Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

"Beware of false prophets that come to you in sheep's clothing."

The Night of the Hunter
- Charles Laughton's only directorial effort - was a box-office flop thanks partly to a misguided advertising campaign and lukewarm reviews when released in 1955. Around the 1970s movie goers began to embrace foreign and more artistic films. The daring-for-it's-time thriller was reexamined by film buffs and grew into a cult classic. Today there's no doubt that Laughton's Night of the Hunter is considered a great film.

The depression-era story - told like a twisted fairy tale - is about a young boy trying to protect 10-thousand dollars hidden in his little sister's beloved doll. The money's from a bank robbery John's father (Peter Graves) pulled before being caught. Wounded, the young father hides the money just as the police arrive at the house. Ben Harper killed two men in the hold up and is eventually hanged for the crime. Young John swears an oath -right as the police arrive- to his father to keep the loot from everyone until he grows up. He's tested when a slick-speaking preacher - an ex-con and his dad's former cell mate - shows up at his doorstep looking for the cash.


The preacher (Robert Mitchum) woos John's vapid and love-starved widow mother (Shelley Winters) and a marriage is quickly performed. John knows the preacher is after the money but all the adults in his world either don't believe him or are too weak to help him. What follows is a story -told mostly from the point of view of John - about children trying to survive a dangerous adult world. The film becomes unsettling when the narrative switches between the child's view to the twisted reality of the cracked preacher.

Jeffrey Couchman's book, The Night of the Hunter: A Biography of a Filmis a detailed story about how the film was made and the reaction to the now-classic movie. In it, Couchman mentions Mitchum - the coolest cat in film noir - was coached by Laughton to give a performance that ends up being a mix of Mitchum's film-noir toughness and more than a bit of Charles Laughton's physical acting and line delivery. Mitchum wanted to preacher to be even more sinister in the film. Laughton insisted he perform a few pratfalls and lighter comic moments. The two compromised and created a perfect balance. Preacher Harry Powell turns out to be Mitchum's greatest and most unexpected performances. Mitchum sings a lot in the movie and who could forget the chilling sing-song “Chil—dren?” chant at the top of the stairs?

The film based on Davis Grubb's first published book. Laughton considered the novel very visual and instructed screenwriter James Agee to create a script that would be as close to the novel as possible. Agee wrote a phone-book sized draft. Laughton - experienced with editing down large works when working on plays based on novels and his own one-man story-telling shows - whittled down the first draft into a shooting script. Laughton seems to have kept the movie true to the novel. Agee insisted Laughton get co-screenwriter credit but the director refused. Agee died before the film could be released.

Walter Schumann was hired to do the score. The music was written before the film was made. Like the film, the score is creepy and unforgettable. The soundtrack vinyl record - recently re-released on CD with Rózsa's The Lost Weekend score- isn't a soundtrack at all. It's Laughton, Mitchum and others telling a condensed version of the film over Schumann's unforgettable music. The album - sounding a bit like a radio program - is unique and showcases Laughton's great gift as a storyteller. Laughton was not unlike Orson Welles - a great teller of tales both behind the scenes or in front of a microphone.

The Night of the Hunter cast is solid from top to bottom. The children in the movie have been criticized by some as being weak actors. I disagree. Certainly John Harper's little sister Pearl is annoying and does occasionally look off camera. However, I find their raw performances to be better than the alternative. Nothing kills a thriller quicker than sticky sweet kids and weepy weddings. Instead Night of the Hunter has kids in it that seem real. Speaking of weddings, Shelley Winters as the preacher's bride is perfectly cast. Willa Harper's honeymoon turns torturous when her misogynist husband loudly rejects her advances. Winters can be grating - even this early into her career (watching her in The Big Knife is like sixty-grit sandpaper being rubbed on your toes)- but she hits all the right notes here showing lust, disappointment and shame in a brief scene. Her death scene - shot in an German expressionistic style in a bed room that's shaped like a church steeple and in a bed that resembles a tomb- is one of the best in the film. Finally the underwater shot of her lifeless body sitting in her sunken car with her long hair flowing like seaweed probably still gives people nightmares. (I have to admit it, after a recent viewing, the scene reminded me of Winters in the unfortunate The Poseidon Adventure.)

Evelyn Varden and Don Beddoe play Willa's neighbors - the Spoons. Varden plays a busy body. She does all she can to get the preacher and Willa together - which turns into a fatal mistake. Walt Spoon suspects Harry Powell isn't all he seems to be but gets shouted down by wife Icey. Beddoe is in a lot of films (including The Killer is Loose and The Narrow Margin) but he usually ends up being invisible. Laughton seemed to have been generous to his cast. Even the smallest supporting roles have a bit of an edge to them. When Icey announces to the ladies at the church picnic, “When you've been married to a man for forty years you know all that don't amount to a hill of beans. I've been married to Walt that long and I swear in all that time I just lie there thinkin' about my canning.” Don Beddoe's reaction is priceless.

Lillian Gish enters the picture about 2/3rds of the way through and almost steals the movie from Mitchum. She plays a woman who no only is the only true Christian in the film but also one strong enough to stand up to Harry Powell.

The most memorable image in the film is probably Mitchum's tattooed knuckles. L-O-V-E on one hand and H-A-T-E on the other. Silver and Ursini's Film Noiruses them on the cover of their handsome coffee-table book. Meatloaf had the same tattoos in Rocky Horror Picture Show and Bruce Springsteen makes mention of the the famous ink in his song “Cautious Man.” Today - even when Sunday school teachers can be spotted with “tramp stamps” on their backs - the knuckle tattoos are outrageous. Grubb used that physical feature in the book after remembering seeing a man with those actual tattoos years before. The publicity still of Mitchum outside of Rachel Cooper's house is familiar to any classic movie fan.

The film is a hard one to classify. It's part horror. Certainly, you can see some of Universal's Frankenstein in the movie. Mitchum looks like the monster with his outstretched arms chasing the children. Then there's the angry sanctimonious “Christian” torch-carrying mob lead by Icey Spoon near the end. Mitchum is hypnotic and sexy - just like Béla Lugosi in Dracula. The shotgun standoff at Rachel's farm is reminiscent of classic Westerns.

Would you call it film noir too? After reading Mr. Couchman's book (an excellent read) this week I emailed him that question.
“It’s probably fair to call it “noirish.” How’s that for an evasion? Well, it’s not quite an evasion, because the film both contains and lacks elements of noir. It has such film-noir characteristics as high-contrast lighting, an expressionistic use of shadows, and a psychopathic main character. But it also has a pastoral feel that is unlike noir, and it contains a character of pure goodness (Rachel Cooper, played by Lillian Gish) who is alien to the corrupt, morally ambivalent world of noir. The happy ending is also not what you expect in a film noir. So I guess the final answer for me is . . . the film is part film noir.”

The film certainly makes a good case for film noir not being a genre but rather a style seen in many genres. If you look at it that way then I would definitely call it noir.

Stanley Cortez's camerawork should not be overlooked. The famed cinematographer makes the film look like a cross between Tom Sawyer, The Red House and Cape Fear. (trivia: Cortez worked on Black Tuesday (1954) also with Peter Graves playing a young prisoner that won't reach old age.)

Laughton instructed Cortez that he wanted the film to look like an old silent and, in parts, like a children's book. Laughton certainly took a risk making his first -and last - film a combination horror, suspense, children's story and even comedy. On top of that having Cortez shoot it in an expressionistic style and dealing with issues like religious hypocrisy probably made the film impossible for it to be marketed in theaters. Time, however, is usually kind to truly great films - regardless of their box office. This is one of the best.

Written by Steve-O


Friday, June 19, 2009

Dead Reckoning (1947)

Errors in Judgement in Dead Reckoning

“Didn’t I tell you all dames are the same with their faces washed.”

With The Maltese Falcon (1941), Casablanca (1942), and The Big Sleep (1946) under his belt, Humphrey Bogart made the rather disappointing film Dead Reckoning in 1947. From director John Cromwell and with the two main stars: Bogart and Lizabeth Scott, this should have been a first tier film, but it isn’t. When the film was released it received a mixed review from The New York Times and was criticized for its rambling plot, Scott’s lifeless performance and for the implausibility of some of the main male character’s actions. I’d go along with placing the blame for the film’s failure on the plot. The original story is credited to Gerald Drayson Adams and the film’s producer, Sidney Biddell. After that, add Oliver H.P. Garrett and Steve Fisher for the screenplay, and then stick the name Allan Rivkin on top for the adaptation. That gives us a list of five writers, and it’s easy to wonder if some of the script’s problems came from the sheer number of hands editing and altering until the original story morphed into a convoluted mess.

The film’s title, Dead Reckoning probably meant more to post WWII cinemagoers than it does to today’s audience. Dead Reckoning is the term of a basic navigational method used in the absence of instruments. Position is estimated based on previously known information, and then the navigator advances that position based on using known or estimated speeds and time elapsed. It’s flying blind in a sense, and one error made--no matter how slight in the formula--will be magnified as errors are calculated onto errors, creating the potential for cumulative disaster. This clever title reflects not only the echoes of WWII that still resonate in the hero’s life, but it also exactly describes the choices the hero, Murdoch (Bogart) makes as he stumbles into Gulf City and stirs the embers of a long-smoldering crime. He makes his first errors in judgment and bases his actions on these errors, compounding his mistakes as he gets sucked in deeper and deeper into deception.

The first half of the film is told in flashback mode by the main male character, Captain Rip Murdock (Humphrey Bogart) to a stray priest Murdock corners in a Gulf City church. Murdock, running and evading the police, lurches into the church, loiters around a pillar and then corners the priest. In supplicant mode, Murdock begins to tell his tangled tale. At first the implication is that Murdock is wounded and that he’s gasping out his tale as a version of a deathbed confession. This scene is the first of many superfluous plot twists; it serves to justify and introduce the strong voice-over narration that dominates the film.

In flashback mode, Murdock’s tale to the priest begins strongly enough with two WWII heroes returning to the States. Captain Rip Murdock (Bogart) and Sgt Johnny Drake (William Prince) have been holed up injured in a French hospital, and they’ve been flown back with no small amount of expense and trouble, but the pomp and ceremony is about to come in Washington when both men are decorated for valor. When Johnny hears the news that he’s going to be awarded the Medal of Valor, he does something peculiar. He ditches the train to Washington, ditches Captain Murdock and hops a train going in another direction. Murdock vows to find him and bring him back, but just who is Drake? Murdock begins to question the identity of his war buddy right as he disappears, but before Murdock can get answers, Drake is long gone.

Murdock’s curiosity and determination to bring Johnny Drake back to Washington leads him to the discovery that his longtime pal used a fake name. ‘Drake’ was really Preston, a Yale graduate who hailed from Gulf City, and Murdock’s guts tell him that Johnny will return back to his home town, and to a particular blonde: “Cinderella with a husky voice”--a girl whose memory troubled Johnny even on the battlefields of France.

So far so good, but the plot is heading to the murky depths from which it will not return. Murdock arrives in Gulf City and discovers that there’s a room reserved for him, so evidently Johnny expected his old army pal to arrive. Along with the reservation is a cryptic note that includes the word “Geronimo” --the tag used prior to a parachute jump. Murdock now knows two things: Johnny is back in Gulf City, and that he’s laying low….

When Johnny doesn’t show, Murdock begins to worry and he decides to do some investigating. Using Johnny’s enlistment date to estimate when he left Gulf City years before, Murdock discovers that Johnny Drake (Preston) confessed to a murder involving cabaret singer ‘Dusty’ Coral Chandler (Lizabeth Scott) and her much-older wealthy real estate magnate husband. This information is delivered problematically through a spilt second visual flash at a newspaper headline. There’s another split second flash on the screen of more essential information. An important witness to the crime was a waiter at the Sanctuary Club named Louis Ord. This device of on-screen split-second flashes of essential plot twists is a major trip up for the film.

Murdock takes a side jaunt to the morgue where he exchanges some snappy dialogue with the resident cop who’s hanging out for kicks. Posing as a traveler concerned about a suicidal man, Murdock checks all the new stiffs and discovers Johnny as a John Doe burned to a crisp.

Now Murdock goes on the hunt for the waiter Louis Ord (George Chandler), and he heads to the Sanctuary nightclub where he runs slap bang into the gorgeous Chandler dame as she sits at the bar. The first look we get at Scott (nicknamed “The Threat” by Paramount) is through Murdock’s eyes as he scans her body from the ankle up those long legs teasingly crossed and glimpsed through her seductive evening gown. Although bothered by club heavy, Krause (Marvin Miller), Murdock manages to steer the Chandler babe to a table for two. Here she croons a lifeless song to the club’s patrons before Murdock drops the news of Johnny’s death.

The plot gets even thicker with the introduction of club owner Martinelli (Morris Carnovsky), and it’s not long before Murdock is drugged and wakes up in his hotel room next to a stiff. A few scenes later, the film segues back to Murdock’s confessional stint with the priest at which point Murdoch ditches the priest and bails back into the present Gulf City action. Thrown into the plot is a letter written in secret code, a missing murder weapon, and a safe expert loaded with explosives.

Although the film is packed with snappy dialogue, basically the plot needs a complete rewrite, although I have a nagging feeling that the original script had so many re-writes the pages bled red. There’s too much emphasis on minor characters while major developments are delivered as minor asides. What was the point of the priest since that entire scene went nowhere? And what was the point of the Louis Ord character except to provide a skinny stiff that travels around town in the back of Dusty’s car?

Apart from the sappy ballad Lizabeth Scott delivers in sickly-sweet sentimental fashion, she plays the femme fatale well. The flawed hero, Murdock, already half in love with the blonde he’s heard so much about, forgets his common sense when it comes to Dusty. Mulling over the implications of the scent of Jasmine he can’t forget (reminds me of Walter Neff’s memory of honeysuckle), Murdoch heads right back to the duplicitous dame after ditching the priest. Obviously since the newspaper headline that exposed the crime placed Dusty, Johnny and her dead husband together at the scene of the murder, with the husband dead that left two possibilities. And with Johnny fried to a crisp that leaves one. You’d have to be impossibly naïve or blindly in love to think Dusty didn’t pull the trigger on her old man, and since Murdock isn’t naïve, that leaves one possibility….

Murdock’s actions exemplify Dead Reckoning. He knows one thing when he arrives in Gulf City--the man he’s come to know as Johnny Drake is a good human being--a man he’d trust his life to. Johnny is in trouble, but Murdock doesn’t know why. Poking around Gulf City raises the possibility that Johnny is a murderer, but Murdock doesn’t believe that. He searches for Johnny and finds a corpse, and from then on Murdock wants to discover the truth. He begins to make errors in judgment with each error sucking him in deeper and deeper. He continues to trust Dusty even though that cloying scent of jasmine tells him otherwise, and his continued relationship with Dusty smacks of doom. If love or infatuation explains Murdock’s sometimes ill-conceived actions, Lizabeth Scott’s lifeless performance (per the critics--not me), can be explained by the fact that like most femme fatales, Dusty detracts her claws in favor of deceptively sweet, ultra-submissive behavior, and if you’re a sap--like Johnny or Murdock--you suspend your intuition and skepticism and fall in love with a succubus. One scene between Murdock and Dusty sets the stage for the relationship as he defines his perfect woman as the type who will keep quiet and disappear until nighttime, and Dusty listens, absorbing Murdock’s description. She becomes that woman--pliant, submissive, gentle…well at least on the surface.

The Columbia DVD releaseshows luscious Lizabeth Scott in Bogart’s arms. The implication is that she’s fainted, but in the cover picture she looks as though she’s been decapitated. This poor choice is just a hint of what’s in store in this problematic film. But Bogart, at least, is faultless as Murdock. Not many men can address a bartender as “sweetheart” and get away with it, but this is all part of Murdock’s charm: his sentimentality, his devotion to his old friend, and his willingness to be duped…up to a point….

Written by Guy Savage


Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Glass Key (1942)

Imagine a glass key twisting in a lock and falling to the ground in glittering shards....The plot of The Glass Key, despite its folklore-esque title, is not indicative of an amuletic object as is The Maltese Falcon. Rather the glass key is a metaphor for the types of fragile human relationships explored in the film.

Dashiell Hammett, dean of the hard-boiled school of fiction, authored The Glass Key.It was dedicated to one of his former lovers, American author Nell Martin. The Glass Key was said to be Hammett's personal favorite amongst his own works. As a side note, Hammett was a pretty hard-boiled guy himself, being one of the survivors of the deadly Spanish flu pandemic!

This noir version is actually the second cinematic adaptation of the book. The first Glass Key film was produced by Paramount in 1935 and received strong reviews in the New York Times.

The two starring roles in the 1942 film are played by Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd. The pair also starred together in This Gun For Hire released in the same year. Interestingly enough, they were cast together not because of chemistry, although that was present in truckloads, but rather in regards to their petite statures! Alan Ladd stood only 5'5" and Veronica Lake was a tiny 4'11".

Really, The Glass Key embodies the definition of noir. Hook, line and sinker: Janet Henry (Veronica Lake) is the hook, Paul Madvig (Brian Donlevy) has got all the lines and Ed Beaumont (Alan Ladd) sinks everyone who crosses him, or his boss Madvig...

We will start with the hook. Of course it's the dame. Janet Henry, daughter of a politician, has got a mean but intriguing right hook when defending the gambling ways of her younger brother, Taylor Henry. Paul Madvig shouldn't have said it so loud. "If Ralph Henry is so anxious to reform someone, why don't he start on that son of his?! He gets in more jams than the Dead End Kids!"

Janet walks right up to Paul and slaps him across the face. He is titillated by her blonde beauty, confidence and passionate anger. "What a slugger...."

Madvig exclaims to his right-hand man: "Ed! I just met the swellest dame. She smacked me in the kisser." At that moment, Paul Madvig has decided to himself that Janet Henry is the women that he will marry and that he will support her father in a bid to be re-elected as senator.

The shocked look on Ed's face, more than anything else, is that of a jilted lover. Now the viewer begins to see hints of a homosexually charged relationship between Ed and Paul, very similar to what one observes between Neff and Keyes in Double Indemnity.

Veronica Lake's deadpan depiction of Janet Henry has all the qualities of a medieval painting of a devilish Madonna. The clever costume designer had Lake appear in several scenes with hair totally covered by nun-like hats, giving her exquisitely molded face an eerie otherworldly quality. The electricity between Janet Henry and Ed Beaumont is evident from their first meeting as she shoots him naughty sidelong glances, however he is highly suspicious of her manipulative un-veiled advances.

It fascinates me to notice so many examples of clothing used symbolically and erotically in noir films. Especially footwear---think of Edward G. Robinson painting Joan Bennett's toenails in Scarlet Street, hep kitten Ella Raines's rosette heels enticing Cliff the drummer in Phantom Lady, and who could forget that first sexy glimpse of Phyllis Dietrichson's anklet and platform shoes on the stairwell in Double Indemnity?

A particularly intimate scene takes place near the beginning of the The Glass Key, while Ed and Paul are talking in his office. Ed is perched on the edge of Paul's desk, and Paul has his feet propped up on the desk with his shoes removed. Ed is seriously advising Paul to keep up his good relations with underworld gangster Nick Varna, rather than backing the reform candidate, Janet Henry's father. The entire time, Ed cannot take his eyes off Paul's feet on the desk and finally affectionately criticizes his time-piece themed socks.

"It's wrong. As wrong as those socks."
"Wait a minute, what's wrong with them?"
"The clock. It ticks too loud."

Then the plot really gets twisted around. We discover that Paul Madvig's younger sister is in love with Taylor Henry, much to the chagrin of her older brother. The events of an evening result in the murder of Taylor Henry. Ed Beaumont discovers the body. And The Glass Key quickly becomes a whodunit mystery.

The relationship between Ed and Paul reaches its head during a heated argument that can only be described as a lovers quarrel shortly after the funeral of Taylor Henry. Ed has proclaimed he is leaving town for good. He and Paul have one last beer together at a table in the back of the bar. By the time the waiter appears they are already going at it and the subject is Janet Henry. The look on the waiter's face is that of someone who is observing an argument between a couple.
Ed growls an impassioned: "Take your hands off me!" Paul gets knocked out and then when he gets back up to defend himself, Ed ruthlessly breaks the beer mug on the table and threatens him with the sharp remains.

In spite of this hot tiff, Ed Beaumont continues to remain fiercely devoted to Paul Madvig, for reasons unbeknownst to the viewer, but alluded to throughout the film. One can glean that Ed Beaumont has a gambling problem and perhaps Madvig fished him out of a very deep hole.

Another performance in The Glass Key that cannot go without mention, is William Bendix playing the role of Jeff, gangster Nick Varna's thuggish henchman. Bendix administers to Ladd, perhaps the most overtly sadomasochistic beating that I have yet to observe in a film noir. I would go so far to say it would even rival the beating of Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly.

At one point Jeff is roughing Ladd up with such homoerotic glee, punching him onto nothing other than a bed, another one of Varna's thugs blurts out: "Watch it! You're liable to croak him."

Jeff insists that his victim is enjoying it. "He's a tough baby, he likes this." Ed Beaumont certainly is a tough baby....Ed's daring creative escape from Varna's cronies makes the whole movie a worthwhile watch.

Yet as a true thick-skinned Hammett character, Ed Beaumont goes back for revenge and more. Ed sets up another typically noir scenario, cornering and manipulating an inebriated Jeff in a sordid dark room above a bar. Again, the shadows of set and cinematography make this scene a viewing necessity for every die-hard noir fan. This scene is one of those which christened the birth of true film noir. During their sordid exchange, reiterating noir's foot fetish, Varna walks in and the hulking Jeff drunkenly throws his arm around Ed Beaumont and proclaims, "Hiya Nick. Meet Mr. Beaumont. He's a heel!... (to Beaumont) I think you're a pair of heels."

The Glass Key is not the same kind of stylish catchy thriller as This Gun For Hire, it has a definite slower pace. However the former more clearly illustrates the elusive atmosphere and thematic elements which define film noir. Alan Ladd reigns supreme in both films, as a master of multifaceted characters. Not only did he master the role of a feline-loving hitman in This Gun For Hire, but he interjected a profound complexity to the character of Ed Beaumont.

All of the key components of noir are present in this film: a very definite crisis of patriarchy, strong willed femme fatales and a plot centered around an expose of a political nature. And in regards to the surreal aesthetics attributed to noir film, what else could so gloriously conjure the ghost of Andre Breton like the shots of a somber black umbrella parade through the rain at Taylor Henry's funeral?

Written by Phantom Lady


Editor's note: Check out her fun website Phantom Lady Vintage

Thursday, June 04, 2009

The Set-Up (1949)

Robert Ryan as Battered Boxer of Principle in The Set-Up

Early in the gritty film noir boxing classic The Set-Up a close-up reveals tired, battered veteran boxer Ryan, his years of wear and tear visible in the generous layer of scar tissue over his eyes and his mashed left cauliflower ear.

Slated for one more battle, a 4-rounder following the main event at Paradise City Arena, he makes one more stab at optimism in the manner of a tired warrior seeking purpose after two decades in the boxing ring. The 35-year-old boxer, whose ravaged body possesses the wear of someone much older, tells his faithful wife Audrey Totter that he is “just one punch away” from an upset win over his 23-year-old opponent.

A victory will bring a chance for at least a semi-final or perhaps main event rematch against Hal Baylor, a young fighter who is being groomed for bigger things. The higher paying rematch will afford an opportunity to purchase the contract of a young middleweight who, according to Ryan, is the most promising prospect in that class since the great Harry Greb.

Audrey Totter, a woman of wisdom far beyond her years who has suffered many psychological scars amid her husband‘s punishment, has an answer.

“You were one punch away from being champion,” she tells him with melancholy low-keyed impact. “You’re always one punch away.”

That telling line from a script by Art Cohn, who also scripted the 1952 boxing movie Glory Alley starring Ralph Meeker, describes what Ring Magazine editor and longtime boxing expert Bert Sugar called the “search for the dream” that is the motivator for boxers seeking to overcome astronomical odds.

Compressed, Rapid Action

Robert Wise, who would eventually direct one of the biggest moneymakers in film history with The Sound of Music, began in the industry as a film editor and worked with Orson Welles in two of his greatest masterpieces, Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons.

The sharp synchronization involving Wise’s direction, Cohn’s script, and Oscar winner Milton Krasner’s camera work results in 72 swiftly paced minutes of drama. Cohn boils the dialogue down to a lean level, giving the cast, especially the two lead characters, the chance to internalize their performances as the camera generates probing close-ups.

Paradise City, the film’s venue, is a lot like the Atlantic City of the late forties. It is revealed that, in the twilight of his career, Ryan as Stoker Thompson had his last fight in Trenton and has been appearing in smaller fight clubs on the Eastern Seaboard.


Ryan receives a jolt when Audrey Totter as faithful wife Julie refuses to attend the fight. It is the first time during their marriage that this has occurred. After the fighter enters the ring he peers a long look at the empty seat in the fourth row. He periodically looks in that direction with the same result.

Distinctly Different Viewpoints

Ryan listens attentively, his emotions being drawn, as he examines two boxers of differing ages. James Edwards, a lithe, supple-muscled African American, is young and on the upswing. He oozes confidence as he awaits his appearance in the main event.

Edwards makes Ryan hearken back to his own youthful days when a bright future loomed. Edwards talks about a big fight in Philadelphia, after which he looks forward to fighting in New York’s historic Madison Square Garden and eventually a championship bout.

While Edwards evokes smiles, David Clarke generates worried concern. Cast as Gunboat Johnson, the veteran fighter’s face is so heavily scarred that he appears to have been systematically hacked by a razor blade.

Clarke repeatedly insists that he will follow the example of a former middleweight champion who lost 21 bouts, could not even get a fight at Paradise City Arena, yet ultimately won the title in a major upset.

Ryan’s expression becomes even more worrisome after Clarke is carried out of the ring following a vicious second round knockout. When he is asked to identify himself he begins spouting the name of the fighter he idolizes, the underdog who won the title.

The fate of David Clarke is to be swiftly driven by ambulance to the hospital. Ryan has little time to shake off the grim reality of what has happened before going into battle himself, but sees his spirits lift after Edwards wins and wishes him luck.

A Wife Relieved Amid Tragedy

As heavyweight boxer Ryan steps into the ring, he is unaware of a transaction made by his manager, George Tobias, and the manager of his opponent, a local mob gambler known as Little Boy.

Despite the fact that the promising local fighter that Little Boy, played by Alan Baxter, hopes to steer to the top is a heavy favorite over the presumably overmatched Ryan, as a gambler he seeks to hedge his bet. He bets that Stoker will lose.

Tobias is so convinced that Ryan has no chance that he does not mention the agreement at first. During the first two rounds Ryan takes a frightful beating. When the veteran survives, however, and remains determined to win, Tobias realizes he has a problem.

Hal Baylor, as Tiger Nelson, begins the bout oozing confidence. As it moves into Round 4, however, and Ryan, despite severe punishment and having his face battered to a bloody pulp, appears more determined than ever, Baylor begins reflecting the same concern as his manager.

Enough is enough as far as George Tobias is concerned. After earlier advising Ryan to be satisfied going “the distance,” he tells him finally about the agreement. Tobias is blunt about what the gangster will do if he fails to receive the benefit of his intended bargain.

A prideful and determined Ryan presses on, sensing a final moment of glory in a career that has been rushing steadily downhill.

After Ryan scores a knockout Baxter tells Tobias that he is unworried about the loss and that four victories later nobody will even remember it. He states bluntly that his displeasure is from failure to “get what he paid for.” Baxter tells Ryan that they will “talk it over” outside.

Ryan is unable to run away. Baxter supervises the beating meted out by his henchmen, including the fighter the veteran had just battled in what is assured to be his last fight. Baxter commands that Ryan’s right hand be broken. As Ryan is held, his career is finished when this result is achieved.

The staggering, badly bloodied Ryan makes it to the sidewalk outside the hotel where he has been staying with Totter. His wife beseeches onlookers to summon an ambulance.

Despite feeling saddened by the beating, the camera closes in on a wife showing relief for the first time, knowing that her husband, someone she feared would be killed in the ring, will never put on another pair of boxing gloves.

The Set-Up is strong and convincing drama from beginning to end. The close-ups reveal as the hard edges of a tough profession examined with scalpel precision.

The arena used for the film was the famous Hollywood Legion Stadium on El Centro near Hollywood and Gower. Not only did a constellation of great fighters appear there in its fabled history until it ceased operating and became a bowling alley in 1959; the regular Friday night bouts there drew a large contingent of movie faithful.

Al Jolson, a fight enthusiast who was once manager of Henry Armstrong, the only simultaneous three time champion in boxing history, was a regular, as were Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, George Burns, and many others.

The most colorful and memorable fight colony regular, however, was Lupe Velez, star of the “Mexican Spitfire” series. Velez, who had a well publicized romance with handsome Legion headliner Bert Colima, lived up to her Spitfire image by removing a shoe and slamming it on the canvas to urge more action.

Editor's note: Bill Hare is a writer who is currently working a new book about film noir. I highly recommend his earlier work, Early Film Noir: Greed, Lust and Murder Hollywood Style

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