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The Set-Up, directed by Robert Wise in 1949, is a really fine boxing drama/noir about an over-the-hill fighter named Bill 'Stoker' Thompson (Robert Ryan) who believes he can win one more fight and earn a last chance at the title.
In the beginning Stoker and his girlfriend are staying at some dive called the Hotel Cozy in the middle of a noir town called Paradise City. Despite Stoker's optimism and cool determination he knows he is in a losers game. And so does his girlfriend (Audrey Totter) who has seen enough and decides to go for a walk around the streets of Paradise City as Stoker gets ready for another fight.
As he prepares in the locker room we are introduced to various characters who make up this seemingly dead-end boxing world. There's the young kid who is fighting in his first fight, there is the old guy who knows that just one single punch can win him a fight and set him on tour for more money, there are the boxers in their prime who hope to hit it big and then there are the trainers who have seen it all before and all too often.
Of course, Paradise City is a noir town and the criminal underworld ultimately runs the show by betting for and against the fighters. For this reason most of the fighter's fate is sealed. Stoker knows this but for this one fight he tries to beat the system.
The Set-Up is based on a poem written by Joseph Moncure March but the most striking thing about the film's first half is its reflective naturalistic mood. In fact, it unfolds in real time and has a rather undramatic build-up to the main event. However, everything does have an allegorical feel to it. What's most important is that this is a world where the broken dreams and unachieved aspirations of middle-aged men is center stage.
Where the Set-Up really excels though is in the four round boxing match. This is one of the few boxing movies where the fight actually looks and feels real. It is shot from outside the ring at a low angle as if we are in the crowd. And the editing by Wise and editor Roland Gross - between the over-zealous crowd and the fight - is very exciting and builds really good tension as the fight nears its end.
At stake is not only Stoker's ability to win a fight against a much younger and fitter opponent but whether Stoker will go down before the fight is over - something his trainers hope is the case since a local oily rackateer has a big bet riding on that fact.
Will Stoker win or will he lose? Watch and find out.
Aspect ratio of 1.33:1. The Set Up is a noir so the black and white image shot by Milton R. Krasner looks excellent. Sometimes it truly has the look of a classic noir with extreme black and white contrasts but most of the time it has the look of an expressionistic black-and-white film.
Audio is in mono. The audio uses all source sound. There is no soundtrack. Instead what we hear is the noise of the city including traffic, nightclub jazz and people talking. The boxing match needs no music but there is plenty of noise.
The only extra is a good one: A commentary track with Director Robert Wise and Martin Scorsese. The commentary tracks were recorded seperately. When Robert Wise talks he mainly reiterates what is on screen although he does give some insight into the shooting of the film; for instance during the fight scene he mentions that they used three cameras. Scorsese is on board because he likes the film a lot but also because the film very clearly had an influence on the fight sequences from Raging Bull. Scorsese has a lot of interesting observations as well as praise for Wise's technique. Scorsese notes that the fight sequences were so good that when he made Raging Bull he tried specifically not to copy them but to find a different way to shoot a fight. The commentary track, however, does contain a lot of silent moments.
The Set-Up is one of the best boxing films ever made. The story it tells is mainly allegorical as it represents an everyman in a rough town. But the boxing match is masterful and the film's pace and tempo are tight. The DVD looks very good and has a good commentary track. It is more than worth a look.