Perhaps the most interesting thing about Wise's The Set Up (1949) is that it's taken from a poem (by Joseph Moncure March), happens in real time, and occurs in a confined space (the boxing ring, its dressing rooms, and the street in front of it). Wise emphasizes this somewhat, by using long takes, a camera crane, and angled shots that link Robert Ryan's dressing room with his hotel room, where Audrey Totter sits waiting for him.
The dialogue is pretty good, terse and realistic, even if the overdetermination so characteristic of noir tends to get to you--the fate of every character Ryan meets is an object lesson or commentary on his own; every person or thing Totter meets or sees is either a threat to her marital fidelity or a reminder of her husband's mortality.
It's a pretty good boxing film; the fight scenes are wonderfully edited (Wise, after all, cut Citizen Kane) and executed (Ryan was a former boxing champ). Maybe my problem with it is that while Wise is skilled and versatile and all, he's not a flier; if say Welles handled this film, it would have been much more baroque, more stylized, more dank; maybe every shot and not the first few would have been a long take, to further unify and emphasize the claustrophobia of the little world Ryan moved around in. It's also (until maybe the last ten minutes) too well-lit for my taste; the boxing ring scenes in particular, well--
Take Body and Soul, done two years earlier. Abraham Polonsky's script isn't necessarily inferior (the dialogue here also rings true), but the plot mechanisms are even more blatant--John Garfield's best friend (played by Joseph Pevney--who, incidentally, goes on to direct some of Star Trek's best episodes, including Amok Time) points out and denounces Garfield's Moral Malaise, then gets knocked down by a car straight after, just for dramatic effect; the girlfriend and mother (Lillian Palmer and Anne Revere) are I suppose Garfield's Voices of Conscience, but also so unforgiving and relentless you feel a little sorry for the man for having these two harridans on his back.
The film is pure hokum, humanist melodrama...and yet the film as a film, thanks to Robert Rossen (who also directed All The King's Men, and that masterpiece of tension and visual design The Hustler) and the great James Wong Howe (The Sweet Smell of Success, Hud, Seconds, Jesus, what didn't he make look great?) simply blows The Set Up right out of the water. The shadows are darker, more menacing, the grit grittier; and when Howe (who was himself a boxer) climbs into the ring perched on a pair of roller skates with a handheld camera, he achieves a sense of immediacy and nightmare (the shimmering, strobelike light that keeps Garfield blinking, as if someone had just whacked his (and your) head with a two-by-four) that not even Raging Bull can equal.
Was looking at Requiem for a Heavyweight recently, and while the script may be the best of the three (by Rod Serling) and the acting as strong (Anthony Quinn, Mickey Rooney, Julie Harris, Jackie Gleason), the directing is gimmicky and overdone in the worst way (Pevney might actually have done a better job). Which only proves the point I was making, about dialogue being dialogue, and plot structure having its own demands and needs, but film as film...uh, what was I talking about again?