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Tag Archives: Robert Wise

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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Blood on the Moon (Nov. 9, 1948)

Blood on the Moon
Blood on the Moon (1948)
Directed by Robert Wise
RKO Radio Pictures

Blood on the Moon is an RKO western directed by Robert Wise. It’s based on Luke Short’s novel Gunman’s Chance, which was originally serialized in The Saturday Evening Post in 1941.

I’ve only read one of Luke Short’s western novels (he wrote more than 50), but judging by it and the two films I’ve seen that were based on his work (this one and André de Toth’s 1947 film Ramrod), dense plotting, terse dialogue, and three-dimensional protagonists were some of Short’s trademarks.

Like most protagonists of westerns in the ’40s and ’50s, the protagonists of Blood on the Moon and Ramrod are on the side of the angels. But they’re more interesting than the cookie-cutter heroes of countless B westerns. Not so much because they’re complex people, but because they’re believable people who exist in a complex world.

First-time viewers of both Ramrod and Blood on the Moon will likely have a little difficulty figuring out who the “good guys” and the “bad guys” are right away, and who’s telling the truth and who’s lying — at least for the first couple of reels.

The hero of Blood on the Moon — Jim Garry — is played by Robert Mitchum. Garry is a solitary cowpoke with a small herd. He’s passing through open country when his herd is run off in a stampede. Rancher John Lufton (Tom Tully), owner of the Lazy J Ranch, apologizes and offers to reimburse Garry for the outfit he lost. Even so, their exchange is tense. Lufton doesn’t trust loose riders, since he’s feuding over grazing land with Jake Pindalest (Frank Faylen), a newly appointed Indian agent who’s thrown Lufton off the reservation grass, and stopped Lufton from supplying the tribe with beef, even though he’d done so for years.

When Garry turns down Lufton’s offer to work for him, the opposition comes knocking in the form of an old friend of Garry’s — a man named Tate Riling (Robert Preston). Tate represents the homesteaders who are opposed to Lufton, and he offers to hire Garry as a gunhand for $10,000. Tate tells Garry, “Lufton’s tough and my ranchers aren’t. You make up the difference.”

“I’ve been mixed up in a lot of things, Tate, but up till now I haven’t been hired for my gun,” Garry says.

“Can you afford to be particular?”

Garry thinks for a moment, then says, “No, I guess I can’t.”

Mitchum

Mitchum is perfect for this type of role. He was a laconic actor who barely ever changed his expression, but he could suggest depths of emotion with his eyes.

I’ve seen him in run-of-the-mill westerns like West of the Pecos (1945), and he’s fine in them, but he did his best work in dark, noirish westerns like this one and Raoul Walsh’s Pursued (1947).

Robert Wise, the director of The Body Snatcher (1945) and Born to Kill (1947), keeps Blood on the Moon moving at a brisk, tense pace. The cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca is full of darkness and shadows. It’s not full-on “noir” like James Wong Howe’s cinematography for Pursued, but Blood on the Moon still spends a lot of time in darkened saloons, lonely country at night, and the streets of a frontier town after dark. Even the exterior scenes that take place in daylight have a sense of gray desolation.

The cast is really great, too. I like seeing Barbara Bel Geddes in just about anything, and I especially liked her as one of Lufton’s two daughters, Amy. (Phyllis Thaxter plays the other daughter, Carol.) Square-jawed, gruff-voiced tough guy Charles McGraw plays a gunhand named Milo Sweet who wears one of the sweetest buffalo coats I’ve ever seen. As a homesteader named Kris Barden, Walter Brennan plays essentially the same character he played in every movie he was ever in, but he finds depths of emotion in his character that he didn’t always get to explore as a comical sidekick. And I always love seeing Tom “Captain Marvel” Tyler in any western, even if he was a pretty wooden actor. In Blood on the Moon, he appears just long enough to be effective — in a tense showdown with Mitchum that’s 10 times as exciting as most western showdowns that have more traditional outcomes.

The tough, no-nonsense screenplay of Blood on the Moon is by Lillie Hayward, from an adaptation of the novel by Luke Short and Harold Shumate.

Blood on the Moon won’t ever be counted as one of the all-time great westerns, but the western was a damned busy genre at the time of its release, and it’s a cut above the rest. It holds up to multiple viewings, and presages the many ways in which the genre would mature in the 1950s.

Born to Kill (May 3, 1947)

Born to Kill
Born to Kill (1947)
Directed by Robert Wise
RKO Radio Pictures

Robert Wise’s Born to Kill has never been one of my favorite noirs. It regularly tops “best of” lists, and many film noir enthusiasts whom I respect love it, so I was hoping a fresh viewing would reveal something new to me.

Alas, for me it was still the same old flick. It’s an enjoyable picture, but it’s wildly melodramatic, there are subplots that never really go anywhere, and its over-the-top characters are mostly two-dimensional. The key to a great noir, like Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), is the sense that it could happen to you, or to someone you know. No matter how outlandish the schemes in a film are, if they’re carried out by believable characters then I’m usually able to go along for the ride without asking too many questions.

Born to Kill tells the tale of a pair of sociopathic social climbers, the recently divorced Helen Brent (Claire Trevor) and the recently paroled Sam Wild (Lawrence Tierney). Their paths cross in Reno, the biggest little city in the world. Helen is there for a quickie divorce and Sam is there with his reedy little sidekick, Mart Waterman (Elisha Cook Jr.). Helen is staying at a boarding house run by the slovenly Mrs. Kraft (Esther Howard), who, when we first see her, is getting lit up on beer in the middle of the afternoon with the adenoidal tart Laury Palmer (Isabel Jewell).

After Laury goes on a date with dapper Danny Jaden (Tony Barrett) just to make the big lug she’s dating jealous, she invites Danny inside for a nightcap. When Danny goes to the kitchen, he finds Laury’s big lug waiting for him. It’s Sam Wild, of course, and his brutal killing of both Danny and Laury is the film’s high point. (Or the lurid low point, if you’re a prissy scold.) The sound of crickets in the background, the neatly manicured suburban lawns surrounding Mrs. Kraft’s boarding house, the dog barking in the background, and the uptempo swing music playing on the radio in the kitchen all lend a sense of immediacy and familiarity to the murder.

The rest of the film, however, just doesn’t hang together for me. Sam’s little buddy Mart tells him, “You can’t just go around killing people whenever the notion strikes you. It just ain’t feasible.” I feel the same way about the plot of Born to Kill. It just ain’t feasible.

After the murder, Sam blows town. He and Helen meet again on the train to San Francisco. When they disembark, Sam suggests splitting a cab, but Helen tells him she’s going in a different direction. He responds, “That’s where you’re wrong. We’re going in the same direction, you and I.”

Sam insinuates himself into Helen’s life. They are clearly drawn to each other, but she tells him that nothing in the world will stop her from marrying her fiancé, Fred Grover (Phillip Terry). So Sam moves in on her sister, wealthy heiress Georgia Staples (Audrey Long), or, to be more precise, her foster sister, as Helen bitterly reveals to Sam. Not only is Georgia a beautiful blonde, but — as Sam tells Mart — “Marrying into this crowd will make it so’s I can spit in anyone’s eye.”

Meanwhile, back in Reno, Mrs. Kraft retains the services of a sleazy, corpulent private investigator named Matthew Albert Arnett (Walter Slezak). Mrs. Kraft is played by Esther Howard, and her bizarre, bug-eyed performance in this film is nearly identical to the “Filthy Flora” character she played in Dick Tracy vs. Cueball (1946).

Helen and Sam pursue their doomed, twisted love affair. (“Fred is peace and security,” Helen moans. “You, you’re strength, excitement, and depravity. You’ve a kind of corruption inside of you, Sam.”) Arnett sniffs around. Sam and Georgia quarrel after she refuses to let him run her family’s business. Mart Waterman shows up in San Francisco and starts living with the unhappy foursome. (Is he Sam’s partner or his secret lover? The film is never completely clear.) Slowly but surely, the plot threads of the film intertwine, culminating in an orgy of murder and betrayal.

This is the second or third time I’ve seen Born to Kill. While I’ve griped about the ridiculously melodramatic plot, maybe I just want it to be something it’s not. I could certainly see myself watching it again in the future and loving its over-the-top characters, unrealistic scenarios, grotesque supporting players, and generally high level of camp.

I think my biggest problem with Born to Kill is the relationship between Sam and Helen. Claire Trevor is a wonderful performer, but I was never able to accept that she’d love Sam enough to give up everything for him. Helen’s histrionics in her scenes in tastefully appointed drawing rooms with Fred, Georgia, and Sam seem more scripted than natural, and Claire Trevor’s performance as Helen seems too intelligent and composed for the debased character she’s playing.

But maybe that’s the point. Lawrence Tierney is a powerful presence, but he isn’t a particularly gifted actor, especially when either subtlety or range is called for. Not only does Sam Wild commit murder whenever the notion strikes him, he can bend others to his will, getting his friend Mart to kill for him and getting Helen to provide him with an alibi for murder at the drop of a hat. He’s a brutal alpha male, and loving him may go against all reason and sense, but that never stopped anybody before.

Born to Kill is directed by Robert Wise with vigor. The cinematography, by Robert de Grasse, is great, especially in the nighttime exteriors. Paul Sawtell’s music is exciting. I found the plot ridiculous, but that shouldn’t stop any noir fans who haven’t seen Born to Kill from seeking it out.

The Body Snatcher (May 25, 1945)

BodySnatcher
The Body Snatcher (1945)
Directed by Robert Wise
RKO Radio Pictures

The Body Snatcher is based on Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story of the same name, which was first published in December 1884. Stevenson’s story was inspired by a crime well-known to Scots to this day; the Burke and Hare murders. Burke and Hare were two Irish immigrants who sold corpses to Dr. Robert Knox for use in his dissection experiments in 1827 and 1828, and were symptomatic of a time when scientific curiosity was outpacing social and religious squeamishness. Prior to the Anatomy Act 1832, the only bodies that doctors could legally dissect were those of executed criminals. There were simply not enough executed criminals to fill the needs of medical schools, however, especially with the decline in executions in the early 19th century, so doctors and anatomy students frequently turned to sellers of corpses on the black market. Most of these sellers simply dug up freshly buried bodies, but Burke and Hare went an extra step, saving time by smothering people to death and selling their bodies. In the film, set in Edinburgh in 1831, the “Dr. K.” of the story becomes Dr. Wolfe MacFarlane (played by Henry Daniell), a respected surgeon who relies on the ghoulish cabman John Gray (played by Boris Karloff) to provide him with the corpses he needs to experiment on before he can cure crippling ailments. In a typical move for a film of this time, there is also a blandly handsome young doctor (played by Russell Wade), who adds little to the proceedings, merely existing to show the idealistic, humane, and optimistic face of medicine. The meat of the film is the twisted and symbiotic relationship between Gray and Dr. MacFarlane, whom Gray constantly calls “Toddy,” an old nickname that the doctor hates.

The Body Snatcher was produced by Val Lewton, who is one of the few producers to have survived the advent of the Auteur theory and emerge better remembered than many of the men who directed his films. A novelist, screenwriter, and producer, Lewton was a talented purveyor of horror and dread. He methods were suggestion and atmosphere, and he avoided cheap shocks and grotesque makeup. His monsters didn’t look like monsters, and the terror his films conveyed was largely psychological. And when horrific events did occur in his films, they did so mostly off screen. They delivered chills through the power of suggestion, and occasionally a stream of blood flowing under a door.

Prior to making The Body Snatcher, which was directed by Robert Wise, Lewton had a string of low-budget horror hits for RKO, all of which are currently available on DVD and are considered minor classics; Cat People (1942, directed by Jacques Tourneur), I Walked With a Zombie (1943, dir. Jacques Tourneur), The Leopard Man (1943, dir. Jacques Tourneur), The Seventh Victim (1943, dir. Mark Robson), The Ghost Ship (1943, dir. Mark Robson), and The Curse of the Cat People (1944, dir. Gunther von Fritsch and Robert Wise), which was originally supposed to be called Amy and Her Friend, and has only a tangential connection to the original Cat People. He had also produced two non-horror films, Mademoiselle Fifi (1944, dir. Robert Wise) and Youth Runs Wild (1944, dir. Mark Robson).

Lewton was under a few strict edicts from RKO when making his famous horror films; each had to come in at under 80 minutes long, each had to cost no more than $150,000, and the title of each would be provided by Lewton’s supervisors, which could explain why an intelligent, understated, and artful film like I Walked With a Zombie has the lurid title that it does. After the success of Cat People, however, which was made for $134,000 and grossed nearly $4 million, the studio interfered little with Lewton’s scripts and productions, generally allowing him to make exactly the kind of picture he wanted, as long as he brought it in under budget. I’ve felt for a long time that Lewton, who was a mostly unsuccessful novelist and journalist before he got into the movie business, felt as if he was better than the cheapjack films he produced. He may have been a master of the power of suggestion, but sometimes his films just feel too removed from the world of horror that they depict. I’m not saying that Lewton’s pictures would be better if they were awash in blood and guts, but sometimes they feel clinical and distant.

Along with I Walked With a Zombie, The Body Snatcher is one of my favorite Lewton pictures, due in no small part to Karloff’s brilliant performance. While the film itself can be stagy, Karloff’s performance is not. Each line he speaks drips with malevolence, while still showing the twisted humanity hidden somewhere deep inside. Gray is a man past redemption. One of the first things he does in the film is use a shovel to kill a little dog who is guarding its young master’s grave. That Karloff can create a somewhat sympathetic character from what he’s given is nothing short of phenomenal. I can think of few actors who are able to do what Karloff does with monstrous characters. (Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs is the only person who immediately springs to mind.) Part of the success of Karloff’s performance lies in its nuances. He interacts with nearly every character in the film–Dr. MacFarlane, his young assistant, a little crippled girl (played by Sharyn Moffett), a pathetic servant named Joseph (played by Bela Lugosi)–and is a subtly different person in each scene.