolution Without Me as a feature on the DVD release of Marie Antoinette.

  • Aug. 28, 2008, 10:24 a.m. CST

    Quint, once again you justify the column...

    by MCVamp

    By making me want to see a movie I've never heard of. Seriously, I hope when Blu-Ray catches on some more that they start putting out those 30-movie discount packs of older films. Properly mastered, B&W stuff looks awesome in hi-def (maybe it's because the old color treatments washed the image clarity a bit? Dunno.) I've even started eyeing interesting stuff in the used sections. I used to rarely buy older movies, now in recent days I've picked up the 1940 MARK OF ZORRO, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, THE MALTESE FALCON, THE WILD BUNCH, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST...and my Sony HD projector & 90-inch screen was possibly of the best $1200 I've ever spent. Thanks again Quint...and Vegas rules, you lucky bastard. I won't be able to make a real trip for months since I'm about to switch jobs.

  • Aug. 28, 2008, 11:16 a.m. CST

    About Joseph Moncure March

    by Tycho Anomaly

    This may be the only boxing movie ever made that's based on a poem. Joseph Moncure March was best known for his other narrative poem, "The Wild Party", and for an assortment of screenplays of varying quality. He wasn't asked to do the screenplay for THE SET-UP, and wasn't pleased that they took out the racial themes (Sterling Hayden's character in the poem is black). More about March here:

  • Aug. 28, 2008, 12:06 p.m. CST


    by MCVamp

    So had Quinn not yet seen it, tomorrow's movie could have been "Gunga Din" based on the segue of movies based on poems? Neat.

  • Aug. 28, 2008, 2:17 p.m. CST

    This is a fine film

    by Mattyboy122

    But certainly the weakest in the Warner Bros. Film Noir Vol. 1 collection (Gun Crazy being the best).

  • Aug. 28, 2008, 6:04 p.m. CST

    The Set-Up

    by ballsmcretard

    This is such a great flick! If you are a fan or boxing movies you are doing yourself a disservice by not checking this out. If you are a fan of great movies in general you are doing yourself a disservice by not checking this out. It is such a great example of mood and tone without overwhelming music and quick, slick editing. This film is easily overlooked but hard not to love once you've seen it. Plus...Jesus, the boxing choreography is truly amazing!

  • Aug. 28, 2008, 10:25 p.m. CST

    +1 Tycho Anomaly

    by Sydney2K

    Here's another article that compares both film and poem- it's worth checking out.

  • Aug. 29, 2008, 2:01 a.m. CST

    I just want to say...

    by Alonzo Mosely

    My respect for Quint has grown a thousandfold during this run. He has shown self-discipline and maturity in getting these done, and without any 3 paragraph rush jobs. He set himself an insane schedule and he is sticking to it. Bravo.<p> Before this series, Quint to me, was just the guy who was in King Kong, made rudimentary grammar errors and often wrote articles that were obviously based on 5 minutes research on IMDb and ended with a pleading "what do you guys think" at the end.<p> It has been a joy to watch him develop as a writer and see his film education develop before our eyes.

  • Aug. 29, 2008, 8:29 a.m. CST

    That's actually a pretty good idea, Big Jim.

    by Knuckleduster

    I'd love it if some lesser known older films were added to new releases as a bonus feature. I can't imagine the sales on some of these older movies being too high, so the studios won't be losing much. In fact, it will probably boost sales. Hope it catches on.

  • Aug. 29, 2008, 9:15 a.m. CST

    more Ryan....

    by John L Raiser

    I always liked "Bad Day at Black Rock" with Ryan and Spencer Tracy, and "Odds Against Tomorrow" Ryan, Belafonte, and Ed Begley. I agree with Quint. Ryan is woefully underrated/known.

  • Aug. 30, 2008, 6:54 p.m. CST

    You want to see Ryan at his best...

    by Continentalop

    I suggest you check out "Act of Violence" by Fred Zinnemann, "On Dangerous Ground" by Nicholas Ray and "Odds Against Tomorrow" by Robert Wise. No one could portray internal hurt, bitterness and suffering like Robert Ryan.