THE SET-UP (Robert Wise, 1949)

Robert Ryan gives a tremendous performance—perhaps his greatest—as Stoker Thompson, a 35-year-old palooka who, belatedly informed by his manager during a bout that gambler Little Boy expects him to take a dive, refuses the arrangement and knocks out his young opponent, who is being groomed for minor stardom, in The Set-Up, for which the director, Robert Wise, took the prize of the international critics at Cannes. Milton Krasner’s black-and-white cinematography, which completes Wise’s fusion of urban nighttime noirishness and sentimental allegory, also won at Cannes.
     Next door to Dreamland, a working-class dance hall from which on the dark street reflected flickers of light from Dreamland’s rotating multi-faceted globe can be seen, is the tawdry, smoky Paradise City Athletic Club, where Stoker fights his last fight before his right hand is shattered by Little Boy with a brick. Scenarist Art Cohn and Wise are targeting violence in general; “Little Boy” was the codename of the atomic bomb that the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.
     Nevertheless, this is not a good film. Selfconscious, studied and poetical, The Set-Up is also as sadistic as anything that Spielberg has created. Its mere 72 minutes seem interminable. The fight itself, unnervingly realistic, regrettably comes cloaked in feeble melodrama. While Thompson fights for his honor and dignity, moreover, Julie, his wife, who wants him to quit the ring and, of course, gets her wish, walks and walks through carnival-like streets. The crosscutting irritates. Wise treats Julie to fancy camera angles, such as in the overhead shot where she sprinkles the pieces of her torn-up ticket to the fight from a bridge onto traffic below. Nearly everything is overemphatic—for instance, the shots of fight patrons’ bloodthirsty reactions. However, Gordon Bau’s team of makeup artists—and Ryan—merited Oscars.

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