Saturday, June 10, 2006

The Set-Up (1949)

Plotwise, this film about an aging boxer being set up to throw a match without his knowledge only tangentially resembles the average film noir. When it comes to tone and theme, though, this is noir down to the marrow of its bones. It's filled with hard-luck chumps, weary fatalism and the glimmer of dreams not yet crushed. Robert Ryan and his fellow pugilists are beaten down by life, both literally and figuratively. The dressing room in which Ryan is sitting during the film's first half is filled with fighters both old and new, and the contrast is effective; the young ones are on their way up without seeing that at the end of the road they'll become one of the old glass-jawed guys still scrapping to scrape up supper. All of the fighters, no matter the age, are wonderfully portrayed by a memorable galley of mugs as nice, clumsily philosophical guys with wants and hopes which are oft-thwarted (i.e. the boxer who keeps citing the legendary champ who was knocked down 21 times before making his title run). This is then contrasted with the spectators, a mass of sweat and smoke who act as groupthink suckers, screaming for blood and cheering when they get it. The canny structure has Ryan fighting last, so we get a sense of what happens to these guys in the ring from the fighters who return before him (winners or losers, they're all beaten and bleeding); the doubly cruel edge is that Ryan doesn't know about the forces massing against him -- the lack of faith held by the people supposedly in his corner who've sold him out for money which he won't see. Then there's the fight, and the film earns its noir stripes there most of all. The bout in this film is one of the best seen in cinema (like, Raging Bull good) because the desperation of Ryan contrasts with the confidence of his opponent, which then disappears when Ryan refuses to go down like he should. He's old, but he's nobody's palooka. That's it in a nutshell: A man stands in defiance and battles his enemies, not knowing all the while that life has it in for him but good. Still, there's a flash of worn-out hope at the end. You can't get more noir than that.

Grade: A-


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