The Set-Up (1949)

SetupPosterWhat it manages to bring together within the frame of a meager B-film plot is quite astounding, balancing the brutality and atmospheric visuals with the direction of Robert Wise to develop something quite memorable. Boxing movies have been bigger and better, but film-noir has a way of dredging up the grittiest pulp and the Set-Up is that kind of film.

Its fight sequences are violently staged with human forms evoking the early realist images of George Bellows. However, it’s as much of a backroom drama as it is a fighting film. We see the payoff taking place behind Stoker Thompson’s (Robert Ryan) back as his manager (George Tobias) cuts a deal with the opposition without telling his main man what’s going on. He figures Stoker is all washed up at 35. There’s no way in heck he can beat the young buck he’s up against.

The dressing room is full of has-beens, young guns, and hopefuls who in just a few minutes paint a picture of what the boxing world really is. It’s a cruel game that is sweet in victory and sometimes even deadly in defeat. Still men of all backgrounds and values are drawn to it for one reason or another.

In fact, they are not the only ones. One of Robert Wise’s most formidable allies in this film are his close-ups that ratchet up his drama by utilizing the emotive reactions of his crowd. He builds a cadence introducing each nameless face early on and riding their reactions all the way through the fight. There is the woman who feigns repugnance only to reveal her ugly penchant for brutality. There’s the tub of lard who fills up on every concession imaginable while greedily watching the violence unfold. Then, the nervous husband who is constantly hitting and jabbing a phantom opponent. The list goes on.

We also witness the initial reluctance of Stoker’s girl (Audrey Totter) to go see him get beaten to a pulp. This is more than just fighting–it affects their future life together. And while he gets ready to fight, she listlessly wanders the streets too frightened to watch him get his block knocked off and still not yet empowered enough to change things. All she can manage is a jaunt through an arcade parlor, a few furtive glances overlooking the passing trains, and finally a lonely visit to a midnight diner. But this is hardly casting blame mind you.

The bottom line is that Stoker doesn’t see his girl ringside, and it feels like everyone down the line has abandoned him. There’s a need for vindication–to prove his worth when no one will give him a second thought. And that’s a dangerous place to be when people are betting on you to take a fall compliantly, namely one big whig named “Little Boy.” But Thompson’s not about to do that, fighting until he has nothing left to give. And he wins someway, somehow.

It’s when he gets ready to leave the building after the crowds have filed out and the trainers have left for home, that he meets an ominous welcoming committee. It’s not an unsurprising conclusion, but still, Thompson’s story finds a silver lining amidst all the violence. This film is a miracle of the studio age and Wise makes it an incessantly interesting piece of noir.

3.5/5 Stars

The Professionals (1966)

220px-Movie_poster_for_-The_Professionals-Who wouldn’t be enticed by a film entitled The Professionals? It feels a little like an amalgamation of The Magnificent Seven, The Dirty Dozen, with a  little sprinkling of Mission Impossible, and dare I say The Wild Bunch? We have a band of four big-time pros who are brought together to rescue the wife of a man named Grant (Ralph Bellamy). She is being held at ransom in the heart of Mexico. That’s no small task in the wake of Pancho Villa and the Mexican-American conflict, but these men are the best of the best.

The leader is none other than Lee Marvin (of The Dirty Dozen) with his prematurely white hair, leading the band as Rico Fardan, a skilled tactician, and former U.S. Army Officer. He is joined by Jake Sharp (Woody Strode), who is the best tracker around and also a crack shot with a bow and arrow. Next, comes skilled horseman and pack master Hans Ehrengard (Robert Ryan), who keeps mainly to himself. The most dynamic part is that of Bill Dolworth (Burt Lancaster), an unscrupulous scrounger who nevertheless is a good shot and an artist when it comes to using explosives. He’s not what you call a trustworthy type, but Rico would trust this man with his life and that says a lot.

Richard Brooks story is straightforward enough. This dream team goes in with their mission clear: The man who stands in there way is revolutionary turned outlaw Jesus Raza (Jack Palance), who is the one keeping Maria (Claudia Cardinale) captive.

As they push forward, they witness the brutality of Raza and his men as they raid a passing train and execute many of the occupants. Soon Fardan and his crew move in on Raza’s compound and wreak havoc one night so they can pull Maria out and take her to safety. But she seems like a very reluctant damsel in distress. She also seems very intimate with Raza. That’s the first sign that something’s up, but still, they follow the parameters of the assignment and pull her out.

Retribution follows and after a gunfight The Professionals flee through the mountains with Raza in hot pursuit. They use explosives to try and impede the progress of the rebels, and then Dolworth resolves to stay back to bide his partners time so they can get across the border. It’s at this point that he fights like one of the magnificent seven, in an impressive rearguard action that has his foes befuddled.

It’s when he actually comes face to face with his enemy that things become interesting. They know him and he knows them. Once upon a time, he fought with Raza and he was also acquainted with the lively female marksman Chiquita. When they finally get back to good ol’ Mr. Grant they find he’s not as straight-laced as they once thought, so they make a costly decision. They lose out on their big payoff but do the honorable thing by setting Maria free.

The Professionals gives us want we want. Honestly, we want cool characters and fun action sequences and that’s essentially what we get. There’s quite a bit of fairly graphic violence too for a ’60s western signaling a slow change in the genre. Lee Marvin is impeccable as the self-assured, tough as nails commanding type. Lancaster is, of course, the most interesting, and I can only imagine he had the most fun because playing a scoundrel would undoubtedly be a treat. Strode, Palance, and Cardinale were enjoyable to watch in their own rights as well since we did not necessarily need a whole lot of depth from them. It was only Robert Ryan’s role that felt rather like a throwaway part that did not have much to it. No matter, the Professionals was still an enjoyable all-star western.

J.W. Grant: You bastard.

Rico: Yes, sir. In my case an accident of birth. But you, sir, you’re a self-made man.

4/5 Stars

Caught (1949)

Caught_(1949_film)Max Ophul’s Caught is an interesting mix of soap opera drama and dark, brooding noir. It follows aspiring model Leonora Eames (Barbara Bel Geddes), who is obsessed with improving herself through charm school, landing a modeling job, and finding a rich husband. She’s not the only one in a world of young pretty girls who thinks money makes the world go round.

She’s a little bit different than the others, but they have slowly made her buy into the whole system. Then, one night she gets what all these gold digging girls could only dream of, she meets the filthy rich and oddly-named Smith Ohlrig (Robert Ryan), and it’s all quite by accident.

Soon more to prove a point than for love, Smith marries Leonora, and she tries her best to love him like a good wife. But he’s too busy and too difficult to get close to. She spends all her days stuck at home and unhappy with Smith’s hired aide Franzi Kartos (Curt Bois). Leonora realizes she needs something else and heads out to get a job away from Smith and his money.

The first opportunity she gets is as a receptionist for the doctor’s office of a kindly young pediatrician and his older colleague across the hall (Frank Ferguson). He pegs her as an odd applicant from the beginning but allows her to come on and work. Once she commits, Leonora proves to be a hard worker and she and Dr. Quinada (James Mason) hit it off, though he still finds her peculiar.

Once more, Lcaught2eonora tries to patch things up with Ohlrig who begs her to come back home, which she does. Because she wants their marriage to still work out. However, Leonora also gets some big news from a doctor that complicates the situation. She truly is caught. She cannot leave Smith due to their marriage and other difficulties while her affections truly lie with kindly Dr. Quinada who feels the same.

Ultimately, there has to be a showdown and so there is. Leonora has to make her decision. Then Smith has one of his angina attacks and she doesn’t want to help him. It causes her increased guilt and ensuing complications. But Ohlrig doesn’t die and Leonora finally has the future she wants with Quinada.

caught3Max Ophul’s was always a master with these types of melodramas and his trademark dolly shots are as prevalent as ever, developing some of the scenes wonderfully. It becomes more than a plot but a visual presentation too, and the shots often are augmented by how he moves in and about a room.  Robert Ryan steps into the villainous role easily and James Mason is a surprisingly amiable good guy. Also, though his role is small, Frank Ferguson is nonetheless pivotal and thoroughly enjoyable as a fatherly figure. Of course, Barbara Bel Geddes is a worthy protagonist, because she is ultimately the one trapped between her two male counterparts and she is the one who goes through the most mental torment with Ohlrig potentially being close behind.

Above all, Caught is a timeless indictment not simply of corrupt capitalism but a generally misguided philosophy that money is everything. Quinada has the best approach, realizing that money is necessary, but it can never buy you happiness or remedy your relationships. Smith never figures that out and it is difficult for Leonora to leave that worldview completely behind — as it is for many of us.

4/5 Stars

Act of Violence (1948)

ActofViolenceAct of Violence is an interesting post-war moral tale from director Fred Zinnemann. Frank (Van Heflin) returned home from war a hero. He now has a small child with his pretty young wife Edith (Janet Leigh) in the vibrant California town of Santa Lisa.

Little is known about his P.O.W. past and all his comrades were killed. Except one. His friend Joe (Robert Ryan) is still alive but he is plagued by a crippled leg now. He finds out about Frank’s whereabouts and it become his personal vendetta to straighten him out. The innocent Edith is in the dark about the whole ordeal and with the shadow of Joe constantly haunting him, Frank must family face the specter of his past.

He goes off on a business trip to escape and there out of desperation he winds up hiring a hit man to get Joe off his back. The two former buddies set up a meeting (which is really a trap), But as would be expected it does not work out as planned. Justice is dealt but there is still a strange sense of moral ambiguity. This is  certainly not Zinnemann’s best work, but it brings up some interesting questions about moral scruples and personal conflict.

3.5/5 Stars

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

8435a-bad_day_at_black_rockStarring Spencer Tracy and Robert Ryan with Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, Dean Jagger, and Anne Francis, the whole story takes place in an isolated desert town. Tracy as the one-armed man Macready comes to the town and soon is face to face with many cold, detached, and suspicious folks. He has his own reasons for being there so that he can find the father of a Japanese-American war buddy of his. He asks around and no one is willing to talk. Macready soon realizes their secret and understands how much danger he is in. However, with the help of a couple of townspeople he is able to resolve everything. Then, he leaves town aboard the train just as calmly as before. This film intrigued me for a number of reasons but especially since a central topic was racism towards Japanese-Americans.

4/5 Stars