#Noirvember: “The Set-Up” (1949) starring Robert Ryan & Audrey Totter

An “over the hill” (35 y.o.) boxer Bill “Stoker” Thompson (Robert Ryan) insists he can still win, though his wife, Julie (Audrey Totter), pleads w/ him to quit (before he sustains a serious injury). His manager, Tiny (George Tobias), is so confident that he will lose, he takes money for a “dive” from a gambler, Little Boy (Alan Baxter), w/o telling Stoker. Tension builds as Stoker hopes to “take” 23 y.o. newcomer, Tiger Nelson (Hal Fieberling), unaware of what will happen to him if he wins.

Stoker: Yeah, top spot. And I’m just one punch away.

Julie: 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.

This movie is based on a poem published in 1928 by Joseph Moncure March, who gave up his job as the 1st managing editor of The New Yorker to focus on writing. He went to Hollywood for a dozen years and worked as a screenwriter. In 1948, he volunteered to work on this film, BUT was turned down! Moncure March was angered that his Black boxer (Pansy Jones) was changed into a white character for The Set-Up. In the original poem, Pansy is depicted as a bigamist. The main reason for the change of race was b/c RKO had no Black leading men on contract. James Edwards (who plays Luther Hawkins), could’ve fit the bill, BUT the studio decided that he wasn’t well-known enough to carry a movie. Director Robert Wise suggested Canada Lee (who’d played a boxer in Body and Soul); RKO didn’t think that would work either.

While he was a student at Dartmouth, Ryan was an undefeated boxing champion- V cool! Former boxing pro, John Indrisano, choreographed the match and is credited onscreen for “fighting sequences.” Fieberling was also an expert boxer. Martin Scorsese is a big fan of the film; he was so impressed by the boxing that he had to deliberately avoid copying Wise’s camera moves when it came to Raging Bull (1980). Wise (who’d begun his illustrious career as an editor) used 3 cameras to capture the boxing scenes: one capable of seeing the entire ring, one focused on the fighters, and a handheld for quick shots and close-ups. This was Wise’s 9th film for RKO; after this, his contract obligations were complete and could work freelance.

Wise credited screenwriter Art Cohn (a former sportswriter) w/ much of the film’s realism. Cohn knew the boxing world; many of the script’s colorful supporting characters came from his own experiences. After attending several matches, Wise added other characters himself; he hung out in dressing rooms before and after fights. Scorsese (who 1st saw this film as a college student) considers it as an allegory for the chaos of life, populated by characters who are flat-out of luck.

The events occur in real-time (over the tight running time of 73 mins); this is unusual for a Hollywood movie. Ryan plays a good/straight-talking guy; you can’t see the acting (as he inhabits the role). I esp. liked the early scenes w/ Ryan and Totter; they make a believable married couple going through a rough patch. All the supporting characters have something to contribute; some of the boxers are jaded (after experiencing disappointment), while others remain hopeful. The crowd can be bloodthirsty, entertained by the (potentially dangerous) fighting.

It’s really a happy ending, in a truthful way. And maybe there’s a hope to that, a hope for the weaker ones in the world.

-Martin Scorsese

[1] I love Robert Ryan films. Whether playing a scum bag or a hero, his gritty and realistic performances have always impressed me.

[2] The end result is a film that is dark, low key and gripping throughout; it exists in the gutter, in the small time where all our characters seem destined to remain regardless of heart or talent. […]

The fight is realistic and tense throughout, I was genuinely unsure how it would go.

[3] What first struck me the most watching this was just how vile everyone- apart from the boxers- are. The fighters are actually the only ones with honesty and integrity running through their veins. These guys are the ones with the self respect being a chief issue for them, they are fighting not just for glory, but for a basic human trait.

[4] Although unnoticed at first, The Set-Up has slowly built a reputation as one of the great noir films out of RKO and one of the best boxing films ever made.

-Excerpts from IMDb reviews

#Noirvember: Films from Noir City DC (OCT 2022)

This year was my 2nd time attending the Noir City DC Film Festival at AFI Silver Theatre (here in my current neighborhood- Silver Spring, MD). I ended up seeing 3 movies- one of which I’d never watched before. During the 1st weekend, TMC’s Noir Alley host, Eddie Muller, introduced the films. I bought Eddie’s book on the behind-the-scenes story of Gun Crazy (1950).

All the King’s Men starring Broderick Crawford, John Ireland, Joanna Dru, John Derek, & Mercedes McCambridge

Jack Burden (John Ireland) is a newspaper reporter who hears of Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford) when his editor sends him to Kanoma County to cover the man. What’s SO special about this “nobody” running for county treasurer? He’s supposedly an honest man! Burden discovers this to be true when he sees Willie delivering a speech and having his son pass out handbills, while local politicians intimidate him. Willie is honest and brave; he’s also a “hick” whose schoolteacher wife educated him at home. He loses the race for treasurer, BUT later makes his way through law school. He becomes an (idealistic) attorney who fights for what is good. Someone in the governor’s office remembers Willie, when they need a patsy to run against the govermor and split the vote of his rival. While these (wiser/experienced) political types underestimate Stark, Burden (who becomes Stark’s biggest supporter) overestimates the man’s idealism.

I’d never seen this movie before; it will esp. interest those of you who follow politics. Here we find some of the same themes as in A Face in the Crowd (1957)- a must-see for fans of classics. After living through the Trump presidency, you’ll (no doubt) find comparisons aplenty! The basis of this movie is a Pulitzer-winning novel, All the King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren; the book was loosely based on the life of a Louisiana politician- Huey Long. The screenwriter/director, Robert Rossen, also worked on Body and Soul (1947) and The Hustler (1961). Ireland reminded me a BIT of Henry Fonda w/ his looks. This is the 1st movie role for McCambridge; she makes a big impression as a tough/unapologetic political operator. Dru is NOT able to convey deep emotion, so in several moments, she dramatically turn away from the camera. Crawford, known for playing mostly “heavy” (tough guy) roles, seems to inhabit his role here. Both Crawford and McCambridge won Oscars for their work!

A Place in the Sun (1951) starring Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift, & Shelley Winters

A chance meeting w/ his uncle after his father’s passing leads to George Eastman (Montgomery Clift) being caught in the middle of two worlds and NOT truly belonging in either one. The son of poor Christian missionaries, George meets his wealthy (paternal) uncle, Charles Eastman (Herbert Heyes), while working as a bellhop in his uncle’s hotel in Chicago. Wanting a better life for himself, George takes his uncle up on his offer for a job in one of the Eastman factories in California. Under his cousin Earl’s directive, George is placed on the factory assembly line. George sees this position as a stepping stone to something better, which he’s willing to work hard to achieve. Feeling lonely, George breaks the rule of no fraternization when he starts dating a fellow assembly-line worker, Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters). Several months later, Mr. Eastman suddenly promotes George professionally and personally. Although he’s NOT used to high society, George is soon befriended by beautiful/young socialite, Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor- then just 18 y.o.)

Quite a big audience was present to watch this film; it’s a classic and that stands the test of time. I watched it (w/ my family) as a kid. Mike Nichols said this film was his favorite; the filmmaker watched it 50+ times! Nichols noted that it also influenced how he directed his 1st movie- The Graduate (1967). The director of A Place in the Sun, George Stevens, was one of the most respected/prolific of his era. He came up through the Hollywood studio system, working as a stills photographer, then as a cinematographer. Stevens directed MANY critically-acclaimed/well-loved films, incl. Alice Adams (V early in Katharine Hepburn’s career), Woman of the Year (teaming up Spencer Tracy w/ Hepburn), The More the Merrier (a fun/early rom com), Shane (considered one of the best Westerns), and the epic family drama Giant (also w/ Taylor). The source novel for this movie, An American Tragedy, was written by Theodore Dreiser; it’s based on a true story. The book was adapted into a play by Patrick Kearney. The screenplay was written by Michael Wilson; he also worked on The Bridge on the River Kwai and Laurence of Arabia.

In 1991, this movie was selected for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. One critic wrote that this film represents America, where people are NOT satisfied w/ what they have, BUT always looking for something better. Another critic pointed out the connection shown btwn social class and desirability. The costumes, set design, editing, music/sound, directing, and acting ALL combine to make this an effective (and affecting) story. The director makes some great choices, incl. those memorable close-ups of two of the hottest actors to appear in film. In one pivotal scene, George embraces and speaks reassuringly to Alice, BUT Clift’s body is hidden from the camera. When George and Angela interact, she is often shown in the power position (as a male love interest). Notice their embrace on the balcony, where Clift hunches down and enfolds himself tightly in Taylor’s arms. At the lake, Taylor is sitting up w/ Clift laying his head down in her lap. In the end, did you think that George was a victim of circumstance or a calculating villain?

He would discuss the scene, but not the lines, and would photograph the second or third rehearsal so the scene had an almost improvisatory quality. Stevens would print the first take, then spend the next three hours minutely rehearsing the scene, then film it again. He explained to me that in this way he often got actors’ unplanned reactions that were spontaneous and human and often exactly right. And often when actors overintellectualize or plan their reactions, they aren’t as good. -Winters, describing Stevens’ way of directing

…because Monty was the New York stage actor, and I felt very much the inadequate teenage Hollywood sort of puppet that had just worn pretty clothes and hadn’t really acted except with horses and dogs. -Taylor, on feeling intimidated to act w/ Clift (before they became the best of friends)

Body and Soul (1947) starring John Garfield & Lili Palmer

Charley Davis (John Garfield) wins an amateur boxing match and is hailed as a local wonder. He meets a young woman, Peg (Lili Palmer), the winner of a beauty pageant. Peg lives in the West Village of NYC and is studying to be painter. The young men of Charley’s Lower East Side (LES) neighborhood are mostly jobless; some are looking to make some quick money. Charley’s friend, Shorty (Joseph Pevney- later director of many eps of Star Trek), tries to get the attention of a boxing promoter, Quinn (William Conrad), when he comes to the local pool hall. Suddenly, Charley’s father is killed in a bombing of his small candy store! Charley’s mother, Anna (Anne Revere), is strongly opposed to him fighting; she wants him to continue w/ night school and become a “professional.” Instead of letting his mother sign-up for “relief” (the precursor to welfare), Charley gets Shorty to set up a fight through Quinn. Charley travels to many states and his career grows, as he keeps winning fights. When an unethical promoter, Roberts (Lloyd Gough), shows an interest in Charley, he finds himself faced w/ difficult choices.

This movie (directed by Robert Rossen) is considered to be the best of Garfield’s short/bright career; the screenplay was written by one of his childhood friends- Abraham Polonsky. This role fits Garfield like a (boxing) glove; he also produced the film. Revere (who is related to that Paul Revere) is perhaps NOT the 1st choice for a Jewish mother, BUT she does good in her role (as usual). Palmer (who is British) and Garfield have good romantic chemistry, BUT her (posh) accent is out of place in the gritty world of the LES. Canada Lee plays Ben, a Black boxer who fights Charley, then becomes one of his trainers/close pals. Lee gets a few meaty scenes (rare for this era for people of color in film); he mainly worked in theater. The cinematographer, James Wong Howe (Chinese-American), filmed the pivotal fight holding the camera while being pushed around the ring by an assistant on roller skates! Martin Scorsese saw this movie as a boy; its influences can be seen in Raging Bull (1980), as some viewers noted.

Dangal (2016) starring Aamir Khan

NOTE: This is a SPOILER-FREE review.

Indian superstar Aamir Khan is known as a perfectionist, even when it comes to posters.  When I lived in NYC, I used to regularly attend monthly meetings of SAWCC (South Asian Women’s Creative Collective); though I wasn’t an artist (like most of the women), I wanted to meet interesting desis.  One night, we had a presentation by the young lady who’d worked as the main graphic artist on Lagaan (before moving to the U.S.)  She was working late in her Mumbai studio, when Aamir Khan called her up re: a small change to one of the poster designs.  Wow, talk about attention to detail!

Young Mahavir (Aamir Khan) gets ready for a wrestling match.

This film will definitely hold the viewers’ attention, even more so than Lagaan, thanks in part to its exciting/tense action sequences.  But this isn’t a historical epic, it’s a (real-life) family story, which MAY be even more compelling to some of you who regularly read this blog.  I didn’t know anything about the story before going to see it last week, aside from the fact that Aamir had gained and lost a LOT of weight for his role.  I later learned that three out of the four (VERY natural) young actresses in the film hadn’t acted before!  I esp. liked the chemistry between the two girls who played the sisters as pre-teens, as well as the charm of their older teen boy cousin. 

Life is sink or swim- a lesson that Mahavir wants his daughters to learn.

Mahavir Singh Phogat (Aamir Khan), a former national wrestling champion, wins medals and respect in the ’80s.  Unfortunately, he never gets the opportunity to prove himself on the world stage; there is NOT enough money/resources dedicated to his sport.  He loves wresting, so he spends time training other men in the mud pits of his village.  After a time, Mahavir settles into married life (w/ his wife Daya, played by Shakshi Tanwar) and a desk job in his home region of Hariyana.  He has high hopes for a son, whom he plans to teach to be an even better wrestler than himself, and win gold for India. 

Young Geeta is cheered by surprised locals after winning matches.

His wife gives birth to four daughters though the years.  Mahavir’s family and his small community is disappointed, thinking that the dream for wrestling glory is dead.  But after his two eldest girls, Geeta (Zaira Wasim) and Babita (Suhani Bhatnager), beat up two local boys who insulted them, Mahavir is spurred into action.  His daughters will become wrestlers under his coaching!  Gold is still gold, Mahavir is bold enough to think, and who’s to say that a girl can’t win one!?  Watch the trailer below.


Jason Brown & Patrick Chan: “Artists” on Ice

Jason Brown (USA)

Did you watch Jason Brown’s (USA) SP last night?   The 19 y.o. boy-next-door performed VERY well, impressing BOTH the crowd & judges at Sochi. 

Here is the 2014 U.S. Nationals vid that is now almost at 4 million views: 

A younger (16 y.o.) Jason talks about his daily routine to local TV station:

Patrick Chan (CAN)

23 y.o. gold-medal hopeful Patrick Chan (& fellow countrymen) discuss Canadian Men’s luck at Olympics:

One-on-one interview w/ Patrick (by then 2-time World Champion) on Canadian TV:

2013 World Championships SP:

2013 World Championships LP:

I totally fell IN LOVE w/ his skating here!  A younger (19 y.o.) Patrick, mature way beyond his years (artistically), performs his SP at 2010 Vancouver Olympics:

One of Patrick’s influences is (no doubt) the great Ukranian skater Viktor Petrenko, one of my faves.  The sense of romance/storytelling he creates ice is reminiscent of fellow Canadian Kurt Browning.  Here is his LP at 2010 Vancouver Olympics, where he made a mark, but was out of medal contention (due to a few errors and fall on triple axel jump): 

Olympic Figure Skating Times

Thursday: Team event, men’s and pairs’ short programs. TV: 8-11 p.m., NBC (delayed). 

*NOTE: The team event is a new one at these Olympics. 
Saturday: Team event, ice dance short dance, ladies’ short program, pairs’ free skate. TV: 9:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., NBC Sports Network; 8-11:30 p.m., NBC (delayed). 
Feb. 9: Team event, men’s and ladies’ free skate, ice dance free dance. TV: 10 a.m.-1 p.m., NBC Sports Network; 7-11 p.m., NBC (delayed). 
Feb. 11: Pairs’ short program. TV : 10 a.m.-1:30 p.m., NBC Sports Network; 8-11:30 p.m., NBC (delayed). 
Feb. 12: Pairs’ free skate. TV: 10 a.m.-2 p.m., NBC Sports Network; 8-11:30 p.m., NBC (delayed). 
Feb. 13: Men’s short program. TV: 10 a.m.-3 p.m., NBC Sports Network; 8-11:30 p.m., NBC (delayed). 
Feb. 14: Men’s free skate. TV: 10 a.m.-2:15 p.m., NBC Sports Network; 8-11:30 p.m., NBC (delayed). 
Feb. 16: Ice dance short dance. TV: 10 a.m.-2 p.m., NBC Sports Network; 7-11 p.m. and 11:35 p.m.-12:35 a.m., NBC (delayed). 
Feb. 17: Ice dance free dance. TV: 10 a.m.-1:30 p.m., NBC Sports Network; 8-11:30 p.m. and 1-2 a.m., NBC (delayed).
Feb. 19: Ladies’ short program. TV: 10 a.m.-3 p.m., NBC Sports Network; 8-11:30 p.m., NBC (delayed). 
Feb. 20: Ladies’ free skate. TV: 10 a.m.-3 p.m., NBC Sports Network; 8-11:30 p.m., NBC (delayed).