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"What about Stoker?"
"What about him?"
"Well, he's all set, ain't he? You told him, didn't ya?"
"Why cut him in?"
"I don't like it, Tiny. Stoker can still punch. If anything goes wrong, Little Boy's gonna..."
"Don't be a meathead. Nelson will butcher him. It's a hundred to one."
"That's just it! There's always the one."
The best days of boxer Stoker Thompson (Robert Ryan) are an indistinct blur in the rear view mirror. Our first view of him isn't of a muscular behemoth crushing a sparring opponent in a gym; it's of a tired, broken man in his mid-thirties, asleep in a two-bit hotel. Our eyes are first drawn to Stoker's cauliflower ear, then, as he turns in bed, to the thick scar tissue above his left eye.
Having suffered loss after loss, it's a foregone conclusion that tonight's bout against up-and-comer Tiger Nelson (Hal Fieberling) is going to be more of the same. His crooked manager (George Tobias) doesn't even bother to tell him the fix is supposed to be in. Stoker's wife Julie (Audrey Totter) isn't worried about him getting knocked down, exactly – that much is a given – but that he won't be able to get back up again. Hell, even Stoker himself is under no illusion what the night holds. Still, he can't bring himself to let go of the dream...that a new life for him and Julie could be right around the corner. All it'd take is a couple of lucky breaks in the ring. All it'd take is one punch.
Okay, so Little Boy (Alan Baxter) paid for Stoker to take a fall. So what? It's not as if Paradise City Arena is some pure and virtuous bastion of sportsmanship. Even through a TV and Blu-ray deck, the stench of sweat, cigarettes, and cheap beer is overpowering. The crowd couldn't give a toss about two warriors facing off in the ring, and they're not sportswriters penning flowery prose about the sweet science. Whereas The Set-Up takes care for us as viewers to come to know these boxers, the diegetic audience didn't buy these tickets for dreams; they thirst for blood. Or they're stuffing their faces with hot dogs, or they're only halfway paying attention as they listen to a ballgame on the radio. As for what happens to these worn, weathered men after their bodies collapse on the mat? Ugh. Drag 'em out. Hurriedly mop up the blood. Bring out the next one.
...and, yeah, she's heard that one before.
I found myself so invested in these fighters – so immersed in the arena and the drab locker room where so much of the film is set – that Little Boy's fix would at times slip from my mind. This isn't a movie propelled by the mechanics of its plot. To single out the premise or its characters or its setting would be giving the rest unduly short thift, as every last facet of The Set-Up is so richly and masterfully realized. The film unfolds in real-time, over the course of a little over 70 minutes, and director Robert Wise doesn't waste a moment of it. At no point does The Set-Up come across as some sort of cinematic construction. And while this verisimilitude is crucial to Tiger and Stoker's battle in the ring – captured in often tight shots with streams of sweat punctuating every blow, devoid of any slow-mo glamour, schmaltzy cutaways to fans whose devotion never wavered, or soaring orchestral score – that sense of reality extends to everything.
There's so much I'm aching to write about The Set-Up, among them the way the film celebrates failure in success and success in failure, as well as the stark contrast between Stoker's undaunted persistence in the ring and his abject terror once the match is over. But more than anything, what I'd like to say is just how Highly Recommended this Blu-ray release comes. This is such an incredible film; my favorite of all the boxing noirs, despite – or perhaps because of – its condemnation of the sport. Star Robert Ryan pointed to it as his favorite of the many films he made, as did director Robert Wise – and anyone with even a passing familiarity with Wise's remarkable filmography will realize what high praise that is indeed.
Warner Archive is responsible for so many of the most striking presentations of films noir on Blu-ray, and their recent remastering of The Set-Up stands strong with the best of them. What they've delivered here is, in a word, perfection.
As ever with noir, contrast is key. The specular highlights of the boxers' sweaty brows in particular go a long way towards furthering The Set-Up's sense of verisimilitude. Its fine, filmic texture suffers no sign of strain, thanks to a skillful AVC encode and a disinterest in slipshod digital manipulation. The Academy standard image is astonishingly crisp and detailed, and the world-class remastering ensures that it's not marred by so much as a stray nick or speck. In every way exceptional.
The Set-Up's original aspect ratio of 1.37:1 has been faithfully preserved on Blu-ray. Given the brevity of the film and the lack of video-based extras, it follows that The Set-Up arrives on a BD-25 disc.
As marvelous as The Set-Up looks on Blu-ray, its DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack – presented in 24-bit, two-channel mono – impresses every bit as much. I stand in awe of just how clean and clear this remaster is, especially compared to how noisy the previous soundtrack appears to be in the background of the commentary. No hiss, clicks, pops, or the like are lurking in the background. Every last line of dialogue is effortlessly intelligible. The many punches thrown still pack a wallop after seven full decades, and even such effects as the roar of a trolley car speeding towards the camera aren't marred by so much as a flicker of clipping or distortion. Again, a truly outstanding effort.
The Set-Up's commentary track is also offered in 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio. Rounding out the options is a set of English (SDH) subtitles.
- Audio Commentary: Yes, The Set-Up's bonus features are limited to a single commentary track. And yet, when the commentary is with Robert Wise and Martin Scorsese, how many other extras does a disc really need?
Though presumably conducted sometime in 2004 – Scorsese notes that he's working on The Aviator – it does feel somewhat like a commentary from the Laserdisc era or the earliest years of DVD. The two filmmakers have been recorded individually, and their comments are often separated by considerable gaps of silence. Still, while there's perhaps only a little over an hour of commentary between them, Wise and Scorsese still have a great deal to offer.
Among the many highlights in Wise's segments are noting Robert Ryan's years as a boxer at Dartmouth, RKO's lack of African-American stars impacting the race of the film's central character, how much of the obnoxious audience members' behavior was drawn from Art Cohn's stint as a sportswriter, and a deep dive into the camera setups in and around the ring. Scorsese repeatedly marvels at The Set-Up, whether it's how deeply the physicality, strain, and stakes are felt as Stoker and Tiger square off in the ring, or likening the film's compact, tough, and lean editing to a prize fighter's physique. Along with some artful ruminations about fate, chaos, and order, Scorsese's conversation can't help but turn toward his experiences making Raging Bull.
Though I do wish that the commentary were better able to fill more of The Set-Up's modest runtime, these two titans still provide such rewarding insight that I can't fathom letting this track go unlistened.
The Final Word
The Set-Up is a masterpiece: one of the most finely constructed motion pictures – of noir, of boxing, or of any other subject or style – and deserving of a place in any film lover's collection. While this disc would've come enthusiastically recommended regardless of the presentation, that Warner Archive's Blu-ray release is (excuse the pun) such a knockout makes it all the more essential. Very, very Highly Recommended.