The Set-Up (1949) Classic Movie Review 113

The Set-Up (1949)

The Set-Up (1949)

I remember the first time you told me that. You were just one punch away from the title shot then. Don't you see, Bill, you'll always be just one punch away.


Today’s movie is The Set-Up (1949). This film was based on a poem by Joseph Moncure March, about a black boxer with the stuff to be a champ but was never given the chance. A small piece of the poem reads:

Mean as a panther, Crafty as a fox, He could hit like a mule, And he knew how to box.
A dark-skinned jinx, With eyes like a lynx, A heart like a lion, And a face like the Sphinx.

Sounds like it may be the inspiration for “The Warriors Creed” by Dropkick Murphy as well.

Robert Ryan played washed up boxer Stoker. Ryan was covered in Episode 51 – Battle of the Bulge (1965).

George Tobias played corner man Tiny. Tobias was briefly covered in Episode 83 – Sergeant York (1941).

Herbert Anderson was one the fight fans. Anderson was covered in Episode 50 – Battleground (1949).

Wallace Ford played Gus, the head trainer. Ford was covered in Episode 31 – Warlock (1959).

The Set-Up (1949)

The Set-Up (1949)

Audrey Totter played the role of long-suffering wife Julie. Audrey Totter was born in Joliet, Illinois in 1917. Totter began doing stage work and by 1944, MGM put her on contract. Right off the bat, she started playing the bad girl in films like Main Street After Dark (1945).

Totter had a great film noir career and acted in some best-known films of the genre. One of the greatest was The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) where Totter played a hussy that the John Garfield character picked-up. Totter played a tough cookie in Lady in the Lake (1947) and she sent Philip Marlowe (Robert Montgomery) on a confusing and dangerous route looking for a dead woman. In The Unsuspected (1947) Totter played a real gold-digging hussy. In Alias Nick Beal (1949), she played a morally challenged assistant to Ray Milland’s character. This was followed by one of the truly great films, The Set-Up (1949) where Totter played a loving and devoted wife to a pug boxer played by Robert Ryan. She tries to help as the boxer heads towards destruction. She acted in Any Number Can Play (1949) with Clark Gable. She also co-starred with Richard Basehart in Tension (1949).

Although she had all the talent and training to be a big star, she never quite made it. She was excellent as the bad girl in film noir and stayed there perhaps too long. When film noir shifted to television in the early-1950s she was left without many options. MGM dropped her contract in 1951. She jumped to a couple of other studios but the roles really never came back.

Totter turned to raising a family and working on television. She even had a long-term role on “Medical Center” 1972-1976. At the age of 70 Totter retired. In 2013, she died at the age of 95.

Percy Helton played Stoker’s corner man Red. Helton was born in 1894 in New York City. His family was in vaudeville and he joined the act at an early age. He was cast in child roles on Broadway and was mentored by George M. Cohan.

During World War I Helton served in the Army as part of the American Expeditionary Force. When the war ended, Helton went back to the stage. He also continued in silent movies having made a couple before the war.

Sometime prior to 1940, required screaming in a play left him permanently hoarse. This pointed him in the direction of character acting where his unusual voice and looks made him in high demand. He was prolific on television but a large majority of his film roles were uncredited. He played a drunken Santa in Miracle on 34th Street (1947), he got his noir cred in Call Northside 777 (1948), Criss Cross (1949), and The Set-Up (1949), comedies like Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff (1949), Fancy Pants (1950), and How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), costume dramas such as Cyrano de Bergerac (1950), and The Robe (1953), musicals like White Christmas (1954), Jailhouse Rock (1957), and The Music Man (1962), teen fair like Where the Boys Are (1960), westerns such as The Sons of Katie Elder (1965), A Big Hand for the Little Lady (1966), and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), and other genre like A Star Is Born (1954), Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954).

The Set-Up (1949)

The Set-Up (1949)

Helton had 233 film and television credits before he died in 1971 at the age of 77

Hal Baylor played the role of boxer Tiger Nelson. Baylor was born in Nebraska in 1918. For a time, he was a professional boxer. During World War II he served in the Marines and was in the battles of Saipan and Tinian. Baylor was a prolific television actor but he is known for a few movies.

The Set-Up (1949) was Baylor’s second film and he impressively showed his boxing skills with former boxer Robert Ryan. He was in the Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), where actor and non-military veteran John Wayne’s character teaches him to march. He played a soldier in The Young Lions (1958) and a military policeman in the hilarious Operation Petticoat (1959). One of his last films was the post-apocalyptic A Boy and His Dog (1975) written and directed by L.Q. Jones and starring Don Johnson.

Baylor died in 1998.

Darryl Hickman played Shanley, a boxer having his first pro fight. He is the younger brother of Dwayne Hickman. Born in 1931, Darryl was a successful youth actor. His movies include The Grapes of Wrath (1940), Men of Boys Town (1941), The Human Comedy (1943), Leave Her to Heaven (1945) and The Happy Years (1950) and The Tingler (1959). He interrupted his own career in 1951 when he joined a monastery. About a year later, he returned and tried to resume his career. After making a few more movies he became a programming executive and acting coach.

James Edwards played the up and coming black fighter, Luther Hawkins. Edwards was born in 1918 in Indiana. Edwards attended Knoxville College and received a drama Master’s degree from Northwestern University. He was in the Federal Theater Project during the Great Depression. He was one of very few African-Americans that was an officer in the Army during World War II.

His first film role was The Set-Up (1949). Many of his early acting roles were as soldiers in films like Home of the Brave (1949), The Steel Helmet (1951), Bright Victory (1951), Men in War (1957), Blood and Steel (1959), and Pork Chop Hill (1959). Don’t forget he was the mess steward that doled out the sand in the search for the strawberry’s in The Caine Mutiny (1954). It is widely believed that he was going to play an important role in Red Ball Express (1952) about the Army truckers that were moving supplies up to a rapidly advancing front during World War II. He was replaced by Sidney Poitier because he would not testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

He had a few film noirs as well, playing a war veteran track attendant in The Killing (1956) and as Zeke in The Phenix City Story (1955).

He was great as Corporal Allen Melvin in The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and near the end of his career, he played an aide to Gen. Patton (George C. Scott) in Patton (1970). Edwards was also a successful television actor appearing on most of the major shows.

Sadly, he died at the young age of 51 in 1970.


The Set-Up (1949)

The Set-Up (1949)

The bell rings and a prize fight begins, the timekeeper is Arthur “Weegee” Fellig a New York photographer that influenced film noir with his compositional and lighting style. Only the boxer’s legs are shown as the credits role. As the credit for director Robert Wise comes up a fighter hits the deck.

The clock shows it is 9:05 pm and the boxing venue is a small place in Paradise City. A.C. is assumed to stand for “athletic club” that has boxing Wednesdays and Wrestling on Fridays. Old pugs try to sell fight cards as a blind fan enters the arena. Other people are waiting and betting on the fights. One man mentions that he remembers watching Bill ‘Stoker’ Thompson (Robert Ryan) when he was a kid. Manager Tiny (George Tobias) strikes a match on the name of Stoker and Red (Percy Helton) says Stoker is in the hotel. Tiny and Red go to the Ringside Café/bar where Red watches a man almost win a camera with the claw machine, but it slips away at the last second in a metaphor for Stoker’s career.

Tiny finds a hood and handler for Tiger, Danny (Edwin Max) at the bar and says everything is set. Tiny asks for money and is told the deal is with Little Boy (Alan Baxter). The plan is for Stoker to be carried for two rounds and then take a dive. The payoff is $50. Tiny says he got $30 and only gives Red a sawbuck. Red thinks they should tell Stoker but Tiny is sure he will lose the fight anyway.

Over at the Hotel Cozy, Stoker and his wife Julie (Audrey Totter) are waiting. Stoker wakes at 9:10. Julie seems unhappy like anyone in her position. You would expect her play to be running out on Stoker. Stoker says he thinks he can beat Tiger Nelson (Hal Baylor). Julie says she is not coming to the fight that night. She doesn’t want to watch him take any more beatings. Julie tells Stoker that he is always one punch away. She wants him to get a regular job. He leaves her a ticket and heads out. Julie looks at her wedding ring and everything says she is running away.

Stoker goes to the arena and watches one of the fights as the fans scream for murder. Stoker meets Red and Tiny and tells them he is going to win the fight. Stoker is worrying about his wife and keeps looking out the window at the hotel. Fighters in all stages, from beginners to broken down pugs are in the dressing room. These fighters represent all stages of the Boxer – new (Darryl Hickman), prime that are concerned with religion or dames, champion Luther Hawkins (James Edwards), a young black fighter, over the hill Stoker, and pugs like Gunboat Johnson (David Clarke)

It is 9:35 p.m. and Julie is pacing at the hotel. After a bit, she picks up her ticket and heads out. Stoker sees the hotel light go out and he is happy. Julie goes to the arena but the bloody cries of the crowd make her change her mind and leave. She walks through a very shady part of town – around the arena. Men hit on her as she passes pawn shops and cigarette stands where boxing is playing on the radio.

Luther Hawkins has his route to the championship all planned out. Gunboat comes back after he has been knocked out. Stoker looks at himself in the mirror and wonders how good he is.

Julie is passing dive bars, tattoo joints, and bikers. She has a moment of happiness before she sees a boxing game. She walks down dark allies and I spent most of the time wondering what bad was going to happen to her as she descends onto an isolated overpass.

Another fighter comes in having lost as Hawkins goes out. Julie watches the electric trains run by and you have to wonder is she is thinking about suicide. She rolls the fight ticket in her hand before shredding it and tossing it away. Red is still pushing Tiny to let Stoker in on the fix as they come to take him to the ring.

Hawkins wins his fight and wishes Stoker good luck. Stoker enters the ring against Tiger Nelson (Hal Baylor). In the ring, Stoker sees Julie’s empty seat. The gangster Little Boy (Alan Baxter) and his mal are in attendance. Stoker can’t keep his eye off the empty seat. Tiger is told to carry Stoker for two rounds. Red keeps telling Stoker to stay away.

In round one, Stoker is taking a beating. Near the end of the round, Stoker lands a head shot and wades into Tiger. By the end of the round, it is a pure slugfest.

Stoker starts out losing the second round but can take everything Tiger can throw. Same as before, Stoker gives a headshot and digs in. Tiger takes some tough shots to the head. The fighters are talking as they fight and Tiger mentions the double cross.

In the corner, Stoker looks at the empty seat. Tiny tries to convince Stoker to stay in a protective pose.

In the third round, Tiger says to Stoker he will tell him when (to fall). Stoker pretty much takes a beating but Tiger can’t stop him. Again, Stoker fights back at the end of the round controlling the fight. Stoker goes down once, then a second time. Tiny leaves the corner but Stoker gets up. Tiny runs back in shock. The two men keep fighting after the bell rings.

This time Stoker wants to know why Tiger called him a fink. Tiny tells Stoker to lay down and that the fight has been fixed by Little Boy. Stoker takes one last look at the empty seat before heading into the fourth and final round.

At first, neither fighter can gain an advantage. The ref keeps checking Stoker’s cut above the eye. Stoker goes down but he hears Julie’s and Tiny’s voices and makes it back up. Stoker knocks Tiger into the ropes. Tiger is trying to hold on. Suddenly the crowd is behind Stoker, ala Rocky IV (1985). Tiny and Red run away as Stoker knocks out Tiger. Tiger takes the count and loses.

Stoker makes his way back to the dressing room alone. As Gus (Wallace Ford) tends to his wounds, Little Boy comes in with Danny. Danny sends both trainers out. Little Boy tells him he made a bad mistake because he didn’t get what he was paid for. Stoker says he didn’t know or get any money. Little Boy says they will talk about this later and then leaves.

Stoker is still concerned with Julie and looks at the dark hotel room. Julie stops by a food stand to get food and beer for her and Stoker. Stoker gets dressed and checks the hallway for the gangsters. Tiger, Danny, Little Boy, and another man are waiting outside for him. He runs through the now empty arena, knocking over folding chairs as he goes. This is very similar to Maish fleeing from the gangsters in Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962). Finally, Stoker finds an open door and goes out into the alley. He sees the Hotel Cozy and thinks he has made it until the gang spots him. He is trapped like a rat at the end of the alley. Little Boys talking constantly as the other people hit Stoker. He fights back but there are just too many. Little Boy, who has not participated waits until the other three have Stoker on the ground. He reaches down and Stoker belts him with a right. Little Boy says you will never hit anyone with that hand again and the scene slips away to banging jazz music and shadows.

Julie is back in the hotel preparing supper. It’s about 10:10 pm. The movie goes silent until it returns to the alley where Stoker is rising to his feet as soft jazz plays. A couple on a balcony think he is drunk. Stoker staggers along the wall calling weakly for Julie. Julie looks out the window and realizes to her horror that it is Stoker coming out of the alley. He falls and she runs to him saying his name over and over. Julie sees his hand and she asks for an ambulance. Stoker says they busted his hand with a brick. But there was no way he was going to lay down. Stoker realizes he can’t fight anymore. Julie says she will make it up to him and it’s going to be alright. He tells her he won. She smiles and says we both won tonight. The camera pulls back, leaving them behind and the clock shows 10:17 p.m.


Both Robert Ryan and Hal Baylor had prior boxing experience making this some of the most realistic boxing ever filmed for a movie. The Set-Up (1949) was eclipsed by The Champion (1949) with Kirk Douglas although it is not as gritty or as realistic a film.

World-Famous Short Summary – Wife finds joy in her husband’s crushed (literally) dreams

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Beware the moors

The Set-Up (1949)

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