The Set-Up (1949) is the story of an aging fighter, well past his prime, but still taking to the ring on a low-class circuit, fighting at the bottom of crummy bills in shoddy venues. Robert Ryan played a lot of heavies, but here he plays the fighter who truly only knows how to do one thing - and that's get up and get back in the ring again and again, not yet shaken off the promise of the one-in-a-million shot, now with much smaller dreams of respectability.
Audrey Totter plays Julie, the woman in his life who has seen his string of losses and watched every fight, seeing the man she loves beaten and bloodied. As the movie begins, they've hit a cross-roads - though it's possible Ryan's "Stoker" doesn't yet fully realize the gravity of the situation.
Meanwhile his manager, who can count on Stoker to lose in every bout, takes a pay-off promising Stoker will take a fall, but cuts his own fighter out of the deal, considering it a no-brainer that his guy can't make it and wont' get lucky.
It's worth noting the movie is supposedly based on a poem, but the details are so changed, its both typical of a Hollywood adaptation and mind-boggling why they bothered to cite the original work as the source of inspiration.
The film has an odd structure. The action takes place within a few blocks, mostly all within the "Paradise City A.C.", featuring boxing on Wednesdays and wrestling on Fridays (for the first time in a ring with real fish!), and the length of the movie seemingly runs in real time. The movie breaks itself up into acts, with long scenes all occurring in a single location, including the locker room prior to the bout as the fighters on the bill give small scenes, each reflecting why they're fighters.
The fight itself isn't shortened for expedition of the story. The audience is given multiple characters we follow throughout the fight, their own mini-narratives weaving through the narrative occurring within the ring.
Ryan and Totter are both terrific in the movie, with Ryan's desperation to get the win - with no idea what it could cost him if he does. Totter, far less glamorous here than Lady in the Lake, plays the smart girl torn apart - knowing she can't change the fighter she fell in love with.
I'd be remiss to not point out that this movie was directed by the incredible Robert Wise, who is responsible for innumerable terrific movies, and a guy whose entire catalog I know I need to sit down some year and plow through. He did everything from The Day the Earth Stood Still to The Sound of Music to The Haunting, and a whole lot more you've probably seen.
In some ways, it very much reminds of the book of They Shoot Horses, Don't They? All these guys in need of the win, going out there one at a time, with the chances so small but all of them pushing themselves and taking a beating because they don't have a lot of other options. Only with less dancing.
I highly, highly recommend this movie.