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Warner Home Video presents
"Don't you see, Bill? You'll always be just one punch away."
DVD ReviewThe clichés of both boxing pictures and film noir are so easy to slip into, and have been put to such sorry use with such frequency, that seeing a movie as crisp and sharp as The Set-Up is enough to make you jolt upright; at an hour and twelve minutes, it's a taut, smart and propulsively energetic movie. Director Robert Wise is very much in command of his material, his technique and his cast, and what he's made here packs a powerful punch. (Sorry for both the alliteration and the boxing metaphor; they're both sort of inevitable with this movie.)
Wise's story takes place in a single evening, if not quite in real time—Bill "Stoker" Thompson (Robert Ryan), at age 35, is, for a boxer, ancient. He still dreams of hitting the big time—if not as the world champeen, at least with a sizable $500 payday, a life-changing amount of money for someone so down on his luck. His wife, Julie (Audrey Totter), doesn't share the dream, though—she's ready for Stoker to hang up the gloves, to stop allowing himself to get beaten so savagely, and so often. Little do they both know that the fix is in—the local gangster, Little Boy, expects Stoker to take a dive, and Stoker's corner men think so little of their fighter that they don't even bother to tell him that he's expected to lose, but no earlier than the third round. On the take, too, is Tiger Nelson, Stoker's opponent—he's younger, bigger, stronger, and prettier, and is expecting an easy payday.
The first half of the movie is all anticipation, orienting us to Stoker and his world; we meet boxers at various stages of their career, moving up and down the ladder, from the young fellow queasy about going into his first fight, to the headliner, Luther Hawkins, knowing that it's his moment in the sun, but that there are hordes of other fighters nipping at his heels. (Hawkins is played by James Edwards, who Kubrick diehards will recognize from his small, fine performance as a parking lot attendant in The Killing.) What's especially notable about this portion of the movie is the relentlessness of the community—Wise is brilliant at showing us how, at every possible opportunity, everyone is chiseling everyone else. The look of the film is spectacular, too, the men invariably in fedoras and ties, the faces and black-and-white photography that, if taken as stills, would be right at home in the pages of Look magazine.
The fulcrum of the film is when Stoker's fight starts, and it's shot with barbarism and power. These are men at work, and their job is a brutal business; each punch lands with emotional as well as physical force. Adding to the cumulative power is the Greek chorus of spectators to whom Wise cuts away, taking in the bloody action like Romans watching Christians being fed to the lions—one bloodthirsty little lady shouts for more; a corpulent fellow registers the carnage with his eyes as he stuffs his mouth with hotdogs and ice cream and peanuts; and in a downright Homeric touch, one of the audience members is blind, with an aide alongside to describe blow after bloody blow. It's a terrifically kinetic bit of filmmaking; and Wise's years as an editor are evident (he cut, among other films, Citizen Kane), giving his movie a tension and momentum sorely lacking in too many sports movies.
The world of noir is a dark one, so this isn't a tale of redemption; but it is visceral and sweaty and bloody and hot, and it puts its characters and its audience through the wringer in a startlingly short period of time. It's also a rebuke to every bloated director's cut that ever gets released; if a filmmaker as good as Wise can cover all this ground so quickly, everybody else should learn lessons from him, not pad out their running times.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A
Image Transfer Review: This is a beautiful transfer, with rich and nuanced layers of gray in Milton Krasner's black-and-white photography. Some of the shots are downright eye-popping; and the lack of debris makes this a paradigm for the treatment of films of this period.
Image Transfer Grade: A
Audio Transfer Review: The dynamics on the mono track are occasionally askew, and finding the right level with your volume button can be something of a chore. The soundtrack is rich on nuance, but that also means that, given the technological limitations, some of the dialogue gets swallowed up.
Audio Transfer Grade: B-
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 20 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Robert Wise and Martin Scorsese
Extras Review: The commentary track is a modest disappointment, principally because it's hard to tamp down expectations when you look at those two names. Robert Wise offers some basic production info on his movie; he's become a charming elder statesman of Hollywood, and he's made some terrific movies, but his insights aren't penetrating. Unfortunately, he and Martin Scorsese were recorded separately, and one can only wonder what the back and forth between the two might have been like. Scorsese is just the right choice for this—aside from being incredibly knowledgeable about Wise and noir, it's self-evident that the boxing sequences in Raging Bull owe a huge debt to the ones here. Scorsese talks about Wise's pedigree as an editor, and even calls him the Edward Hopper of American film; he also talks about screening the picture for the cast and crew of The Aviator, all of whom were smart enough to recognize it as a masterpiece. Still, the commentary track never quite sings or takes off as it might have.
Extras Grade: C+
Final CommentsA stinging, pitiless story told with energy, efficiency and occasionally even venom, The Set-Up is twice as good and half as long as most movies in its genre. Noir fans won't want to pass up this one.
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