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Until a brutal little trifle called Raging Bull captured the belt in 1980, many people considered Robert Wise's The Set-Up to be the best boxing movie ever made. Although Wise, who shot his film in 1949, had nowhere near the amount of script freedom that Martin Scorsese would enjoy thirty years later, he still delivered a hard-hitting expose on the lowest levels of the fight game. Wise is immensely sympathetic toward his main character, but his pitiless camera reveals hard truths about men who express themselves through violence.
Robert Ryan stars as Bill "Stoker" Thompson, a down-and-out club fighter who insists that he still has a shot at the big time. The story, which unfolds in real time, concerns Thompson's refusal to take a fall when his manager (George Tobias) sells him out for fifty dollars to a local hood (Edwin Max.) Before the fight starts, we see Thompson and his wife (Audrey Totter) arguing about his ongoing "career" in the ring. She tearfully tells him that she won't be there to watch him take yet another beating. By the end of the picture, Thompson's decision to retire will have been viciously made for him. But he'll leave with his pride, and the love of his wife, intact.
The Set-Up had a documentary feel to it long before that sort of thing became commonplace in American narrative films. Wise went out of his way to make sure the picture was as accurate as possible. "I spent night after night doing research in the arenas around town," he once said. "There was a little crummy one down in Long Beach I went to several times on their fight night. I would go down there early and go to the dressing rooms to watch the fighters, their managers, and handlers coming in from the street. I would watch a whole evening of their actions and activities, making notes, getting pictures and lots of ideas."
Wise credited screenwriter Art Cohn, who was a former sportswriter, with much of the picture's realism. Cohn knew a thing or two about boxing, and many of the script's colorful supporting characters, such as a blind man who has to have the fight described to him, came from his own experiences. After attending several matches, Wise added other characters himself, including the sports nut who listens to a ballgame on the radio during the brawl.
Johnny Indrisano, a former professional fighter, was enlisted to choreograph the match, blow by blow. Three cameras were used during filming - one in a wide shot, one covering the two fighters, and one hand-held to photograph close-ups and evocative details like flying sweat. Wise, who began his career editing such classic films as Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), was greatly impressed with the resulting footage. "When it came to editing that sequence," he said, "we had so much film that the editor, Roland Gross, couldn't come up with a cut that satisfied me. So I did it myself." This was the last major piece of editing Wise would ever perform.
The Set-Up was made for RKO Pictures, but the studio's then-owner, Howard Hughes, was interested in only one aspect of its production - the lead actress. Wise badly wanted the role of the wife to be played by Joan Blondell. But Hughes nixed that idea, stating that Blondell looked like "she was shot out of the wrong end of a cannon." Then, still hoping for a non-glamorous actress to play off of Ryan's animal magnetism, Wise suggested Sylvia Sidney. Hughes shot him down again. "I don't think he ever read the script," Wise said. "All he could see for the woman's part was some kind of beauty." Wise finally caved in and chose Totter off of Hughes' list of starlets.
Ironically, Wise's insistence on down-and-dirty realism worked against him at the box office. The far more conventional rags-to-riches boxing picture, Champion, opened at the same time as The Set-Up, and promptly walked away with all the would-be publicity.
Producer: Richard Goldstone
Director: Robert Wise
Screenplay: Art Cohn (based on a poem by Joseph Moncure March)
Cinematography: Milton Krasner
Editing: Roland Gross
Musical Director: C. Bakaleinikoff
Art Design: Albert S. DAgostino and Jack Okey
Set Design: Darrell Silvera and James Altwies
Technical Adviser: John Indrisano
Cast: Robert Ryan (Bill "Stoker" Thompson), Audrey Totter (Julie), George Tobias (Tiny), Alan Baxter (Little Boy), Wallace Ford (Gus), Percy Helton (Red), Hal Fieberling (Tiger Nelson), Darryl Hickman (Shanley), Kenny O'Morrison (Moore), James Edwards (Luther Hawkins), David Clarke (Gunboat Johnson), Phillip Pine (Souza), Edwin Max (Danny), Dave Fresco (Mickey).
by Paul Tatara