Film Review: The Set-Up (1949)

Also known as: Knock-Out (Denmark, Finland, Sweden)
Release Date: March 29th, 1949 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Robert Wise
Written by: Art Cohn
Based on: a poem by Joseph Moncure March
Music by: C. Bakaleinikoff
Cast: Robert Ryan, Audrey Totter, George Tobias

RKO Radio Pictures, 73 Minutes

Review:

“How many times I gotta say it? There’s no percentage in smartenin’ up a chump.” – Tiny

There is one film-noir that keeps coming up in almost every book I’ve read on the subject. Sure, all the really famous ones come up all the time but as far as little known ones that modern audiences have forgotten, this is one that is almost always mentioned and with a lot of adoration by the genre experts.

I finally got around to watching it, after I had tried for a few years but never found it streaming unless I wanted to buy it. You can rent it now on Prime but honestly, after seeing it, I’m probably going to break down and buy it on Blu-ray.

The Set-Up is not only a superb film-noir but it is, undoubtedly, one of the greatest boxing movies ever made.

There really isn’t anything negative to harp on. From the acting, the story, the direction and the cinematography, this is an incredible motion picture that transcends the screen and feels like something real, something lived in and it will connect with anyone who has ever faced adversity when it comes to one’s pride.

Robert Ryan is perfection as an aged boxer, on his last legs but still needing to fight for everything. He’s trapped by circumstance and his lack of being able to do anything other than fighting. While it’s a character trait that is pretty common in boxing stories, Ryan truly makes you believe it in a way no other actor has apart from Sylvester Stallone in Rocky and Robert De Niro in Raging Bull.

This story may also seem all too familiar, as well, in that it is about a boxer told to throw a fight but his pride and his purity won’t allow him to quit just because someone tells him to. It’s admirable and it’s stupid because we all know how these things tend to go. Especially for an honest guy that just wants to get home safely to the love of his life.

Apart from the compelling story, which is really a character study, the film employs some stupendous cinematography and knows how to tell its story visually.

The boxing scenes are well shot, well lit and the action looks authentic. Even the opening credits sequence, which just features the dancing feet of boxers locked in fisticuffs is a thing of absolute cinematic beauty.

What really grabbed my attention the most, however, was the alley scene at the end of the film. The boxer tries to evade the gangsters that mean to do him harm but he gets caught coming out of the back alley behind the arena and is then backed into a corner by several men that are determined to teach him a severe lesson.

This scene is so dynamic due to the high contrast chiaroscuro presentation, as well as its use of silhouettes and textures. Everything looks brooding and ominous, as it should in that moment. The real money shot is when you see Robert Ryan with his back against a closed garage door in one-point perspective. The use of lighting and shadows here is perfection. And it’s the moment when the dread Ryan is experiencing really grabs you.

The Set-Up is such a simple yet rich motion picture. It’s a story we’ve all seen before but from the perspective of visual storytelling, it’s never been done this well.

For film-noir fans that haven’t yet seen this picture, you probably should. It’s a scant 73 minutes but in that short time, it does more than most films double that length.

Rating: 9.5/10
Pairs well with: The Champion, another film-noir that takes place in the boxing world and came out the same year as this.

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