Previous Top Ten By Year lists:
1935, 1983, 1965, 1943, 1992, 1978, 1925, 1969
1930

Previous Top Ten By Year: 1949 Posts:
Top Ten By Year: 1949 – Poll Results
100 Images from the Films of 1949
What I’ll Remember About the Films of 1949: A Love Letter
#10. The Queen of Spades (UK/Dickinson)
#9. Rendezvous in July (Becker)/Au royaume des cieux (Duvivier) (France)
#8. Too Late for Tears (US / Haskin)
#7. The Heiress (US / Wyler)

For those unaware of my Top Ten By Year project:
The majority of my viewing habits have been dictated by this project since September of 2013. Jumping to a different decade each time, I choose comparatively weaker years for me re: quantity of films seen/quantity of films loved. I use list-making as a way to see more films and revisit others in a structured and project-drive way. I was sick of spending too much time trying to decide what to watch, or watching films just to cross them off another dumb canon list. I wanted to engage. I wanted films to be enhanced by others, by looking at a specific moment in time. I wanted something that led me to seeing or revisiting things I might not have gotten to otherwise. Lastly, my lists are based on personal favorites, not any weird notion of an objective best.

This is the first year I’ll be doing separate posts for each film. #9 will go up Monday. After that, one will go up each day until the end. Then I’ll post them all together so they are gathered in one place. There are a lot of films I loved that did not make the cut. In particular, Flamingo Road, Such a Pretty Little Beach, On the Town, Inspirace, The Reckless Moment, Reign of Terror, The Rocking Horse Winner, and Samson and Delilah are all films I thought at one point would be on here. Of all of these, Flamingo Road was a sure thing until it wasn’t at the very last minute. Please go watch it.

set up#6. The Set-Up (Us / Wise) (rewatch)
“That’s the way it is. You’re a fighter. You’ve gotta fight.”

The formal functionality of both The Set-Up and David Lean’s The Passionate Friends (you’ll hear about that one later) is to live, breathe, and translate the emotional acuity of its characters. As discussed in David Bordwell’s essential Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling, the 1940s saw an overhaul of the 1930s mode of filmmaking, a mode dominated by being on the outside watching. There is no probing beyond dialogue or situation. We don’t watch characters think, we watch them do. We take cues as if watching a stage production. The 1940s rewrote the book that had just been rewritten; movies began looking in, not at. Narrative filmic storytelling as we know it today derives from the foundations and schemas experimented with, and in many cases normalized, in the 1940s (subjectivity, flashbacks, voiceover, advanced structures, dreams). The techniques of the late silent period were reintegrated after the 1930s perfected and glamorized the basics and logistics of sound cinema (all while harnessing the power of the studio system). The vividness with which The Set-Up and The Passionate Friends translate the purgatory of the mind is such that each comes across as more modern than their times. You don’t look at these films: you feel them. They are nowhere near the first films of the 40s to do this, but they do stand as the culmination of a decade’s work towards the telepathic.

The Set-Up was part of a post-Body and Soul cycle looking to capitalize on that film’s success. Prizefighting pictures provided a rich template for social and political commentary, what with men being chewed up and spit out by a rigged system. It is based on a 1928 narrative poem by Joseph Moncure March about an African-American fighter named Pansy, a fact unsurprisingly reworked by RKO. There is a black fighter in the film, magnetically portrayed by James Edwards and brought to life with the same care and consideration as the other locker room inhabitants. This equal regard among white men is its own small progress for the time (black characters simply did not appear like this in Hollywood film at this time, and in the exceedingly rare cases they did it was because the film was about race relations). While it hurts to think of what could have been in its own right as a faithful adaptation in subject, The Set-Up is loyal to its source material in its adherence to poetic contemplation.

Robert Wise spent a lot of time in rundown arenas exploring the ins and outs of various  venues and watching the fights. He uses these lived-in details to build a world where the  routines in the night of a fighter have an honest home. That home has a defined perimeter, a town that calls itself Paradise City. It is a den of big-band sin, a microcosm of the seedy and sloppy. There are more blinkering lights than people and the place is hopping. Shit goes down here, home to the ironically named Dreamland arcade and Cozy Hotel. Outside the boxing venue, as soon as the film starts, there is an uncut minute where we drift between, and establish, no less than six pairs of characters buying their tickets. We won’t necessarily get to know them, but they will be familiar to us soon enough, our sea of heathens.

The camera is a free agent in The Set-Up, switching its perspective allegiance at will. But when you’ve got its attention it is a conduit for empathy and its antithesis. The Set-Up takes place in real time. One minute equals one minute (again, not something you will find in films of this time. High Noon is a few years off, and On the Town‘s New York time stamps at its start were their own fun new flourish). We are not allowed to forget time, and thus its immutability. We begin and end with a clock in the town square, and in those seventy-three minutes everything for Stoker Thompson (Robert Ryan) will change. We quickly learn that his manager has not only arranged for the night’s match to be thrown, but he is so sure that Stoker will lose that he doesn’t even bother telling him about the dive. We haven’t met the boxer yet, but we already want him to win because everyone not only expects failure of him, but are planning to bank off of that failure.

The camera enters through the window of the Cozy Hotel, as if we’re about to visit Marion Crane and Sam Loomis. Instead, a melodrama plays out between Stoker and his wife. Audrey Totter’s Julie stays behind because she just can’t do it anymore. She spends her evening walking the streets having her own existential crisis, in a sustained character arc also unlike any of its contemporaries I can think of. The internal life of the wife whose support has run out is externalized and inferred by her surroundings and Wise’s direction. Inconsequential exchanges reflect the claustrophobia of her predicament. The invasive obscenities of the city center create a chasm of lacking. The habitual passing trams are her indecision. All of this adds to the inescapable tension of not seeing the fight. Not going is somehow even worse than going, but she’s done watching her husband…

Meanwhile, men in ratty robes and lapsed dreams wait in a locker room. Everybody has a story, and everybody has a delusion of choice, whether clinging to religion, the legendary losses of a champ, fate, or the promised road. It feels like they are waiting for their public execution. There is a beautiful sense of community and shared respect between these men, because they all cling to not just their own hope but each others to get by. They just need to get that one winning punch in.

Twenty minutes of The Set-Up’s concentrated seventy-three are the boxing match. To say it is cumulatively overwhelming is to undersell the experience of it. This is The Flesh Circus from AI but with human beings. Men pummel each other for a merciless crowd screaming to see them bleed. There is a total absence of humanity in this venue, save for Stoker’s redemptive stakes and the newspaper man who believes in him. There is no music. Just the shrieks and savagery of the crowd. Round in and round out the camera makes its own, visiting the familiar faces we can collectively call Gluttony with tighter and tighter editing patterns and closeness. It is a gradual build-up that eventually railroads my nerves.

At a certain point towards the end of the match I begin crying, because I need Stoker Thompson to win (Robert Ryan, doing all-timer work here in his own favorite role, lends a dog-eared ache to a man who perseveres despite seeming ready for the junkyard). I am rooting with everything I’ve got for the wash-up in the ring fighting for his goddamn soul. And that need is being completely drowned out by a neverending onslaught of hateful vile creatures. They scream for whoever is winning, unless they have money to lose. They are horrific, and Robert Wise creates a sustained tapestry of toxic claustrophobia more upsetting than most things you’ll see in the movies. The boxing ring, time, the increasingly tighter close-ups, all of it squashes us in until it’s too much. And then it’s over. Nobody cheers. The lights go up immediately; the announcer isn’t even done naming the winner and everybody is up out of their seats, filing out, bereft of any of the energy they just had. The sport has done its job; the citizens, drained of their hellfire, exit to find their next fix among the riff-raff. The men in the ring, and the stakes they fight for, couldn’t matter less. Stoker is alone now, surrounded by the ominous shadows that Robert Wise carried over from his Val Lewton’s days, left to face the consequences of his hard-earned redemption.

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