Aside from I Want to Live! and The Day the Earth Stood Still, both of which my mother weaned me on as a kid, I’ve never been too big a fan of Robert Wise’s work. His films always struck me as bland, off-the-shelf. Still,as the editor of Citizen Kane, clearly the man had his talents, and he put them to fine use in this film from 1949.
The Set-Up is as dark as Wise’s The Sound of Music is light. Told tightly in 72 real-time minutes, Robert Ryan is fine as the boxer who’s past his prime and being set up by his own manager. Venturing into Sam Fuller territory, the movie provides not only a microcosm of the corrupt boxing world, but of post-war America: fueled by hope, with dreams always just out of reach (here, just one knockout away). With Milton Krasner’s black-and-white cinematography, defeat never looked so glorious.
The DVD features commentaries by both director Wise, who died last September at the age of 91, and Martin Scorsese, who clearly was influenced by this film for his own Raging Bull. Their commentaries were recorded separately, however, which is a shame; it would have been fun to hear Scorsese respond to Wise’s mini-rant about directors who “move the camera around too much” and call attention to their camerawork.
Arguably the second-best boxing film of all-time, The Set-Up plays as if Wise had traveled more than 30 years into the future, plucked the “take the dive” scene out of Scorsese’s classic, and then riffed on it for 72 minutes. Great stuff.