Classic Movies

Guest Review: The Set-Up (1949)


Frequent Thrilling Days of Yesteryear commenter/contributor Philip Schweier offers up his take on my favorite of actor Robert Ryan’s films—Phil received a DVD set of films noir for Christmas (I’m guessing it was Warner’s Film Noir Classic Collection, Volume 1) and apologizes for being so tardy in getting around to seeing them but as he told me in an e-mail: “These Rockford Files episodes don’t watch themselves…”  Mr. Schweier’s guest review-dom will continue on Wednesday with his ruminations on the noir classic Gun Crazy (1950).

The Set-Up (1949) offers the audience a glimpse into the seedy underbelly of “the sweet science,” boxing. Sure, it’s rampant with fixed bouts, unscrupulous managers and the like, but this film is more of boxing’s nod to film noir – or film noir’s nod to boxing.


Robert Ryan plays Stoker Thompson, a 35-year-old boxer who is clearly past his prime. So far past that his corner men, Tiny and Red (George Tobias and Percy Helton) have set Stoker up to take a dive (hence the title of our melodrama). However, they’ve neglected to let Stoker in on their little scheme; otherwise they’d have to cut him in for a percentage of the money, which turns out to be a measly $50. Sure, it was in 1949 dollars, but it still sounds a little cheap to me. So cheap Red is quite content to gyp his partner out of a larger share of the deal.

Taking a dive would only distract Stoker from his own problems, namely, that his wife Julie (Audrey Totter) is fed up with the fight game. She’s followed her man from town to town, always one punch away from the road to fame and fortune. But as age has crept up on him, it’s clear that he could just as easily end up a punch-drunk palooka like the guy what sells programs over at the arena. She’d be happy enough if he settled down and operated a newsstand or worked as a barkeep somewhere.

Stoker and Julie live in a dingy little fleabag across the street from the arena, in the section of Paradise City where sailors go the moment they hit dry land. No kidding, it looks like Pottersville, the alternate universe town from It’s a Wonderful Life. Saloons, bars, dime-a-dance halls, pinball machines and other risky propositions are enthusiastically patronized by gamblers, bookies and “women of negotiable affection.”

Robert Ryan, James Edwards, and Wallace Ford in The Set-Up (1949)

So when Julie decides she’s not going to the fight to cheer Stoker on, he of course doesn’t believe her. “A fighter’s gotta fight,” he tells her, and heads over to the arena where he joins other fighters in a tiny locker room that looks like it was borrowed from the second basement of the local Catholic school. No less than six different fighters share close quarters, from rookie high school athletes to brain-damaged mooks. There’s even a token Negro (to use the vernacular of the day) fighter, Luther Hawkins (played by James Edwards).

I actually found this interesting, given the shared locker room in the age of segregation in which the film is set, but further research revealed the film is based on a poem by Joseph Moncure March, in which the fighter in question is black. According (apply grain of salt here), it was the intention of director Robert Wise (The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Sound of Music) to cast a black actor in the lead role, but was unable to find a suitable African American thespian is those pre-Sydney Poitier days.

Nevertheless, Luther plays a pivotal role, insisting he has a feeling in his bones he’s going to take his opponent, which he does. Practically from his introduction, Stoker has been insisting the same thing, and when Luther wins his fight, it convinces Stoker there’s no way he could lose.

Ryan, Alan Baxter, and Edwin Max

This brings us back to Red and Tiny, and their collusion with Little Boy (Alan Baxter), the local crime lord. They’re so convinced Stoker’s going to lose the fight, they see no reason to bother Stoker with such details? As Red explains it, “There’s no percentage in smartenin’ up a chump.”

So Stoker enters the ring, aware that his missus has decided to take a powder for the evening. She spends her time wandering the nearby streets of the neighborhood, dodging one Damon Runyon reject after another, while Stoker gazes longingly at her empty seat in section C, row 4. But her absence is perhaps just the tonic he needs to duke it out with Tiger Nelson (Hal Fieberling), a 23-year-old boxer clearly in his prime.

Nelson complains that Stoker seems to fighting for real, but is told that Stoker needs to make it look good, and despite a second wind in the third, it looks like he’s (finally) down for the count, as prescribed. But wait! He’s getting back up! And the story stretches into the fourth round, where a solid punch lays Nelson out and Stoker is declared the winner.

Edwards, Percy Helton, George Tobias, and Ryan

Back in the locker room, all the other fighters have left (Stoker’s event was the last fight of the evening), and only Gus the locker room attendee (Wallace Ford) and his assistant are left, playing solitaire and reading Thrilling Romances. So when Little Boy and his goons enter looking to give Stoker his due (Red and Tiny vanished a long time ago), Gus and his pal are only too happy to beat a hasty retreat.

Fans of film noir crime drama are likely to be disappointed. Instead of shoot-outs and prowling around in the shadows, we’re treated to moments of Stoker staring across the street at his hotel room windows, hoping his wife will comes see him fight. But the action is dark and gritty, with a palpable hint of danger easily felt by the audience.

Nevertheless, the film has a number of interesting elements. One is that there is no theme music at the beginning or end of the movie. It starts with the sound of the bell, and opening credits are played over the sounds of a boxing match. Closing credits roll as sirens and police cars arrive on scene.

Another is that the story unfolds, more or less, in real time. It starts approximately at 9:05, as the early bouts are in full swings and Red meets with Little Boy’s fixer Danny (Edwin Max), running through the matches just a little more than an hour later.

Robert Ryan and Audrey Totter

But what I enjoyed most were the patrons of the boxing ring, as they stand about commenting on the night’s match-ups. One woman complains that she only comes to the fights because her family brings her, and how she spends most of them with her hands over her eyes. Later, she is shown enthusiastically yelling “KILL HIM!” during the Stoker Thompson-Tiger Nelson fight.

Other audience members get into the spectacle with varying degrees of interest. One sports fan splits his time between the fights and a baseball game on his portable radio. Another seems to be more a fan of the concession stand than the ring, downing popcorn, burgers, hot dogs, beer and more popcorn within the film’s 72 minutes. A blind member of the audience has the action described to him, urging one fighter “Go for his eyes.” Most notable is Herbert Anderson, famous for his role as the father of Dennis the Menace in the classic TV series, as a fight fan.

Ryan, as Stoker, brings a certain verisimilitude to the story, as he was boxer during his days at Dartmouth. But less important than the boxing is his ability to play the every man – every man who ever believed in himself even when the woman who professes to love him no longer shares his faith; every man who struggles against his own advancing years and creeping mortality; every man who ever had a dream beaten out of him.

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