What it manages to bring together within the frame of a meager B-film plot is quite astounding, balancing the brutality and atmospheric visuals with the direction of Robert Wise to develop something quite memorable. Boxing movies have been bigger and better, but film-noir has a way of dredging up the grittiest pulp and the Set-Up is that kind of film.
Its fight sequences are violently staged with human forms evoking the early realist images of George Bellows. However, it’s as much of a back room drama as it is a fighting film. We see the payoff taking place behind Stoker Thompson’s (Robert Ryan) back as his manager (George Tobias) cuts a deal with the opposition without telling his main man what’s going on. He figures Stoker is all washed up at 35. There’s no way in heck he can beat the young buck he’s up against.
The dressing room is full of has-beens, young guns, and hopefuls who in just a few minutes paint a picture of what the boxing world really is. It’s a cruel game that is sweet in victory and sometimes even deadly in defeat. Still men of all backgrounds and values are drawn to it for one reason or another.
In fact, they are not the only ones. One of Robert Wise’s most formidable allies in this film are his close-ups that ratchet up his drama by utilizing the emotive reactions of his crowd. He builds a cadence introducing each nameless face early on and riding their reactions all the way through the fight. There is the woman who feigns repugnance only to reveal her ugly penchant for brutality. There’s the tub of lard who fills up on every concession imaginable while greedily watching the violence unfold. Then, the nervous husband who is constantly hitting and jabbing a phantom opponent. The list goes on.
We also witness the initial reluctance of Stoker’s girl (Audrey Totter) to go see him get beaten to a pulp. This is more than just fighting–it affects their future life together. And while he gets ready to fight, she listlessly wanders the streets too frightened to watch him get his block knocked off and still not yet empowered enough to change things. All she can manage is a jaunt through an arcade parlor, a few furtive glances overlooking the passing trains, and finally a lonely visit to a midnight diner. But this is hardly casting blame mind you.
The bottom line is that Stoker doesn’t see his girl ringside, and it feels like everyone down the line has abandoned him. There’s a need for vindication–to prove his worth when no one will give him a second thought. And that’s a dangerous place to be when people are betting on you to take a fall compliantly, namely one big whig named “Little Boy.” But Thompson’s not about to do that, fighting until he has nothing left to give. And he wins someway, somehow.
It’s when he gets ready to leave the building, after the crowds have filed out and the trainers have left for home, that he meets an ominous welcoming committee. It’s not an unsurprising conclusion, but still Thompson’s story finds a silver lining amidst all the violence. This film is a miracle of the studio age and Wise makes it an incessantly interesting piece of noir.