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Tag Archives: George Tobias

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.

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Sinbad the Sailor (Jan. 17, 1947)

Sinbad the Sailor was the first film Douglas Fairbanks Jr. made after a decorated career serving in the Navy during World War II. The son of one of the most famous swashbucklers in Hollywood history, Fairbanks cuts a dashing figure in Richard Wallace’s overlong Orientalist fantasy, but there’s too much talk and too little excitement to recommend it to casual viewers.

I have fond memories of Nathan Juran’s The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), which I saw on the big screen as a kid in the early ’80s. I don’t remember a lot about the lead performance by Kerwin Mathews, or how good the story was, but Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion special effects blew me away. Sinbad the Sailor, on the other hand, has no wild monstrosities like the cyclops or the cobra woman. (A mynah bird on a string is the most memorable special effect, and it’s a bad one.) Instead it has fairly grown-up dialogue and a feisty romance between Sinbad (Fairbanks) and Shireen (a Kurdish woman improbably played by Maureen O’Hara).

Fairbanks plays Sinbad in a grand, theatrical style, with lots of balletic movements and arm sweeps. The Sinbad of Sinbad the Sailor is a braggart and raconteur who begins the film by promising to tell his rapt crew of his legendary “eighth voyage” — the one that never made it into the history books. It involves his quest for the lost treasure of Alexander the Great, hidden on the mysterious isle of Daryabar. He’s accompanied by his faithful (and comical) sidekick Abbu (George Tobias), a fat, effeminate cook named Melik (Walter Slezak), and a crew of roughneck sailors led by a brute named Yusuf (played by Mike Mazurki, of all people). Opposing him is the evil Emir (Anthony Quinn), who wants the treasure and the beautiful Shireen for himself.

RKO intended Sinbad the Sailor to be their big film of the 1946 Christmas season, but a strike at the Technicolor processing plant delayed its release. (A problem that plagued David O. Selznick’s Duel in the Sun, as well.) Instead, they dumped a little black and white movie called It’s a Wonderful Life into theaters. Oh well.

This was the first Douglas Fairbanks Jr. film I’ve seen, and while it wasn’t bad, it didn’t blow me away. (I’ve only seen one of Douglas Fairbanks Sr.’s films — the 1926 two-strip Technicolor adventure film The Black Pirate — and that one did blow me away.) Fairbanks channels his dad in a couple of action scenes in which he leaps from rooftop to rooftop, swings from balconies, somersaults through descending gates, and trips up legions of the Emir’s palace guards. The action sequences are good, but there are too few of them for a film that’s almost two hours long.

The lead actors are all good (I especially liked Anthony Quinn as Sinbad’s handsome antagonist), but the Arabian Nights-inspired sets are chintzy and the script is talky and repetitive. I didn’t hate Sinbad the Sailor, but I was looking at my watch a lot during the final 45 minutes.

Nobody Lives Forever (Nov. 1, 1946)

Jean Negulesco’s Nobody Lives Forever is far from a great film, but it’s crackerjack entertainment. Warner Bros. had been making crime pictures for 16 profitable years at this point. While the heyday of the Warner gangster film may have been in the ’30s, this is a fine example of the quality product the studio was still churning out in the post-war era.

The screenplay is by W.R. Burnett, whose 1929 novel Little Caesar was made into a film in 1931 starring Edward G. Robinson — the first of Warner’s great cycle of gangster movies. Nobody Lives Forever is based on Burnett’s novel I Wasn’t Born Yesterday, and while it may not be as significant as Little Caesar, it’s still a tight thriller with plenty of snappy tough-guy dialogue.

Besides the good script and excellent direction, the picture works as well as it does because of impeccable casting. When you’re looking for a hard-bitten but essentially decent con man, you can’t ask for a better protagonist than John Garfield. A kindly, doddering old mentor of cons named “Pop”? Who better than Walter Brennan? A sweaty, bug-eyed, paranoid louse named “Doc” who desperately needs one decent score to get back on top? Is George Coulouris available?

Garfield plays Nick Blake, a World War II veteran honorably discharged after being wounded in action. One of his hands doesn’t close quite right, but other than that he’s none the worse for wear. After his sidekick Al Doyle (George Tobias) picks him up from the hospital in Governor’s Island, they take the ferry back to Manhattan, where he reunites with his girl, Toni Blackburn (Faye Emerson). As she sings “You Again” in a swanky nightclub, Nick follows the mustachioed club owner Chet King (Robert Shayne) into his office to settle a beef over money. Rudi Fehr’s editing in this sequence is superb, cutting between Toni on stage, Al standing guard outside the office, and Nick bracing Chet inside.

After Toni finishes her number, Nick confronts her, then kisses her passionately, then smacks her in the face for double crossing him.

The action soon switches to California, where Al has gotten a line on a widow with a $2 million fortune, which — as Pop points out — is a lot of money, even after taxes. Nick, a handsome “diamond in the rough,” is the perfect candidate to pose as a shipping magnate and charm her out of her cash.

Unlike most long cons, Nick, Pop, Doc, Al, and the other members of their crew meet in smoky back rooms as if they’re planning a bank heist. The only problem with the job is that Nick actually starts to fall for the widow, Gladys Halvorsen (Geraldine Fitzgerald), who turns out to be younger than most widows, and a dish to boot.

When Doc pushes Nick to close the deal, he shoots back, “I’m not used to operating with a bunch of cheap, hungry chiselers who should be in the strong-arm racket. Big deals take time.”

Garfield has great chemistry with his co-stars, particularly the ladies, but the relationships take a back seat to the action, especially during the final climactic 20 minutes.

Sure, there are some holes in the plot, and there’s nothing deep about Nobody Lives Forever, but it’s a hell of a way to kill an hour and 40 minutes.

Objective, Burma! (Jan. 26, 1945)

objective_burma_xlg
Objective, Burma! (1945)
Directed by Raoul Walsh
Warner Bros.

Errol Flynn was rejected for military service due to his enlarged heart, tuberculosis, morphine addiction, and bouts of malaria. But that didn’t stop him from making some kick-ass war movies.

Raoul Walsh, who made a number of fine films, directed this patriotic World War II action film starring Flynn as an Army Captain named Nelson. World War II junkies will enjoy the fact that Objective, Burma! features weapons, gear, and uniforms that are all original and accurate.

Of course, the story itself is not all that accurate. The British apparently objected when the film was released, since it took the basic story of an operation by British Chindits and retold it as an American operation. (Flynn, an Australian, seems to be playing an American in the film, though his accent is hard to place.) One of the producers, however, said that the film was also largely inspired by the 1940 film Northwest Passage, which took place during the French and Indian War. So, like a lot of Hollywood productions, it’s a war film that could just as easily have been a Western.

If you’re looking for historical accuracy (or, for that matter, Japanese soldiers who don’t look suspiciously Filipino and Chinese) look elsewhere, but if you’re looking for a gritty war movie that delivers the goods, Objective, Burma! fits the bill.