The Set-Up

According to publicity written for THE SET-UP, the film "covers 80 minutes, second-by-second of a ring-scarred bruiser's life," and adds that "incidents are filmed exactly as they happened, and in accurate chronological order." Few directors other than Wise could have pulled
Bobby Ryan

Robert Ryan

off the tightly woven narrative of the THE SET-UP; it was one of the few films ever made in which narrative time and screen time are the same—72 minutes.

The tour-de-force which earned him the Critic's Prize at the 1949 Cannes Film Festival was Wise's last film for RKO (which had recently been bought by Howard Hughes). Based on a long narrative poem by Joseph Moncure March, the film starred Robert Ryan as the aging boxer and Audrey Totter as his long-suffering wife.

From a 1975 seminar with AFI students, Wise discussed how he strove for realism in the SET-UP: "I was determined to get this real feeling of the fight game. I haunted the fight arenas around this area. There used to be a rundown area in Long Beach, and that's where I got a lot of my material, all the attitudes and the business. I was down there every week making notes, recording and photographing. Then I got actors to do as close as they could to what I had seen there. I watched audiences too. A lot of the business in audience reactions is from there. The fellow with the radio I saw at the Hollywood Legion, same with the guy with the cigar and the fat man. The blind man may seem far-fetched to you but he was an actual character in San Francisco that Art Cohn used to see regularly every Friday night at the fights. He'd come with his buddy and have him describe what was going on."*

Wise used three cameras and brought in former boxing professional John Indrisano to make sure the choreographed fights were realistic. THE SET-UP was also the first film for which Wise used storyboards--every scene was mapped out before he started shooting. He would continue to use storyboards for his subsequent films.

Synopsis Outside a rundown boxing arena, where an evening of fights is about to begin, boxing manager Tiny and trainer Red discuss their aging heavyweight, Bill "Stoker" Thompson, who is schudeled to compete that night. A few minutes later, at the Ringside Cafe, Tiny accepts a fifty dollar bribe from gambler Little Boy, who wants Stoker to throw his four-round The Set Upmatch and assure the up-and-coming Tiger Nelson a victory.  Tiny agrees to Little Boy's stipulations that Stoker "go down" after the second round, then informs trainer Red that he is not going to tell Stoker about the deal, as he is sure the boxer will lose the bout anyway.  In a nearby hotel, meanwhile, Stoker tries to convince his concerned wife Julie that even though he is thirty-five, he is still only "one punch away" from a "top spot."  Julie, who has dutifully supported her husband's declining career, is unmoved by his boasts and begs him to retire from the ring.  When Stoker insists on continuing, Julie sadly informs him that she will not watch him fight that night.  Disturbed by Julie's words, Stoker grows pensive while being prepped in the arena's crowded dressing room and listens thoughtfully to the hopeful, nervous chatter of his fellow boxers.  Before Shanley, a young and frightened boxer, leaves to make his professional debut, Stoker notices that the light has gone off in his hotel room and happily assumes that Julie has changed her mind about the fight.  As Julie is about to enter the arena, however, she hears the roar of the bloodthirsty crowd and retreats in disgust.  After Shanley returns to the dressing room, glowing with victory, Gunboat Johnson, a washed-up middle-weight whose idol is a champion boxer who once suffered twenty-one losses in a row, is pummeled to defeat.  Restless and depressed, Julie, meanwhile, walks the seedy streets near the arena, stopping on a bridge to watch the passing trolleys below.  Back at the arena, two more fighters meet their opponents, one losing, the other winning.  Stoker then enters the ring for his bout and is dismayed to see that Julie's seat is empty. As Stoker receives his last-minute rubdown, Little Boy and his girl friend Bunny place bets against him from the stands.  Still unaware of Tiny's deal, Stoker ignores Red's advice to "stay away" from Nelson and goes after his opponent with conviction.  By the end of the second round, Stoker has Nelson, who was told by Little Boy to go easy on Stoker during the first two rounds, against the ropes.  Stoker continues to fight hard in round three, but is nearly knocked out by Nelson, who then calls him a "fink." Fearful now that Stoker may win the bout, Tiny tells him about Little Boy's deal and begs him to "lie down" in the last round.  Although exhausted and bleeding, Stoker instead hammers Nelson with a volley of punches and knocks him unconscious. Stoker's unexpected glory is shortlived, however, as he is immediately condemned by an angry Little Boy.  Aware that Little Boy's thugs are waiting to attack him outside, Stoker tries to sneak out of the arena, but becomes trapped in an alley.  After Stoker, who has been beaten and pinned to the ground by the thugs, manages to slug Little Boy in the face, the enraged gambler crushes Stoker's hand with a brick, thereby ending his career. Sometime later, Julie sees Stoker stumble out of the alley and rushes to his side.  As she holds her battered but proud husband in her arms, she asks his forgiveness, then assures him that they "both won tonight."

From the AFI Catalog of Feature Films

Wise Facts
  • Star Robert Ryan was an undefeated boxing champion while he was a student at Dartmouth University.
  • Look for famous news photographer Arthur "Weegee" Fellig, who plays the timekeeper in the film.
  • Credits: 72 min. RKO Radio Pictures; Distributed by: RKO Radio Pictures;  Directed by: Robert Wise;  Produced by: Richard Goldstone;  Screenplay by: Art Cohn;  Edited by: Roland Gross;  Director of Photography: Milton Krasner;  Music Directed by: C. Bakaleinikoff;  Production Design by: Albert S. D'Agostino & Jack Okey;  Sound by: Phil Brigandi;  Make-up by: Gordon Bau;  Hair by: Hazel Rogers.
    Audrey Toter Cast  Robert Ryan (Bill Stoker Thompson), Audrey Totter (Julie Thompson), 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 (Tony Souza), Edwin Max (Danny), Dave Fresco (Mickey), William E. Green (Doctor), Abe Dinovitch (Ring caller), Jack Chase (Hawkins' second), Mike Lally (Handler), Arthur Sullivan (Handler), William McCarter (Handler), Gene Delmont (Handler), Noble "Kid" Chissel (Handler), Herbert Anderson (Husband), Jack Raymond (Husband), Walter Ridge (Manager), Helen Brown (Wife), Constance Worth (Wife), Jess Kirkpatrick (Older gambler), Paul Dubov (Young gambler), Frank Richards (Bat), Jack Stoney (Nelson's second), Archie Leonard (Blind man), John Butler (Blind man's companion), Larry Anzalone (Mexican fighter), Vincent Graeff (Newsboy), Bernard Gorcey (Tobacco man), Tom Noonan (Masher), Charles Wagenheim (Hamburger man), Billy Snyder (Barker), W. J. O'Brien (Pitchman), Frank Mills (Photographer), Everett Smith (Tattoo man), Gay Waters (Girl), Maxine Johnston (Girl), Dan Foster (Bettor with Bunny), Bobby Henshaw (Announcer), Dwight Martin (Glutton), Ben Moselle (Referee), Arthur Weegee Fellig (Timekeeper), Brian O'Hara (Man with cigar), Lynn Millan (Bunny), Donald Kerr (Vendor), Ralph Volke, Tony Merrill, Lillian Castle, Carl Sklover, Sam Shack, Frances Mack, Ruth Brennan, Herman Bodel, Andy Carillo, Charles Sullivan, and Al Rhein.

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    1. AFI Seminar, 1975

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