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Starring Robert Ryan, Audrey Totter; dir; Robert Wise

Forget subtext, in The Set-Up the work is all done for you. The pathos of a fighter who doesn’t know he’s finished is all up there on the screen, exemplified by Audrey Totter’s unintentionally ironic, self-serving closing line, "we all won tonight". As we look out her window at the arena the neon sign ‘Dreamland’ figures prominently, and that window is in a fleapit whose own neon advertises ‘Cozy Hotel’.

Of course it’s a tawdry, sordid atmosphere, both backstage and ringside – you can smell the lineament and stale sweat in the set design. Equally palpable are the fight scenes, whose visceral nature clearly was an influence on Raging Bull.

Today the further away we get from it the more bizarre this underground white world looks. Wise was notable for amalgamating black characters seamlessly without condescension, viz his Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), and the real interest in the film seems to be the denizens of this world. Several of the characters emerged from Wise’s research into this environment. (You gotta love Ryan’s cauliflower ear makeup!)

One of the strongest characters in The Set-Up is time itself. It’s well known that the film essays a realtime experience through the opening and closing shots of clocks traversing the movie’s actual running time. But clocks are everywhere in the film’s mise-en-scene and this preoccupation even extends to a poster Ryan glimpses from the ring in a vulnerable moment as it asks, mockingly, ’35 and tired?’.

The futility of all this, contrasted with the nobility Ryan’s ‘Stoker’ brings to this cesspit, is strangely ennobling and fortunately, fittingly, what little gloss there is in The Set-Up attaches entirely to the broken ex-boxer as, at the end, this ‘Stoker’ is at least able to walk into a new life under his own steam.


- Roger Westcombe