Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Set-Up. A-

It's generally held that Robert Wise, despite two Oscars and work in nearly every genre, failed to really put a personal stamp on his movies and therefore isn't taken seriously as a great filmmaker. While it's true that Wise often simply took on a project handed to him and did his best to please the studios, I think there's still good reason to see him as an important figure. Take his 1949 real-time boxing drama, The Set-Up. This an intense film with the goal of being as real as possible. Wise doesn't have a lot of time to tell the story, so he conveys information with efficient camera shots that tell the audience exactly what it needs to know for the story to be as compelling as possible. Wise explains in the commentary track with Martin Scorsese that he never wants his camera to be distraction. For him, the audience should be immersed in the film, not noticing a fancy camera move. That might explain the simplicity of his style. Still, watching The Set-Up you really get the sense this guy understands camera composition and how to make a film visually interesting with being distracting. Yet a different Robert might be the reason this movie works as well as it does. That would be the star, the vastly underrated Robert Ryan. The film takes place in one night as a boxer (Ryan), considered an old man at 35, deals with an unhappy wife and scheming gamblers and his own personal ambition to win a fight even if his career is all but over. In the ring Ryan is hunched over and defensive, with hardly any muscle mass as he battles his bulky opponent. Wise manages to capture nearly the entire world of boxing (including the audience) while forming a hero who isn't so much tragic as he is worn down by life. Ryan looks the part, with a gruff face of a noir hero but also a hint of sadness in his expression that immediately makes the viewer connect to him. The Set-Up isn't a happy film, but there's a subdued sense of triumph by the end that's much more moving than other boxing films where the hero is glorified after the big win. As I said, Scorsese participates in the commentary for the movie, so it must mean something to him. You can almost see him starting to form Raging Bull out of it. 

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