I’m Just One Punch Away: The Set-Up
One of the films that I included on my recent list of Top 10 films noirs was The Set-Up, starring Robert Ryan and Audrey Totter. To me, both Ryan and Totter are quintessential noir performers – Ryan was unforgettable in Crossfire (1947), Clash By Night (1952), and Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), while Totter was simply outstanding in The Unsuspected (1947) and Tension (1950). But I think they both give their best work in 1949’s The Set-Up. (Watch your step – spoilers ahead!)
The Set-Up offers a simple story, particularly by the standards of the film noir era, which was known to present plots so complex that you sometimes give up trying to figure out who was done in by whom. This film, conversely, can be summed up in one sentence – it’s about an aging boxer trying to win a fight, against all odds. I believe that it is the simplicity of The Set-Up’s plot that allows the film to illustrate such rich and varied characters.
At the heart of the film are the boxer, Bill “Stoker” Thompson (Ryan) and his wife, Julie (Totter). Stoker is wise and experienced, hardened and cynical – he’s been around the block, he’s seen it all. He’s no champion; perhaps in his heyday, he came close, but now he loses far more bouts than he wins. But on the single night depicted in the film, Stoker is confident that he can emerge the victor.
Julie, however, is not so certain. She, too, has seen it all – she’s seen her husband on the canvas more times than she can remember, and she’s had it. Refusing to attend the night’s bout, Julie tells Stoker, “It ain’t I want to hurt you, but what kind of life is this? How many more beatings do you have to take?”
The cast is also enhanced by the performances of George Tobias (Tiny) and Percy Helton (Red). Tobias and Helton play Stoker’s manager and trainer, respectively, and sell him out to a local gangster with the odd moniker of Little Boy (Alan Baxter), who shells out a grand total of fifty bucks to guarantee that Stoker will take a fall. Trouble is, Tiny and Red neglect to inform Stoker about this deal until the third round – after it becomes obvious that he is going to win. Refusing to take a dive, Stoker emerges the victor, but in the alley behind the boxing arena, he is beaten by Little Boy’s henchmen, who break his hand, effectively ending his boxing career forever.
One of my favorite things about The Set-Up is the small roles, including the depiction of the members of the crowd viewing the fight – there is a blind man who has every move explained to him by his companion; a corpulent fellow who sits eating popcorn and an assortment of other snacks like he’s a kid at the circus; a woman who claims to be squeamish but who watches the matches in a frenzy of excitement and is once heard shrieking, “Quit stalling! Let’s have some action!” Other small, but effective, parts go to the boxers in the other bouts – one is a nervous youngster preparing for his first fight, another is a gentle sort who reads the Bible before entering the ring, and yet another is a punchy old-timer who is knocked unconscious during his unsuccessful bout. Their appearances are brief, but unforgettable, and serve to add to the film’s depth.
From start to finish, this Robert Wise-directed picture – which is seen in real-time – is riveting. If you haven’t seen it, see it. And if you’ve seen it, see it again.
You only owe it to yourself.