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Monthly Archives: January 2014

Colorado Territory (June 11, 1949)

Colorado Territory
Colorado Territory (1949)
Directed by Raoul Walsh
Warner Bros.

Most plot summaries of Raoul Walsh’s western Colorado Territory mention that it’s a remake of the great Warner Bros. gangster movie High Sierra (1941), but that fact is curiously absent from the opening credits.

The screenplay is credited to John Twist and Edmund H. North, but there’s no mention of W.R. Burnett, who wrote the novel High Sierra, and there’s no mention of the earlier film.

This is strange, since the change of setting from the modern day to the Old West could almost qualify this as a “variation on a theme” rather than a straight remake, but there are so many scenes and characters that are nearly identical to scenes and characters in High Sierra.

I recently wrote a piece on producer Mark Hellinger for the annual “giant” issue of The Dark Pages, which was devoted this year to The Killers (1946). (You can order copies of The Dark Pages and subscribe here: http://www.allthatnoir.com/newsletter.htm).

Hellinger frequently worked with director Raoul Walsh at Warner Bros., so I went back and watched a bunch of their collaborations — The Roaring Twenties (1939), They Drive by Night (1940), and High Sierra (1941). (I still haven’t seen The Horn Blows at Midnight, though. Jack Benny made a running joke of it on his radio show, but it can’t be that bad, can it?)

Walsh was a great director who made unabashedly commercial films with a great sense of scope and memorable characters.

Mayo and McCrea

Colorado Territory isn’t ever listed among Walsh’s greatest achievements, but it’s a damned fine western that I think would be better regarded if it didn’t have such a generic title. If one were to scan through a list of westerns from 1949, Colorado Territory screams “B picture.” With a title like that, it easily could have been an RKO Radio Pictures western starring Tim Holt or a Republic Pictures western starring Roy Rogers (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

Joel McCrea plays Wes McQueen, an outlaw who escapes from jail and is on the run for most of the movie. (This is essentially the same as Roy Earle, the role Humphrey Bogart played in High Sierra, except that Earle was released from prison.) He hooks up with a couple of vicious characters who aren’t as smart as they think they are — Reno Blake (John Archer) and Duke Harris (James Mitchell) — and together they plan a daring train heist. (These two criminals were played in High Sierra by Arthur Kennedy and Alan Curtis.)

There’s also a beautiful woman to makes things complicated. Her name is Colorado Carson (Virginia Mayo), and she wears lots of flowing low-cut tops and Southwestern-style jewelry because she’s supposed to be part Pueblo. (This is essentially the character Ida Lupino played in High Sierra, although her fashion sense in that film was a lot more conservative.)

And of course, just like High Sierra, there’s a criminal mastermind behind the scenes of the heist and a sweet, innocent-seeming girl whom our criminal protagonist idolizes for a little while before coming to his senses and realizing that he belongs with a straight-up ride or die chick.

There is, however, no cute little stray dog or “comical Negro” character. (You take the bad with the good.)

In Walsh’s filmography, High Sierra will forever be regarded as the superior film. And in 1949, Walsh also directed his masterpiece White Heat, so Colorado Territory suffers by comparison in that department too. (Virginia Mayo is also in White Heat, and her role in that film is a lot meaner and juicier.)

One of the problems with remakes is that no matter how good they are, it’s nearly impossible to lose yourself in them if you’ve seen the original film, since they constantly evoke it. I like Joel McCrea and think he’s a great actor, especially in westerns. But he lacks the nastiness and cynicism Bogart had in High Sierra, which made his more human side stand out in such sharp relief.

On the other hand, when a remake differs from its source material, it can make certain scenes even more shocking and emotionally affecting than they would be on their own, since you’re really not expecting things to go down that way. Colorado Territory has a few bits like that, and it’s exciting and well-made enough to stand on its own.

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The Red Menace (June 9, 1949)

The Red Menace
The Red Menace (1949)
Directed by R.G. Springsteen
Republic Pictures

The Red Menace was one of the first American postwar scaremongering films to explicitly name Communism as a threat. The structure and plotting of the film are similar to both Violence (1947) and Open Secret (1948), but those films dealt with cells of American fascists who used postwar housing and employment crises for their own anti-Semitic and xenophobic ends.

The Red Menace makes no bones about naming the most pervasive threat to America — it’s Communism, brother, and it’s everywhere.

When The Red Menace premiered, Herbert J. Yates, the president of Republic Pictures, released a brochure that explained his motivation for producing the film, and ended with the following cri de guerre:

Even though the picture was made behind closed doors, and there has been no public showing to date, Republic Studios and the Writer Have Already Been Attacked by the Daily People’s World, a Communist Paper Published in San Francisco, and the Daily Worker, A Communist Paper Published in New York.

The attack is more than an open threat. It is an effort to intimidate Republic Pictures and to stifle its right of freedom of speech. We accept the challenge of The Communist Party and its Fellow Travelers, and we declare that the Republic organization will do everything in its power, regardless of expense or tribulations, to make certain that “The Red Menace” Is Shown in Every City, Town and Village in The United States of America and Other Countries Not Under Communist Control.

I assume Yates liberally used initial caps for Extra Emphasis.

RedMenaceBluray

The Red Menace was directed by Republic Pictures mainstay R.G. Springsteen, who had mostly directed westerns for Republic, including several Red Ryder films. (Don’t let his name fool you, kids. Red Ryder was no Commie.)

I really enjoyed some of Springsteen’s westerns, so I was hoping for more from The Red Menace. The main problem with the film is that it’s not ludicrous enough to be truly entertaining, but it’s not realistic or incisive enough to be a great movie.

The opening is shadowy and atmospheric. A young couple are fleeing a pervasive and terrifying menace. They’re driving at night from Los Angeles through Arizona. Could the gas station attendant be part of the conspiracy? They can’t trust anyone.

Most of the rest of the film is told in flashback. Returning serviceman Bill Jones (Robert Rockwell, who would go on to play Mr. Boynton when Our Miss Brooks moved from radio to television) is fleeced of his savings by an unscrupulous real estate developer, and he’s not the only G.I. facing a housing crisis. His disillusionment is seized on by the local chapter of the Communist party, who play on his anger toward the system. He’s further lured in by the beautiful Nina Petrovka (played by German actress Hannelore Axman, who’s credited as “Hanne Axman”) and good-time girl Mollie O’Flaherty (Barbra Fuller). In The Red Menace, sex is the gateway drug to the philosophy of Marx and Engels.

The script is talky, and to its credit much of the back-and-forth debates are interesting. It’s also nice that the film acknowledges American discrimination against Jewish people and African-Americans, and there are two black men in the film who are not stereotypes (Duke Williams and Napoleon Simpson).

The film also correctly points out that Soviet bloc countries were far from paradises for writers, poets, and artists, who were forced to toe the party line or suffer the consequences. The film’s most tragic character is Henry Solomon (Shepard Menken), a Jewish poet who resigns from the Communist party when the party newspaper he works for tries to force him to retract true statements he has made about the evolution of Communist philosophy.

Not every character is three-dimensional, however. The Red Menace features accomplished radio actress Betty Lou Gerson (who would go on to voice Cruella De Vil in the Disney movie 101 Dalmations) as a Communist party leader whose final histrionics are so over-the-top that they are positively hilarious.

Axman

I think it’s easy to look back on the excesses of McCarthyism during 1950s America and see only madness. But let’s keep in mind that Soviet Russia was a totalitarian state in which dissent was met with imprisonment or execution. Millions died under Stalin’s reign of terror. Whatever Communism promised in theory, it miserably failed to deliver in practice.

But the United States was hardly a paradise for dissenters itself. The Red Menace ends with a kindly cowboy sheriff assuring our fleeing protagonists that the difference between the United States and the Soviet Union is that while in Russia there are no second chances, here in the U.S. we give people just as many second chances as they’re entitled to. But this isn’t even what the film itself has depicted, as the poet Henry Solomon was fired from one job after another and driven to suicide after his former Communist affiliations were revealed.

There is a world of difference between Socialism and Communism, but most Americans (including elected officials) could never see that. People who embraced Socialism in the 1930s because they perceived unfairness in the relationship between labor and management were driven out of their jobs and blacklisted in the 1950s because they refused to “name names.”

Despite some nuances here and there, films like this toed their own party lines. While it’s tempting to see a film like The Red Menace as a historical curiosity, fear and hatred are still the driving force behind much of our politics, and we forget that at our own peril.

Neptune’s Daughter (May 22, 1949)

Neptune's Daughter
Neptune’s Daughter (1949)
Directed by Edward Buzzell
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Neptune’s Daughter was the third and final pairing of Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalban. The two previously starred together in Fiesta (1947) and On an Island With You (1948).

In Neptune’s Daughter, Williams plays Eve Barrett, a swimsuit designer, and Montalban plays a dashing South American polo player named José O’Rourke.

The film also stars MGM’s big comedic draw, Red Skelton, as masseur Jack Spratt, and the manic, wild-eyed Betty Garrett as Eve’s sister, creatively named “Betty Barrett.”

Neptune’s Daughter was the second time Skelton and Williams appeared together. The first was Bathing Beauty (1944). (They both appeared in the revue film Ziegfeld Follies, but in separate segments.)

I love Esther Williams. She’s beautiful, athletic, and charming. And the fact that she was a swimming star made her unique. I also like Betty Garrett, who plays essentially the same man-crazy role in Neptune’s Daughter that she played in Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949). And Ricardo Montalban is Ricardo Montalban. He’s the smoothest Latin lover in Hollywood history.

Williams and Montalban

But I’m not totally sold on Red Skelton. I just don’t find him that funny. Plenty of his bits in Neptune’s Daughter are amusing, but I didn’t find them particularly uproarious, and I really don’t enjoy all his mugging for the camera.

The musical high point of Neptune’s Daughter is the song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” by Frank Loesser. It was nominated for an Academy Award for best original song, but there was some controversy over whether it should be eligible for the 1949 Oscars, since Loesser wrote it in 1944 and had performed it at parties with his wife, Lynn Garland. Since it had never been performed “professionally” until its appearance in Neptune’s Daughter, it was deemed eligible and went on to win the Oscar. Loesser’s wife, however, was furious that her husband had sold it to MGM, since she considered it “their song.”

“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is first performed by Montalban and Williams; he sings the “wolf” part and Williams sings the “mouse” part. It’s performed later by Betty Garrett and Red Skelton with the roles reversed; she is the aggressor and he is the shy one.

“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” was used in the film because MGM’s censors decided that the lyrics of Loesser’s song “I’d Love to Get You (On a Slow Boat to China)” were too suggestive. (Which explains its presence in a film that takes place in sweltering heat.)

This is ironic, since “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” has lyrics that are more more suggestive than the lyrics of “I’d Love to Get You (On a Slow Boat to China).” Parts of the song even border on suggesting date rape, an aspect of the song that was recently satirized by Key & Peele.

I think some of the lyrics to “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” sound worse now than they were intended to. For example, the line “Hey, what’s in this drink?” suggests roofies nowadays, but at the time Loesser wrote the song it was probably meant to imply the sentiment, “Oh my goodness this is a strong drink.”

I think it’s a playful and seductive song, and the fact that Skelton and Barrett reverse the roles when they perform the song adds to the acceptability.

What I found totally unacceptable in Neptune’s Daughter, from a gender standpoint, is the unquestioned assumption that Esther Williams’s character will have to give up her swimwear design business — which she built herself — if she gets married. The idea that she could remain head of a successful company and also be a married woman is unthinkable.

But for the most part, Neptune’s Daughter is a fun, vibrant Technicolor extravaganza. For my money, anything with Esther Williams is worth watching.

Neptune’s Daughter will be shown on TCM on April 6, 2014.

The Devil’s Sleep (May 18, 1949)

The Devil's Sleep
The Devil’s Sleep (1949)
Directed by W. Merle Connell
Screen Classics

The men who brought you the sexploitation classic Test Tube Babies (1948) are at it again.

In The Devil’s Sleep, producer George Weiss and director W. Merle Connell expose the shocking truth about “reds” and “bennies” (a.k.a. Seconal and Benzedrine). Namely, that they’re being peddled out of swank health clubs to unwitting overweight middle-aged women who want to “reduce,” as well as to bored teenagers looking for kicks.

Bennies might have been great for keeping soldiers and aviators alert and awake during World War II, but we don’t want them on the tree-lined streets of our idyllic suburban neighborhoods, gosh darn it!

Timothy Farrell plays the mustachioed owner of the health club, Umberto Scalli, and William Thomason plays Detective Sergeant Dave Kerrigan, the man who’s warm on his trail.

If you’ve seen Test Tube Babies you may remember Thomason as the husband with the malfunctioning semen.

Timothy Farrell should be immediately recognizable to aficionados of bad movies. He got his start in Test Tube Babies and went on to a long and semi-illustrious career. He played the “Umberto Scalli” character in two more exploitation movies, Racket Girls (1951) and Dance Hall Racket (1953). Farrell also narrated legendarily bad filmmaker Ed Wood’s first movie, Glen or Glenda (1953), and appeared in it as a doctor.

Both Test Tube Babies and The Devil’s Sleep are awful movies, but they’re amusingly awful. Both use their “social message” aspect as an excuse for lots of scantily clad ladies and brief nudity. The Devil’s Sleep one-ups Test Tube Babies in this department, because it uses its health-club setting to also show off lots of male eye candy, most notably Mr. America 1948, George Eiferman.

The Devil’s Sleep is currently available in its entirety on YouTube. You can also download it from archive.org.

The Window (May 17, 1949)

The Window
The Window (1949)
Directed by Ted Tetzlaff
RKO Radio Pictures

Ted Tetzlaff worked as a cinematographer on more than a hundred films dating back to the silent era. After shooting Notorious (1946) for Alfred Hitchcock, he moved to directing full time.

Tetzlaff directed a relatively small number of films, but the two I’ve seen so far have both been fantastic. The first was Riffraff (1947), a visually inventive detective thriller in a tropical setting. The second was this one, which I thought was even better than Riffraff.

Apparently The Window was filmed in 1947, but its release was delayed when Howard Hughes acquired RKO Radio Pictures.

The Window is based on a story by Cornell Woolrich called “The Boy Cried Murder” (also reprinted under the title “Fire Escape”). The story was originally published in Mystery Book Magazine in March 1947. The screenplay was adapted from the story by Mel Dinelli, who also scripted the terrific RKO thriller The Spiral Staircase (1945).

The Window opens with a quote from Aesop’s fable “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” I guess they were concerned that people weren’t going to pick up on the concept immediately, so they’d get it out of the way before the movie even started.

Even without the opening text, I don’t think you’d need a PhD in Comp Lit to pick up on the “boy who cried wolf” theme pretty quickly.

The Window stars Bobby Driscoll, a child actor on loan from Disney. Driscoll plays Tommy Woodry, a nine-year-old boy who lives in a working class neighborhood of New York with his parents, Ed and Mary (Arthur Kennedy and Barbara Hale). Tommy is an only child who plays in the street and in an abandoned building with the other boys in the neighborhood. He’s a bright kid, and he loves playing make-believe and telling tall tales.

“If it isn’t Indians it’s gangsters, and if it’s not gangsters it’s something else,” his mother complains. (Incidentally, Barbara Hale was 27 years old when The Window premiered in 1949. Driscoll was 12. What this means is that Kennedy, who plays Driscoll’s dad, would have been 23 when his 14-year-old wife gave birth. In fairness, Hale is made up to look older than she is, and I don’t think the filmmakers were trying to imply statutory rape and teen pregnancy.)

Bobby Driscoll

One sweltering summer night, Tommy asks permission to sleep out on the fire escape because it’s a little cooler outside. He lies down and gazes up at the black sky, pinpoints of stars, and white laundry flapping on a line above him. Still too hot, he climbs up one story to the top floor, where it’s slightly cooler. He drifts off to sleep, but wakes up later and witnesses something terrible. He thinks he sees his neighbors kill a man.

“With all the stories you tell it’s no wonder you have nightmares,” his mother tells him when he wakes her up.

Tommy persists with his story, but his parents refuse to believe him. When he takes his story to the police, it only makes things worse.

The wonderful thing about The Window is how believably adults relate to Tommy. His parents are both patient and understanding people, especially his dad. They’re not clueless buffoons or coldly abusive, the way so many parents are in movies with child protagonists. That they refuse to believe him is not their fault. It’s how the situation would play out in real life.

The police don’t just dismiss his story either. They are kind and indulgent. But when they investigate Tommy’s upstairs neighbors, everything seems to be all right, so they drop the matter. Again, this is probably how the situation would play out in real life.

The Window is genuinely suspenseful, and it has a fairly shocking climax. This is one of those films where everything comes together perfectly. The actors are wonderful, the writing is great, and the pacing is perfect. Tetzlaff and his cinematographers, Robert De Grasse and William O. Steiner, crafted a great-looking film that seamlessly blended New York locations and studio soundstages.

I always have more movies I want to watch than I can find the time to watch (and review), so I rarely watch movies twice, but I liked The Window so much that I watched it a second time and enjoyed it even more than I did the first time.

Incidentally, Bobby Driscoll ended up having a very sad life. I don’t feel like getting into it here, but if you’d like to know more about him, Google him.

The Window will be shown on TCM on March 10, 2014.

The Barkleys of Broadway (May 4, 1949)

The Barkleys of Broadway
The Barkleys of Broadway (1949)
Directed by Charles Walters
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are back, for one final engagement!

The Barkleys of Broadway was their first pairing in a decade. It was also the only film they made for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and the only time they were onscreen together in Technicolor.

During the 1930s, Astaire and Rogers appeared together in nine films released by RKO Radio Pictures: Flying Down to Rio (1933), The Gay Divorcee (1934), Roberta (1935), Top Hat (1935), Follow the Fleet (1936), Swing Time (1936), Shall We Dance (1937), Carefree (1938), and The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939).

In the 1940s, Ginger Rogers established herself as an actress in dramas and comedies, and Fred Astaire established himself as a successful solo star in musicals like Holiday Inn (1942) and Easter Parade (1948).

Astaire was set to make another film with Judy Garland, his co-star in Easter Parade. It was going to be called “You Made Me Love You,” after one of Garland’s hit songs. But when she was forced to drop out of the project, producer Arthur Freed cast Ginger Rogers to replace her … because the world can never have too much Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.

When the two perform their first tap number in The Barkleys of Broadway, it’s joyful and exhilarating, and it’s hard to believe that more than 10 years have passed since they made a film together.

In The Barkleys of Broadway, Astaire and Rogers play Josh and Dinah Barkley, a married couple who are wildly successful onstage but who can’t go two minutes without bickering offstage. Their partner Ezra Millar (Oscar Levant) tries his best to keep them in check, but even he can’t keep them together when a handsome French playwright named Jacques Pierre Barredout (played by Jacques François) convinces Dinah that she should become a “serious” actress and star in his new play about Sarah Bernhardt.

Josh continues performing on his own. The high point of his solo career is the impressively surreal number “Shoes With Wings On,” in which a bunch of dancing shoes live up to their name.

Dinah struggles under Barredout’s dictatorial direction, so Josh takes to impersonating the Frenchman over the phone after rehearsals to give Dinah the kind of direction he knows will help her.

Eventually they are brought back together by Ezra’s machinations, which leads to an emotional performance of the song “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” which Astaire had previously sung to Rogers in the film Shall We Dance, but which they had never danced to on film before.

The Barkleys of Broadway is a lot of fun. It’s great to see Astaire and Rogers back together, and Oscar Levant is his usual acerbic, deadpan self. (He also gets a chance to do what he does best — entertain on the piano.)

The film’s music is mostly by Harry Warren, with lyrics by Ira Gershwin. (“They Can’t Take That Away From Me” is by George and Ira Gershwin.)

The story is inconsequential, but that’s the case with most movie musicals. This film is an excuse for some singing, dancing, and comedy, and it’s all wonderful. The fact that Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire would never make another film together makes it a slightly bittersweet viewing experience, but it’s not that bittersweet. After all, they left us with a tremendous cinematic legacy, and nothing lasts forever.

Champion (April 9, 1949)

Champion
Champion (1949)
Directed by Mark Robson
United Artists

SPOILER ALERT. This review will discuss plot points of this film that you may not want to know if you haven’t already seen it.

Mark Robson’s Champion is not a film about a man destroyed by fame. It’s a film about a man whose resentment, anger, selfishness, and cruelty are given free rein by fame and fortune.

It’s not an uplifting film, but it’s an occasionally powerful one, since it depicts a man who stands up to everyone who tries to take advantage of him, mistreats everyone who ever cared about him, and becomes middleweight champion of the world and dies of a brain hemorrhage without ever showing an ounce of remorse.

It’s also a tremendous showcase for Kirk Douglas, who made his film debut in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946). He played an uncharacteristically milquetoast character in that film, but his next role, in Out of the Past (1947), was more of an indication of what lay ahead for Douglas. His character “Dink” in Out of the Past is a vicious crime boss, as was the character he played opposite Burt Lancaster in I Walk Alone (1948).

Not every character Douglas played in the 1940s was a strutting, snarling alpha male — his wonderful performance in A Letter to Three Wives (1949) is a great example of his range — but he excelled at playing macho men, and Champion cemented that image. With his jutting cleft chin, puffed-out chest, intense eyes, and lean, muscular physique, Douglas dominates every scene in Champion.

If Kirk Douglas had a spirit animal, it would probably be a banty rooster.

Kirk Douglas in Champion

Douglas’s physical intensity carries him through Champion fairly well, which is good, because he’s not that convincing as a boxer. He looks the part, but he doesn’t move like a world-class middleweight. He lacks the right combination of speed and power.

Champion was based on a story by Ring Lardner and was nominated for six Academy Awards (best actor for Douglas, best supporting actor for Arthur Kennedy, best screenplay for Carl Foreman, best score for Dimitri Tiomkin, best black & white cinematography for Franz Planer, and best editing for Harry Gerstad), and won one — the Oscar for editing.

But now that almost 70 years have passed, I think Champion compares really unfavorably to Robert Wise’s The Set-Up (1949), which was released around the same time and was nominated for zero Oscars. First of all, Robert Ryan boxed as an amateur heavyweight, so he was utterly convincing as a professional fighter who loses more often than he wins. (Asking us to accept Douglas as the world middleweight champion is too much, I think.)

Also, The Set-Up is a tightly coiled masterpiece from beginning to end, while Champion feels sloppy. Douglas’s training and his rise up the boxing rankings are both done as cheesy montages with a light tone. The film doesn’t really get going until more than a half hour has passed, when Douglas’s character, Michael “Midge” Kelly, refuses to throw a fight to Johnny Dunne (John Daheim). For the next hour, Champion is a good film. Not a great film, but a good one. The always-great Arthur Kennedy turns in a good performance as Midge’s sad-sack brother, Connie, and Ruth Roman and Marilyn Maxwell are both good as the women Midge uses and abuses.

Kirk Douglas

I found the penultimate sequence of the film particularly harrowing, but modern-day viewers might miss its implications.

Ruth Roman’s character, Emma, is romanced by Midge early in the film, which leads to her father forcing them to marry at gunpoint. As soon as it’s official, however, Midge drops her like a bad habit, and she eventually finds love with his brother Connie.

Toward the end of the film, when Emma is preparing to get a divorce from Midge in Reno so she can marry Connie, Midge forces himself on her. He kisses her, says “It’s still there, isn’t it?” She walks away from him and says, “Leave me alone.” He walks toward her and says, “You’re my wife.” She looks scared, and the screen fades to black.

Plenty of classic films show women yielding to an aggressive man, but I think it’s significant that the fade-to-black happens without showing her acquiesce to a kiss or yield in any pleasurable way. His line “You’re my wife” strongly implies that he is going to have sexual intercourse with her whether she likes it or not. It’s his legal right, and the concept of “marital rape” was not a criminal act in 1949. But it’s a rape, and it’s a violation of his brother’s trust, since Midge and Emma were married in name only. His brother’s rage in the next scene is also a pretty clear indication that something awful has happened.

After Midge wins his final fight and collapses and dies in his dressing room, the press asks Connie for a statement. “He was a credit to the fight game, to the very end,” Connie says, because he can’t bring himself to say that Midge was a credit to humanity, or to anyone else.

Much like Midge Kelly himself, Champion was a hard film for me to like. It’s a good movie, but not nearly as good as some of its contemporaries, like Body and Soul (1947) and The Set-Up.