The Set-Up (Robert Wise / U.S., 1949):

The boxing bell and the clock, the poles in the pugilistís purgatory. Fight night at the Paradise City Pavilion ("boxing Wednesdays, wrestling Fridays"), blasting lights over the arena and outside a tenebrous boulevard (cf. Kubrickís Killerís Kiss). The prizefighter (Robert Ryan, tremendously weary and wary) is 35 going on 50, two decades in and still "only one punch away" from the big time, just one tale in a dressing room full of palookas. His record is so wobbly that his manager (George Tobias) takes gangland money for a dive and doesnít even bother telling him; when time comes for him to drop before the crooked upstart, he instead springs to life as the smirk on the lips of the capo (Alan Baxter) slowly slips. "Well, thatís the way it is. Youíre a fighter, you gotta fight." The bruiser racket and its zombies, scanned from top to bottom and locked into a clenched real-time composition in Robert Wiseís virtuosically squalid microcosm. Jumpy novices, veteran losers with hamburger mugs, wiseguys clutching Bibles ("Hey, heís makiní book on the hereafter!"): everybody has a tragic yarn, the testy trainer listens and then thumbs through a pulp magazine titled "Love." Meanwhile, the doleful wife (Audrey Totter) meanders through endless dancehalls, railways, and penny arcades in anticipation of Moreau in La Notte. The bout itself is an extended montage of fists and torsos slamming toward a sharp close-up of Ryanís battered face against the blanched mat, like a Weegee flipbook suddenly punctuated by a Mantegna icon. (Savoring the spectacle is a riotously bloodthirsty crowd, from a hausfrauís yowls of glee to the unholy spark in a blind visitorís blank pupils.) The painstaking scraping of the sportís glamour builds to a back alley Calvary and wraps with a "Dreamland" sign flickering above a mangled figure. Kazan expands on it in On the Waterfront, Wise himself gives a different view with Somebody Up There Likes Me. Cinematography by Milton Krasner. With Wallace Ford, Percy Helton, Hal Baylor, James Edwards, and David Clarke. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

Back to Reviews
Back Home