The Set-Up (1949 film)

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For the 2011 film, see Setup (2011 film).

The Set-Up
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Robert Wise
Produced by Richard Goldstone
Screenplay by Art Cohn
Based on a poem 
by Joseph Moncure March
Starring Robert Ryan
Audrey Totter
George Tobias
Music by C. Bakaleinikoff
Cinematography Milton R. Krasner
Edited by Roland Gross
Distributed by RKO Radio Pictures
Release dates
  • March 29, 1949 (1949-03-29) (United States)
Running time
72 minutes
Country United States
Language English

The Set-Up is a 1949 American film noir boxing drama directed by Robert Wise and featuring Robert Ryan[1] and Audrey Totter.[2][3] The screenplay was adapted by Art Cohn from a 1928 poem written by Joseph Moncure March. The film is about the boxing underworld.


Stoker Thompson (Robert Ryan) is a 35-year-old has-been boxer. Tiny (George Tobias), Stoker's manager, is sure he will continue to lose fights, so he takes money for a "dive" from a mobster, but is so sure that Thompson will lose that he doesn't tell the boxer about the set-up.

At the beginning of the fourth and last round of the vicious boxing match with the much younger and heavily favored Tiger Nelson (Hal Fieberling), Stoker learns about the fix. Even though he learns that Little Boy (Alan Baxter), a feared gangster, is behind the set-up, Thompson refuses to give up the fight and mushes on.

Thompson wins the vocal support of blood-thirsty fans who had at first rooted against him. In the end, he defeats Nelson, but Little Boy has Stoker's right hand broken as punishment. Julie (Audrey Totter), Stoker's wife, supports him in the end.



In 1947, almost two decades after March's poem was published, RKO paid March a little over a thousand dollars for the rights.[1] Although March had nearly a decade of Hollywood writing credits during the 1930s (working on what a 2008 essay in The Hudson Review called "one forgotten and now unseeable film after another"), RKO did not ask him to adapt his own poem.[1]

The screen adaptation including a number of changes from the poem.[1] The boxer's name was changed from Pansy Jones to Stoker Thompson; his race was changed from black to white, he went from being a bigamist to being devotedly married, and Jones' beating and subsequent death on a subway track was turned into an alley beating and a shattered hand. In a commentary accompanying the DVD for the film, Robert Wise attributes the change in race to the fact that RKO had no Afro-American star actors under contract. Although the film did have an African American actor (James Edwards) in a minor role as a boxer, Edwards was not a "star" under the then existing studio rules. March later commented on the changes for an Ebony interview, saying:[1]

not only [did they throw] away the mainspring of the story, they evaded the whole basic issue of discrimination against the Negro.... Hollywood’s attitude to the Negro in films has been dictated all too often by box-office considerations: they are afraid of losing money in the Jim Crow South.

The prizefight in the adaptation features an exchange of blows between Stoker and his opponent that is very close to the original, though the opponent's name is changed.[1]

Joan Blondell was first thought of the wife's character before signing Audrey Totter for the role.

Dore Schary, the uncredited executive producer who apparently got the project going at RKO before his 1948 move to MGM,[1] is credited with giving the film a real time narrative structure, three years before the device was used in High Noon.[1] Prior to The Set-Up, Richard Goldstone's production credits had been limited to a half-dozen Our Gang comedy shorts.[1]


Critical response[edit]

When the film was released The New York Times reviewed the drama and lauded the picture's screenplay and the realistic depiction of the boxing milieu; they wrote, "This RKO a sizzling melodrama. The men who made it have nothing good to say about the sordid phase of the business under examination and their roving, revealing camera paints an even blacker picture of the type of fight fan who revels in sheer brutality. The sweaty, stale-smoke atmosphere of an ill-ventilated smalltime arena and the ringside types who work themselves into a savage frenzy have been put on the screen in harsh, realistic terms. And the great expectations and shattered hopes which are the drama of the dressing room also have been brought to vivid, throbbing life in the shrewd direction of Robert Wise and the understanding, colloquial dialogue written into the script by Art Cohn."[4]

Jefferson Hunter in a summer 2008 essay for The Hudson Review, said:[1]

All through The Set-Up, we see confirmed the oldest of truisms about film, that it tells its stories best in images, in what can be shown—a crowd’s blood lust, the boxers’ awareness of what’s coming to them in the end—as opposed to what is spoken or narrated.




Notable quote[edit]

  • Red: I tell you, Tiny, you gotta let him in on it.
Tiny: How many times I gotta say it? There's no percentage in smartenin' up a chump.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Joseph Moncure March: Poem Noir Becomes Prizefight Film from The Hudson Review
  2. ^ Variety film review; March 23, 1949, page 8.
  3. ^ Harrison's Reports film review; March 26, 1949, page 50.
  4. ^ The New York Times. Film review of The Set-Up, March 30, 1949. Last accessed: December 14, 2007.
  5. ^ "Festival de Cannes: The Set-Up". Retrieved 2009-01-11. 

External links[edit]