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the decade's best movies 2010-2016

the set-up (robert wise, 1949)

One of those movies that are as well known for the background trivia as for what’s actually on the screen. It’s based on a poem, which you don’t see every day. The leading role, a never-has-been boxer named Stoker, was black in the poem, but white in the movie (played by Robert Ryan). It took less than three weeks to shoot the movie, which eventually came out at 73 minutes. It runs in real time, from 9:05 at night to 10:16 ... I guess there was a couple of minutes of credits.

Director Robert Wise got his first Oscar nomination for his work as editor on Citizen Kane when he was still in his mid-20s. He later won two Best Director Oscars, for West Side Story and The Sound of Music, which speaks for itself. This little boxing drama didn’t get any Oscar noms, although it won a couple of awards at Cannes. It seems The Set-Up was underrated for a long time, as it had the misfortune of coming out the same year as another boxing film, Champion, which got six Oscar nominations. I think some people have over-compensated now, thinking of The Set-Up as a classic, which it is not. It’s a decent movie with noir elements and a fine performance from Ryan. The real-time angle is unobtrusive, and the setting (“Paradise City”) effectively reflects the life of a small town on the outskirts of where famous things happen.

And supposedly, Martin Scorsese loves the movie, and thought about it a lot when making Raging Bull.

I don’t doubt that, frame by frame, the boxing scenes are realistic. But The Set-Up features a common mistake of boxing movies: in order to jazz up the picture, the fights as shown are all-action affairs, as if Hagler-Hearns could be maintained for more than 3 minutes. it works in a dramatic sense, but given the attempts at realism in the film, the in-ring action is excessive.

I watched this on TCM, and that affected my viewing. First, the film was hosted by Michael Feinstein, one of the great singers of the “American Songbook”. Feinstein was stiff, almost unbearably so. He also claims that what we are about to see is a boxing film with only a short bit of boxing near the beginning, with the meat of the movie being Stoker trying to escape from pissed-off mobsters. But the big fight actually comes about halfway through, and the post-fight stuff with the mobsters takes barely ten minutes.

None of this is the fault of the movie, but it stuck with me nonetheless.

In the middle of all of this, there are some good dressing room scenes at the boxing arena that offer the kind of realism the rest of the film misses.

The Set-Up is a good movie. Just avoid the idea that it’s an underrated masterpiece. 7/10.