STUDIO: Warner Bros. Home Entertainment
MSRP: $19.98
RUNNING TIME: 72 Minutes
Feature commentary w/ dir. Robert Wise and Martin Scorsese

The Pitch

"High Noon meets The Big Sleep in the boxing ring! Two films enter, one film leaves…"

The Humans

Robert Ryan (The Wild Bunch), Audrey Totter (The Postman Always Rings Twice), George Tobias (Sinbad the Sailor).

The Nutshell

Aged middleweight boxer Stoker Thompson thinks he’s got a real shot tonight at beating his opponent. He can feel it. What he doesn’t know is that his manager and trainer have sold him out, agreeing that Stoker will lose the fight in the third round. This is, they don’t bother to tell Stoker, since he hasn’t won a fight in months, and the odds are 100-to-1 against, anyway. The manager and trainer split the money, and leave Stoker unaware and embroiled in a fight that will turn out to be for his life.

Unfortunately, Wise’s budget ran out before Stoker’s final bout.

The Lowdown

So, I’m usually the last one in the class to pick up on a good idea, but why the hell aren’t there more noirs about boxing? Many of noir’s most precious tropes — dominant masculinity, persevering against odds, subversion of the concept of victory — are naturally present in a good boxing match. The Set-Up takes all these, plus a dash of good old fashioned organized crime, and, thanks to Robert Wise’s spot-on direction, creates an elegant picture of moral grayness punctuated by black-and-white actions.

All the cinematic conventions of noir are in place, as well. The low-key lighting and bold framing freshen a garden-variety "fixed fight" scenario as far as the cosmetic details are concerned. The plot follows suit, and cements the film’s uniqueness. No "Zed’s dead, baby," prizefighter story here. The Set-Up is a simple hero’s quest, paced similarly to the pulp crime of the era, with the object of the quest stepping always out of arm’s reach.

The fights themselves function as more of a metaphor than they do even in, say, Raging Bull, while also designed with a subtler meaning in mind. It’s worth noting that most of the last thirty minutes are composed of a nearly uninterrupted fight sequence, and it’s a testament to Wise’s direction that the narrative doesn’t even come close to flagging throughout.

This review includes rare webcam appearance from the author.

Wise’s sophisticated approach to the story contributes a lot of The Set-Up‘s success, but its two leads are also worth mentioning. Robert Ryan, who lent his skill to a number of noirs through the forties, gives one of the better performances out of the ones that I’ve seen. His Stoker starts out the film as a man with a proverbial shiner, half-blind from the beatings he’s taken in life, and he only gets worse from there. Ryan plays him with a conviction that lets the audience know that, though he can only see a hazy outline of where he wants to be, his feet will keep shuffling forward.

Audrey Totter plays Stoker’s wife, who has on a set of blinders. She wants Stoker to quit his fights, for reasons that sound selfless on the surface, but hint at a less altruistic core. Their individual tenacity to wander off in different directions is the central tension of the film, since they are incapable of cutting themselves loose from each other. Like everything else in the film, it’s not an overly complicated engine, but it moves, and it moves with power.

The film takes place in real-time, or a close approximation, and that combined with the unassuming dialogue and characters make for a convincing, if somewhat stylized, realism. The only thing that breaks that realism is the uneven fight choreography. There’s a lot of footage devoted to the matches, so it would be important to get them right, and usually we’re just that fortunate. Once in awhile, though, the editing neglects to cut around false impacts and the illusion of brutality slips away. It’s not a blow the film can’t recover from, though, which you’ll see in the final round between Stoker and his opponent.

"Luke into my tie, my tiiiiie…"

By the final bell, this brief feature (it’s only 72 minutes) has proven its staying power thanks to its nature as a simple tale told well. The subtleties of the resolution between Stoker and his wife double back on the boxing metaphor perfectly, creating one of my favorite artifacts of noir: the unbreakable circle. The winner, the loser, it doesn’t matter which you are: you’re bleeding, you’re alone, and you’ll repeat it all tomorrow. Your fight won’t end unless you take the fall.

The Package

One commentary track is all you get for bonuses, but here’s the thing: the track is by director Robert Wise and Martin Scorsese. Both veterans deliver riveting and insightful observations about The Set-Up, the cinema landscape of the late 40s, their own experiences and influences. It’s a minor film history course, and it’s the sort of quintessential commentary that you imagined might be commonplace when you first heard of the feature on them new-fangled DVDs.

The print used for transfer is immaculate, and the lovely shades of the black-and-white are in perfect contrast. Don’t let the cover fool you: it may look like a bargain-bin knockoff, but there was a lot of effort put into the creation of this disc.

8.3 out of 10