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Category Archives: March 1949

The Set-Up (March 29, 1949)

The Set-Up
The Set-Up (1949)
Directed by Robert Wise
RKO Radio Pictures

My favorite sports movies are all boxing movies. Body and Soul (1947), The Harder They Fall (1956), Rocky (1976), Rocky II (1979), Raging Bull (1980), When We Were Kings (1996). The list goes on and on.

I love watching boxing, which is one reason I love movies about it, but that’s not the only reason I love boxing movies.

Boxing is an individual sport that lends itself well to film drama. Most of the movies about team sports that I like are comedies — The Longest Yard (1974), Slap Shot (1977), Major League (1989). That’s not to say there aren’t good dramas about team sports. There are plenty, like Hoosiers (1986), Eight Men Out (1988), and Friday Night Lights (2004), but there’s something about one fighter facing another in the ring that makes for a great drama. And the brutality and widespread corruption of the boxing world makes for great film noirs.

The Set-Up is based on Joseph Moncure March’s long, narrative poem of the same name, which was written in 1928. (March’s other enduring work is the narrative poem The Wild Party, also written in 1928, which was republished in 1994 with illustrations by Art Spiegelman.)

March’s The Set-Up is a masterpiece of hard-boiled writing, and especially impressive considering that it’s written in verse.

Pansy had the stuff, but his skin was brown
And he never got a chance at the middleweight crown.

Mean as a panther,
Crafty as a fox,
He could hit like a mule,
And he knew how to box.
A dark-skinned jinx
With eyes like a lynx,
A heart like a lion,
And a face like the Sphinx:
Battered, flat, massive:
Grim,
Always impassive.

The film version is only loosely based on March’s poem. Significantly, it sidesteps the racial angle by casting a white actor, Robert Ryan, in the lead. It also renames its pugilist protagonist “Stoker.”

Robert Ryan

Judged solely on its own merits, however, The Set-Up is a great film. It’s one of the great noirs, as well as one of the best films about boxing ever made. It’s lean and mean — just 72 minutes long — and unfolds more or less in real time.

Bill “Stoker” Thompson (Ryan) is gearing up to face a 23-year-old opponent in the ring. Stoker is 35 years old, which in his business makes him an old man. (John Garfield’s character in Body and Soul was also facing his own mortality as a boxer at the age of 35.)

Stoker’s wife, Julie (Audrey Totter), wants him to retire. His days as a fully functioning human being are numbered if he keeps fighting for measly purses and absorbing massive amounts of punishment in the process.

Stoker tries to reassure her, but his eyes tell their own story a little later in the film as he watches a punchy fighter repeat himself for the dozenth time before leaving the locker room for his fight. Gus, a trainer played by Wallace Ford, shakes his head and says, “I guess you can only stop so many.”

The boxing milieu depicted in The Set-Up is exceptionally sleazy. The arena where Stoker faces his opponent, Tiger Nelson (Hal Fieberling), advertises “Boxing Wednesdays, Wrestling Fridays,” and is located in Paradise City, a low-rent strip of arcades, dance halls, and chop suey joints.

Worst of all, Stoker’s manager, Tiny (George Tobias), has arranged with local hoods for Stoker to take a dive without telling Stoker about his plan. He’s that certain his man will lose.

Robert Wise’s direction is tight and unpretentious. His cinematographer, Milton R. Krasner, lenses some of the most starkly beautiful black & white images ever captured on film. There’s a scene early in the film where Stoker walks across the street from his rented room toward the arena with his bag in his hand. He moves straight toward the camera, and he looks like the archetype of every lonely hero who has faced a tragic fate without blinking.

Robert Ryan is key to the film’s authenticity. The 6’4″ actor was on the boxing team at Dartmouth College and had a 5-0 win-loss record, with 3 KOs. He continued to box while serving in the Marine Corps.

The Set-Up is a brutal, violent film, but despite its real-time plot that uncoils with ruthless efficiency, there are still quiet and reflective moments, like the sequence in which Audrey Totter walks the streets of Paradise City through a gauntlet of drunks and mashers. She eventually winds up on a bridge over a highway and slowly rips up her ticket to the fight and watches the scraps float down as a streetcar rumbles by.

Robert Wise had a long and interesting career in Hollywood. While The Set-Up will never be a crowd-pleaser like West Side Story (1961) or a family favorite like The Sound of Music (1965), it’s still one of Wise’s best films, and one of the all-time great noirs.

The Undercover Man (March 21, 1949)

The Undercover Man
The Undercover Man (1949)
Directed by Joseph H. Lewis
Columbia Pictures

The Undercover Man is a tightly paced, hard-driving procedural that grabbed me from the first few minutes and never let go. It’s a fictionalized version of the federal case against Al Capone in which Capone not only never appears onscreen, his name is never spoken aloud. He’s referred to simply as “The Big Fellow,” even in newspaper headlines.

Director Joseph H. Lewis’s two most enduring films — Gun Crazy (1950) and The Big Combo (1955) — lay ahead of him, but he’d been working in Hollywood for more than a decade and had directed more than two dozen pictures (mostly westerns) before he directed The Undercover Man. The only one I’ve seen is The Swordsman (1948). I never thought I’d enjoy a Technicolor swashbuckler starring Larry Parks that took place in the Scottish highlands, but I really enjoyed The Swordsman.

Lewis made stylish films with great pacing. The Undercover Man has a standard story and stock characters, but it kept me involved because it’s paced really well. It’s loosely based on the career of Treasury agent Frank J. Wilson, who was involved with the 1931 prosecution of Al Capone and investigated the Lindbergh kidnapping. The film takes place in the present day, however, and isn’t specifically about Capone.

Whitmore and Ford

Glenn Ford plays a fictionalized version of Frank J. Wilson, named “Frank Warren.” The title of the film is misleading, since Warren doesn’t go undercover. The only “undercover man” in the film is a contact of Warren’s who’s gunned down by mobsters in the early going.

The film sticks to the tax evasion angle of the Capone case, and most of the drama involves Warren poring over financial records and butting heads with The Big Fellow’s crooked attorney, Edward O’Rourke (Barry Kelley). So if you’re looking for an accountant who picks up a shotgun and blasts mobsters by the dozen, like Charles Martin Smith does in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987), then you might find The Undercover Man pretty boring.

But if you’re looking for a hard-nosed flick about cops and criminals made in a semi-documentary style, you can’t go wrong with The Undercover Man.

The Quiet Duel (March 13, 1949)

The Quiet Duel
The Quiet Duel (1949)
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Daiei Motion Picture Company

The Quiet Duel is not one of director Akira Kurosawa’s major works. Most reviewers treat it as a lamentable, melodramatic footnote in his career, but I don’t think that’s fair.

Unlike No Regrets for Our Youth (1946), which I think all but the most dedicated Kurosawa completists can skip, The Quiet Duel is worth seeing at least once if you’re a Kurosawa fan. It also functions as a thematic bridge between two of Kurosawa’s major early works, Drunken Angel (1948) and Stray Dog (1949).

Like both of those films, The Quiet Duel pairs two of the director’s most dependable stars: Toshirô Mifune and Takashi Shimura. It shares with Drunken Angel the theme of a doctor who struggles with his own conscience, and it presages the major theme of Stray Dog — two young men who face the same difficult circumstances but who make very different ethical decisions.

Mifune and Shimura are always interesting to watch when they’re on screen together, and if The Quiet Duel is their least interesting pairing in Kurosawa’s body of work, it’s only because most of their appearances together for Kurosawa were in films that are all-time classics.

The Quiet Duel (or The Silent Duel, as it’s also translated), is based on a play by Kazuo Kikuta. Mifune plays Dr. Kyoji Fujisaki, a young physician who contracts syphilis when he cuts himself while performing surgery in a field hospital during World War II.

Mifune

After the war, he returns to work with his father, Dr. Konosuke Fujisaki (Shimura). Kyoji rejects his fiancée, Misao (played by Miki Sanjō), without an explanation. He treats himself with Salvarsan in total secrecy. (Salvarsan is the trade name for arsphenamine, the first effective treatment for syphilis.) And he struggles with his sexual desire and romantic longing, both of which he completely stifles so he won’t infect anyone else with his malady.

Later in the film, he again crosses paths with the man he operated on during the war. Unlike Kyoji, this man treats his syphilis as a trifling matter, and doesn’t care who else he infects (his wife is pregnant). We’ll see this moral theme again in Kurosawa’s next film, Stray Dog (1949), in which Mifune plays a young police detective whose gun is stolen. The “stray dog” of the title is a young man who suffered the same indignities and deprivations as Mifune following the war. Unlike Mifune, he chose to take his pain out on the world, and goes on a crime spree with Mifune’s gun.

Most of The Quiet Duel is pretty stagey, and the story is melodramatic. But when Mifune finally lets loose, he lets loose as only he could, and it’s something to behold. And while the film isn’t a great showcase for Kurosawa’s directorial talents, there are a few scenes — especially the surgery sequence that opens the film — that rank among the best work he did.

Take Me Out to the Ball Game (March 9, 1949)

Take Me Out to the Ball Game
Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949)
Directed by Busby Berkeley
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

By 1948, when Take Me Out to the Ball Game was filmed, legendary musical director Busby Berkeley was suffering from problems with alcohol and with his own temperament. No studio trusted him to both direct and choreograph a picture, so when he was given Take Me Out to the Ball Game to direct, the choreography was handled by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly.

Just judging by what’s on screen, Berkeley had no problem putting together a fun, well-made Technicolor musical for M-G-M.

Take Me Out to the Ball Game reunited Frank Sinatra with Gene Kelly. The two had previously starred together in Anchors Aweigh (1945). Sinatra’s career had hit a bit of a lull in 1948, and M-G-M thought it would be a good idea to pair him with his co-star from the most financially successful film he’d ever made.

Sinatra plays Dennis Ryan, the second baseman of the baseball team The Wolves, and Kelly plays O’Brien, the shortstop. When Ryan and O’Brien aren’t playing baseball, they’re one of the most popular Vaudeville duos in the country. Take Me Out to the Ball Game takes place in 1909, so the notion of two professional baseball players also working as Vaudevillians is only half as ludicrous as it would have been in 1949.

When Ryan and O’Brien report for spring training in Sarasota, they find out that a new owner — K.C. Higgins — has inherited the team. None of the players are happy about this, and they all assume that this Higgins fellow will be a fathead who doesn’t know the first thing about baseball. Unsurprisingly, K.C. Higgins turns out to be a woman (see also Major League).

Of course, K.C. is a baseball whiz, and since she’s played by swimmer Esther Williams, she gets some time in the water, too. The first time Ryan and O’Brien see her cavorting in the hotel pool, one of them remarks, “Not bad for a dame who can field a hot grounder.”

Sinatra and Kelly

The comedy in Take Me Out to the Ball Game is passable, but it’s the singing and dancing that make a musical, and the picture succeeds on both counts. Kelly isn’t quite the singer Sinatra is, and Sinatra isn’t quite the dancer Kelly is, but the same magic they worked in Anchors Aweigh is onscreen here, and it’s a joy to watch.

The songs are all pretty good. “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” is heard more than once, and there are also highlights like “The Right Girl for Me,” which Sinatra croons to Williams in the moonlight, and “The Hat My Dear Old Father Wore Upon St. Patrick’s Day,” which Kelly sings while doing a jig, wearing a battered green hat, and brandishing a shillelagh.

If you listen to the lyrics of “Yes, Indeedy,” which is about loving and leaving gals across the country, you’ll catch a line about a lovesick Vassar girl who committed suicide after Sinatra loved her and left her, and a Southern belle who turned out to be 11 years old, which is why Gene Kelly had to leave her. The risqué things you can get away with really change from generation to generation, don’t they?

Just like in It Happened in Brooklyn (1947), plenty of humor is wrung from Sinatra’s slender frame. We see him gorging himself on steak and buttered rolls to gain weight during spring training, as well as sucking down milkshakes like they’re water. But alas, he remains a beanpole, and the vivacious and lovesick Shirley Delwyn (played by Betty Garrett) is able to sling him over her shoulder in a fireman’s carry during one of their musical numbers together.

Take Me Out to the Ball Game is, by all accounts, not as good as Kelly and Sinatra’s next collaboration, On the Town (1949), which I haven’t seen yet. But I enjoyed the heck out of it.

A Woman’s Secret (March 5, 1949)

A Woman's Secret
A Woman’s Secret (1949)
Directed by Nicholas Ray
RKO Radio Pictures

A Woman’s Secret is the third Nicholas Ray film I’ve reviewed on this blog, but it was the second film he directed.

Ray completed his first film, They Live by Night, in 1947, but RKO wasn’t sure how to market it. It premiered in the United Kingdom in a single theater on August 5, 1948.

The success of Ray’s third film, Knock on Any Door (1949), led to his first two films being released in the United States in 1949 by a newly confident RKO Radio Pictures.

Of his first three pictures, A Woman’s Secret is easily the weakest, and is significant mostly because it’s how Ray met his second wife, actress Gloria Grahame.

After shooting wrapped, the two were married in Las Vegas on June 1, 1948. It was the second marriage for both of them. (They had to live in Nevada for the required six weeks before Grahame could get her quickie divorce from actor Stanley Clements). Before they divorced in 1952, Grahame starred in one of Ray’s greatest films, In a Lonely Place (1950), which also starred Humphrey Bogart.

A Woman’s Secret was a contract job for Ray. The screenplay was adapted from Austrian writer Vicki Baum’s 1946 novel Verpfändetes Leben (Mortgage on Life) by the film’s producer, Herman J. Mankiewicz. Ray had no script input, so it’s easy to write it off as a studio-imposed footnote in Ray’s career.

Gloria Grahame

A Woman’s Secret is a “women’s picture” wrapped in a mystery. It’s no In a Lonely Place, but it’s worth watching at least once.

The central relationship in the film is the one between Marian Washburn (Maureen O’Hara) and her protégé, Susan Caldwell (Gloria Grahame). Marian is a singer who has lost her voice, and she’s completely shaped and guided Susan’s career, rechristening her “Estrellita.” One night, after the two argue bitterly, a shot rings out. Susan lies on the floor near death, a bullet lodged near her heart. Marian is holding the smoking gun, but this is a mystery picture, so don’t assume anything yet.

Most of the film’s plot unspools as a series of flashbacks as Susan lies in the hospital and the detective assigned to the case — Inspector Fowler (Jay C. Flippen) — tries to piece together the facts. He spends a good deal of time with composer and pianist Luke Jordan (Melvyn Douglas), who is Marian’s boyfriend. Fowler also gets plenty of help from his wife, Mrs. Fowler (Mary Philips), who’s running an investigation of her own.

There are a lot of interesting things going on in A Woman’s Secret, but nothing really jells. The film is too crowded with plot and characters for the central relationship between Marian and Susan to ever be fully explored. Melvyn Douglas and Jay C. Flippen are fine performers, and both inject their two-dimensional characters with enough life to make their scenes interesting. Philips gets a juicy role as Inspector Fowler’s wife, and her nosiness isn’t just played for laughs. She actually knows what she’s doing, much to her husband’s chagrin.

Most people who write about Ray’s career either gloss over or completely ignore this film. There’s not much about it that fits in with his obsessions and themes. But despite a studio-imposed script, there are interesting themes and tensions bubbling below the surface. Grahame’s role as Susan/Estrellita in particular feels at home in Ray’s oeuvre. She’s a misunderstood, inarticulate, unhappy, and tragic outsider — a character type that would recur again and again in Ray’s films.