The Set-Up is based on the epic poem of the same name by Joseph Moncure March. The poem published in 1928, and set in that tumultuous decade, details the story of Pansy, a black boxer with all the odds against him. Doomed not to reach the top because of jealousy and racism, he becomes a pawn of crooked gamblers after a prison term.
The movie screenplay by Art Cohn has the contemporary setting of 1949 and our lead character Stoker Thomson is a white boxer, unable to accept that he is nearing the end of his career. True to his own personal code he fails to see the duplicity that surrounds him.
It is fitting that director Robert Wise chose to film the story in real-time. He used his editor’s eye like a poet, choosing the perfect moments to put across the gritty and dramatic story.
Audrey Totter, Robert Ryan
Journeyman boxer Stoker Thompson is holding on to a way of life he understands, while his wife Julie played by Audrey Totter wants a way out of what she sees as a dead end street. On the night we meet them, she must decide if the way out will be for both of them or only for herself. Her dilemma is heartbreaking.
George Tobias, Edwin Max
At the arena are others whose decisions will impact Stoker. His manager and trainer, George Tobias and Percy Helton, have made a deal with gangsters for Stoker to throw the evening’s fight. They haven’t let Stoker in on the deal because they don’t expect him to win. Stoker always fights to win and Alan Baxter as the sadistic gangster "Little Boy" is not a man to cross.
David Clarke, Darryl Hickman, James Edwards
We get to know and understand Stoker's "co-workers" including the punch-drunk "Gunboat" beautifully played by David Clarke, the anxious rookie Shanley played by Darryl Hickman, the sympathetic trainer Gus played by Wallace Ford, and the proud and ambitious Luther played by James Edwards.
The crowd is a major part of the story as presented by Robert Wise. They are the reason the fights go on, the bums in the seats, the profit. They are no part of what goes on behind the ropes, the individual boxer's fight with himself.
Julie - alone
The loneliness in the crowded arena is matched by the loneliness of Julie's wait for another night, another fight to finish. We stroll with her through town, returning to another nondescript hotel room as she struggles with the most important decision of her life.
Stoker - alone
The arena deserted after the fight where Stoker's victory places him in danger. The danger and fear is uncomfortably palpable.
TCM is showing The Set-Up on October 11 at 4:15 pm.