You couldn’t find a more idiosyncratic director in classic Hollywood than Robert Wise. Sweaty potboilers, abstracted populist science fiction, howling horror, atomic age message pictures, and gilded, gloriously melodramatic maxi-packed musicals. All bubbled under his domain. Plus, he contributed the insurmountably essential, firecracker editing for no less a picture than Citizen Kane back when he was still in his pre-directing days. He was something of the ultimate Hollywood jack of all trades, and it is true that he wasn’t the greatest master of any single genre. But he was more than a shadow passing through genres as a director-for-hire. He put his personal stamp on every film he ever touched, and he never gave a picture less than 100% of his charisma.
You can find no better evidence of his genre-hopping style than 1949’s The Set-Up, “an underground boxing film noir”, which sounds about as perfectly “1949” as any film sub-genre possibly could, in the same way that Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still probably couldn’t have functioned so seamlessly as a parable of its time had it not been released in 1951. Wise joins the likes of Michael Curtiz as one of the ultimate Hollywood pinch-hitters who could release a film quickly and with gusto and manage the balance between seamlessly and unintrusively telling a tale without their directorial vision stamping out the script, on one hand, and leaving just enough of a personal vision in the film to keep it from becoming a watery welterweight. He wasn’t out to redefine cinema like say, Orson Welles, but to take the stories that came his way and breath life into them on the screen. With The Set-Up, that is what he does.
He does it, mind you, with the oldest film story in the book. An aging boxer, Bill “Stoker” Thompson (Robert Ryan) is past his prime and over-the-hill, but he won’t give up. In his stunted gait, in his heaving breath, and in his pungent mix of bitter dejection and sweltering fire, we know he needs one last chance to see himself with the big win, put whether he wins or not, it seems he’s pushing his wife Julie (Audrey Totter) up to the ropes of their relationship. Even Stoker’s manager is sure he can’t win a fight, so when he agrees for Stoker to take a fall, he doesn’t even have the guts to tell him about it. To him, Stoker is guaranteed to lose even without trying to.
Not the most imaginative story, but then Wise’s specialty was taking broad, melodramatic slights and marinating them in some of the finest craft Hollywood could buy. With him at the helm (and Milton R. Krasner as cinematographer in tow), the boxing ring is an ambidextrous landscape-of-the-mind, serving double-duty as both carnivorous jungle for animalistic, brutish men in the audience and a veiny, pulsating cage for men who know no other way of life. The thick, sticky weight of the humid boxing match becomes a testing ground to turn men into beasts, a concrete slab of desperation lashing out at the throat of hope, and a coffin for human decency. And when decency falls, the bodies often crumble soon after.
The camera doesn’t sit or walk or wander. It stalks, prowls, and lurks through the corridors of the back-stage and explores the theatrics of boxing with a nihilist crackle. It isn’t as operatically punishing as, say, Raging Bull, but it mines somewhat similar territory with just enough of a nose for melodrama to separate it from that most venerable of boxing pictures. Art Cohn (who wrote sports articles prior to his venture to the screen) finds plenty of working-class poetry in the clipped, staccato bursts of dialogue fitting for noir, a pace that sells the way these men prefer to tell their ringside tales with their fists rather than with their mouths.
The film takes a cue from the men. The script is fine, but it’s the images that sell this story. The hushed, misty night. The rampage and bedlam that finds sport as anything but poetic. The punishing close-ups of audience members spitting bile to tell their man in the ring to “kill”. The soul-gazing, blaring white-lightning eyes of a blind audience member. Stoker running into and out of the darkness of the boxing ring as he debates with his fate. Robert Ryan (selling the mixture of cracked-mirror emptiness and grand, anti-garrulous tragedy) looking at himself in a mirror , where we can see his eyes struggle to come up with an emotion to describe himself. All burn into the brain, and they last long after many other films with more complex screenplays fade into dust.
In addition, the crisp efficiency of the film, which runs a pummeling 72 minutes, allows Wise to ricochet from image to image while so many other films waddle around in exposition and plot development (seeing how short may of these early Cannes films are, including most of the first dozen Palme d’Or winners which run less than 90 minutes, is a study in the value of economy and humility in filmmaking). A real-time narrative structure (somewhat revolutionary in its day) affords the film an existential trauma and suspense that otherwise would be absent from the material; the minutes become life-or-death blows as the fatalistic, foretold ending draws near.
Compared to some of the more radical Cannes competitors (compared to say, The Third Man, which won that year’s Palme d’Or) it is easy to see why The Set-Up was just a competitor. “You’ll always be just one punch away”, as Julie would say about Stoker, may have applied to Robert Wise as well, but sometimes one punch away is enough. Wise, maybe more than any American director, made the not-quite-essential-but-always-a-damn-good-show region of “one punch away” one of the most exciting places in all of cinema.