THE SET-UP is arguably the greatest boxing movie ever filmed. Its raw bone style mixed with a dose of noir and drama combine to make it, at seventy-two real time minutes, an emotional experience in dreams, heartbreak, and reality. The scenes of the screaming mob during the fights are incredible in their symbolism. One man helps his blind friend to “see” the action as the fighters pummel each other. One-woman keeps yelling “Kill him…kill him” as her husband looks on in horror. It’s no surprise that THE SET-UP is one of director Martin Scorsese’s favorite films.
Robert Ryan plays Bill “Stoker” Thompson, a former contender who at the age of thirty-five is nearing the end of his career. Many consider Stoker washed-up.
The film begins with a meet between Stoker’s corrupt manager Tiny, played by George Tobias, and the manager of the other fighter, Tiger Nelson, in a small town somewhere in Americana called Paradise City. Nelson’s the undefeated kid who has the mob in his corner, and the mob is not about to take any chances that their boy could lose, even to a broken down thirty-five year old.
Tiny decides not to tell Stoker of the arrangement. Red, the cut man, doesn’t like it.
Red: “I tell you, Tiny; you gotta let him in on it.”
Tiny: “How many times I gotta say it? There’s no percentage in smartenin’ up a chump.”
It’s obvious that Stoker has other ideas. He believes he can win. He might be past his prime, but he can still punch and, for that matter, dream. Winning is more than just defeating Tiger Nelson to Stoker; it’s winning the dream and the battle with himself. Ryan injects Stoker with a tragic yet heroic power. His scenes with Audrey Trotter, who play his wife in the film, are touching and effective.
Director Robert Wise does a marvelous job of framing the scenes. The film is gritty and real.
The acting by all is standout, but THE SET-UP, is Robert Ryan’s film.
Cary Grant told Ryan, “I want you to know that I just saw The SET-UP, and I thought your performance was one of the best I’ve ever seen.”