Today is my birthday. Ta da! Birthdays can be a time of reflection, so maybe I should reflect on the fact that I’ve only put up one new post so far this month, yet more evidence of my constant struggle with procrastination. If this was an actual job where I had to turn in something every Friday, for example, I’d do it. Might not start until Thursday night, but I’d get it done. I’m the world’s worse boss to myself. It’s too easy to go to another movie, which is ironic, since this blog is ostensibly about movies. Seeing all these movies gets in the way of writing about them.
I just tallied them up, and I’ve seen 225 films since July 31st of last year. Do I get a prize? Plenty to write about, right? Plus I’ve got no end of topics on the back burner that I want to cover, such as the films of Buster Keaton, John Frankenheimer, Ed Wood, Robert Siodmak, Robert Aldrich, Anthony Mann, Robert Wise, Budd Boetticher, Don Siegel, Jacques Tourneur, Jules Dassin, Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, Jean Renoir, and many many others, plus drive-in movie theaters, film noir, and all the great stuff on television these days.
I’m really feeling the need to put up a post today so I can have at least two for July. This is arbitrary, I know, but it’s bothering me. I’ve been seeing a lot of film noir the last few weeks that I’ve wanted to write about, but which has resulted in one false start after another. Probably trying to deal with too many films, instead of just focusing on one or two. Film Noir is my favorite type of film (there’s divided opinion on whether noir is a genre or a style, but I know it when I see it). Film Forum here in NYC has been running a series called “Femmes Noir: Hollywood’s Dangerous Dames,” a new double-feature nearly every day. A week before the Film Forum series started, I saw another great noir, The Set-Up (1949), Robert Wise’s brutal boxing picture with Robert Ryan as a washed up fighter trying for one last score. Here’s what I wrote about it before I got distracted by seeing other noirs like Out of the Past (1947) and Murder, My Sweet (1944).
The Set-Up (1949) at the IFC Center on Thursday, July 10th. This is a great boxing movie from one of my favorite directors, Robert Wise. He began his long career in film as an editor for Orson Welles on Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). He then joined the Val Lewton production unit at RKO, where he directed The Curse of the Cat People (1944) and the exceptional The Body Snatcher (1945), which has Boris Karloff in one of the greatest performances of his career. Wise also made The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) one of the best science-fiction films of the 50s, and probably ever.
The Set-Up is as dark as it gets. Robert Ryan plays Stoker Thompson, a basically washed up fighter at 35 on a losing streak who keeps thinking the next match is the one that will turn it all around for him. But a local mobster wants Stoker to take a dive. Stoker’s manager has agreed, but has so little faith in Stoker’s abilities at this point that he doesn’t even bother to tell him, since he’s sure Stoker will lose anyway. You can probably guess how that works out. Ryan, who I think is still underrated, was an iconic presence in many key noir films. His characters frequently carried the threat of violence to a deranged degree, as in Fred Zinneman’s Act of Violence (1948) and Fritz Lang’s Clash by Night (1952), and were often virulently racist, particularly in Edward Dmytryk’s Crossfire (1947) and Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), also directed by Robert Wise. This is ironic given Ryan’s liberal politics and reputation as a kind and decent man.
The boxing scenes in The Set-Up, which take place in a seedy club located on a tattered street in the ironically named Paradise City, are as brutal as anything in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull. Even though the boxing matches are only four rounds each, Stoker’s fight seems to go on forever. We’re there for every minute of every round.
The Set-Up is distinguished by a real-time structure, so we’re in the ring with Stoker for as long as he is. A clock seen in the town square in the first shot shows the time to be 9:05 pm; at the end the same clock shows 10:16 pm. Everything in the film takes place during those 71 minutes. As far I know, The Set-Up was one of the first films to do this. Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope had done it the previous year, as well as Fred Zinneman’s High Noon in 1952. High Noon, in particular, really emphasizes the passage of time with repeated insert shots of ticking clocks. Of course, this makes sense, since the concept of time is right there in the title. But as Ellar Coltrane’s character says in Richard Linklater’s wonderful new film, Boyhood, “It’s always right now.” So whether a story is told in real time, as in The Set-Up, or is spread out over decades, as in Giant, every moment in any movie is always present tense, “always right now.”
So what should I do with the rest of the day? I could always go to another movie. Actually, we’ve got a screening of Life After Beth at 6:00 pm. Don’t know much about it, but it has Aubrey Plaza, Dane DeHaan, John C. Reilly, Molly Shannon, Cheryl Hines, Paul Reiser and Anna Kendrick. Good cast, right? Wait, here’s a synopsis that came with the email invite: Zach is devastated by the unexpected death of his girlfriend, Beth. But when she miraculously comes back to life, Zach takes full advantage of the opportunity to share and experience all the things he regretted not doing with her before. However, the newly returned Beth isn’t quite how he remembered her and, before long, Zach’s whole world takes a turn for the worse. Okay, I get it, it’s a zombie movie, probably for laughs.
But I’ve got three hours before the film, so maybe I should watch Sharknado2, which I DVR’d last night. The setting is New York City, so how can I resist? Sharks in the subways, what could be better? Though I doubt anything in this one can top the scene in the first epic where a guy chainsaws his way out of a shark’s gut after being swallowed whole.
What a birthday! – Ted Hicks