A trim seventy-two minutes, The Set-Up takes place in real time, as we are shown a street clock in the opening moments, showing about ten after nine at night, and before the film ends the same clock reads about twenty after ten. The set, which depicts a street corner in fictional Paradise City, features an arena, which advertises boxing on Wednesdays and wrestling on Fridays. Across the street is the Hotel Cozy, where Stoker Thompson (Robert Ryan) is staying, along with his wife Julie (Audrey Totter). Ryan is a thirty-five year-old has been, still believing he’s one punch from the big time. He’s fighting a young kid on this night, and is sure he can take him. Then, he tells Totter, he may get top billing, which could mean $500, and maybe then they could buy a cigar stand in Union City.
Totter won’t go see the fight, she’s tired of seeing him get his brains beat out. He gives her her ticket and heads to the gym. Little does he know that his manager (George Tobias, later known as Abner Kravitz on Bewitched) has sold him out, taking $50 from the opponent’s manager to take a dive. The kid is owned by a local hoodlum, who has big designs on his charge. Ryan’s cornerman (Percy Helton) thinks Tobias should at least clue Ryan in, but Tobias is sure he will lose, and doesn’t want to share his spoils.
The first two thirds of the film show Wise’s brilliance with the camera and his background as an editor (he edited Citizen Kane, after all). There’s a bit of O’Neillian drama in the fighters’ dressing room, where the boxers get ready, swap stories and then head out, and come back some time later, either victorious or near unconscious. One punch-drunk fellow never tires of talking about the guy who lost 21 fights but still became middleweight champ. This is intercut with scenes from the arena, where tiny little subplots are carried out (the writer, Art Cohn, who adapted the film from a poem of all things, deserves a lot of credit here, too). There’s the blind man who enjoys having his friend describe the action to him–when the ref steps in, he calls out, “Let ’em fight!” There’s the two suburban couples out for the evening, with one of the wives saying the last time she was at the fights she held her hands over her eyes. Of course, she turns out to be more bloodthirsty than anyone. And there’s comic relief with the silent role of the portly fellow who, every time we see him, is consuming a different concession.
Meanwhile, Totter wanders the bustling streets. She tears the ticket in half, letting it rain down from a bridge over a passing train, a marvelous shot that makes full use of image and sound.
The final third of the film is Ryan’s fight. Tobias and Helton give him bad strategy, hoping he’ll lose, but he has no idea he’s supposed to throw the fight. Wise cuts from the fight to the audience, and unlike some sports films, in which shots of the crowd are used to be excessively manipulative, the shots here are picture perfect, and there is never a wasted moment.
The fight itself is also crisply realistic. Ryan was a champion boxer in his days at Dartmouth, and the photography and low angles, with sweat flying from the fighters’ brows, clearly influenced Martin Scorsese in his shooting of Raging Bull. Scorsese provides the commentary for the DVD.
I won’t spoil the ending, because I would hope anyone who loves film will get to see this film without knowing the outcome. Not only is it a classic of its kind, but it’s also a great snapshot of a time gone by, when fight nights were part of American culture, and an underbelly of corrupt city life. For those knowledgeable of the time period, there’s a cameo by the photojournalist Weegee, who plays the timekeeper.