Sunday, June 21, 2015

Summer of Darkness: The Set-Up(1949)

The Set-Up is not a traditional film noir, in that it doesn't feature many of the hallmarks of the genre. It's not something people would watch and immediately associate with noir. The film owes more to the naturalistic realism often associated with the French New Wave than it does to noir's most visible precedent, German Expressionism. Consider this a suburb on the borders of Noir Country, where the capital's influence is muted and often negligible.

Robert Ryan plays Stoker Thompson, a boxer in the midst of a long losing streak, at a point where everyone seems to have lost faith in his abilities. So convinced are people in his status as a has-been that his manager and trainer accept money to make sure he loses an upcoming match, and don't even tell him about it. They just assume he'll be fine at losing on his own. The opening of the film shows that his wife, Julie(played by Audrey Totter), has tired of the routine, as well, as she announces her intentions to not attend the big fight, because she's tired of seeing him beaten. Julie is the only main character in the film to show any faith in Stoker, and she's clearly losing the energy to believe in and support her husband. Stoker takes her ringside absence as a bad sign for their marriage, and indeed Julie does spend the night wandering the city, apparently considering leaving, but in the end she returns to their hotel room to prepare dinner.

Stoker eventually learns about the fix as he's about to enter the final round of what has been a remarkably brutal fight, but by then it's too late. His mind is made up. He can't sell himself out so his manager can pocket a measly fifty bucks, not when he's so close to proving his worth to the audience, to his peers, to his wife, to himself. And so he pushes himself, he goes all the way, and the epic fight ends, incredibly, in his favor.

It's likely that the fight scenes, full of quick cuts and closeups on sweaty, pummeled faces, were seen as the centerpiece to this film. The scenes are fine, action packed and well shot, but the real heart of The Set-Up lives in the shared locker room where the fighters prepare. No rivalries extend to this room, and the fighters await their bouts with honest camaraderie and good cheer. They help each other prepare, share anecdotes and dreams, and band together when one of them returns from the ring with serious injuries. These scenes have an enjoyable sense of reality that give the film a real lived-in feel. It's fun being a fly on that wall, as the evening progresses in almost real-time.

As I said, the noir elements of the film aren't very pronounced, and are mostly relegated to a handful of scenes involving the gangster, Little Boy, who paid for Stoker's dive. He's present at the fight, offering some quiet, smug menace to the proceedings, but he only becomes a real threat in the finale, when Stoker must find a way to escape the arena without falling into his clutches. In these scenes the shadows loom larger, and the movie's world seems ready to tip into the void. When the reckoning does come for Stoker, it's leavened by his new found confidence and the love of his wife.

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