Wise Boxes Clever

Our viewing of THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL of course demands a follow-up screening of something or other… I felt in a way less need to investigate this time, as I’ve already seen plenty of Robert Wise films, and even a few movies involving screenwriter Edmund H. North (IN A LONELY PLACE, SINK THE BISMARCK!, DAMN THE DEFIANT! and, ahem, METEOR). I’ve even covered STRANGER FROM VENUS. But THE SET-UP, directed by Wise in 1949, was overdue for a watch…

This one’s scripted by Art Cohn, from a poem (!) by Joseph Moncure March.

It’s alright… Percy’s here…

Really terrific filmmaking — I’m on record saying that Wise’s best cinematic effects usually hinge on editing, his métier, but this one has a lot of gorgeous push-in shots, moving deeper into the urban landscape of the film. The sweaty, shadowy feel of the movie is its best feature, aided by great noir faces — Robert Ryan, Alan Baxter, Percy Helton. Even Darryl Hickman, his fresh-faced appeal like a flower in hell, by which the surrounding inferno appears all the grimmer.

The big gimmick, that the story unfolds in real time, was a cause of frustration for the filmmakers since the audience turned out to be serenely oblivious to this. All those big clocks were for naught. But the excellent sound mix — there’s no score — does have great value, with the cross-cutting between Ryan and Audrey Totter tied together by devices like a streetcar blasting past, close-up for her, distant when we cut to him. The Aristotelian Unities may be quietly helping the film along, even if most of us don’t notice. After all, Hollywood style prided itself on invisibility. Why shouldn’t we consider this, and Wellman’s TRACK OF THE CAT, with its black-and-white-in-colour aesthetic, be regarded as roaring successes precisely because nobody at the time noticed?

Totter’s walk through town seems to very clearly prefigure what Welles wanted for his opening shot of TOUCH OF EVIL, in terms of sound design.

I was genuinely puzzled about how the movie would end, though I had a feeling it couldn’t be good. For a while, it looks to be as bleak as you can get. Bleaker. Audrey Totter has a near-impossible task, spinning the tragic denouement as a triumph, and she pulls all the stops out and then breaks them off and throws them in the air. A little too much, Audrey.

But it’s impressive how RKO got away with a crime story in which the guilty go completely unpunished, and indeed the law is entirely absent.

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7 Responses to “Wise Boxes Clever”

  1. Joseph Moncure March also wrote the narrative poem “The Wild Party” which Merchant-Ivory turned into a movie that was undone by AIP. It was also turned into two theatrical musicals.

    Jean-Pierre Melville was a huge fan of “The Set-Up” and makes an obscure reference to it in one of his films — I forget which.

  2. Oo this looks delicious

  3. It did make me wonder what Robert Ryan would have been like as Klaatu. Tall enough. But was the world ready for a Klaatu tortured by self-doubt?

  4. chris schneider Says:

    I’d recommend BORN TO KILL for another Robert Wise viewing. I’m also curious about HOUSE ON TELEGRAPH HILL. As for this film’s use of “real time” … one can always cite HIGH NOON.

  5. The reason one is conscious of real time in High Noon is because it’s a countdown (and it’s right there in the title). There’s no particular reason, at the start of The Set-Up, why it has to climax seventy minutes later, so the device doesn’t push itself forwards into the viewer’s awareness.

    I was just glancing at Born to Kill!

  6. “The House on Telegraph Hill” is excellent. As for “real time /reel time” see also “Cleo From 5 to 7”

  7. Yes, and again that one announces it in the title.

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