Early in the gritty film noir boxing classic "The Set-Up"- a close-up reveals tired, battered veteran boxer Ryan, his years of wear and tear visible in the generous layer of scar tissue over his eyes and his mashed left cauliflower ear.
Slated for one more battle, a 4-rounder following the main event at Paradise City Arena, he makes one more stab at optimism in the manner of a tired warrior seeking purpose after two decades in the boxing ring. The 35-year-old boxer, whose ravaged body possesses the wear of someone much older, tells his faithful wife Audrey Totter that he is "just one punch away"- from an upset win over his 23-year-old opponent.
A victory will bring a chance for at least a semi-final or perhaps main event rematch against Hal Baylor, a young fighter who is being groomed for bigger things. The higher paying rematch will afford an opportunity to purchase the contract of a young middleweight who, according to Ryan, is the most promising prospect in that class since the great Harry Greb.
Audrey Totter, a woman of wisdom far beyond her years who has suffered many psychological scars amid her husband"-s punishment, has an answer.
"You were one punch away from being champion,"- she tells him with melancholy low-keyed impact. "You're always one punch away."-
That telling line from a script by Art Cohn, who also scripted the 1952 boxing movie "Glory Alley"- starring Ralph Meeker, describes what Ring Magazine editor and longtime boxing expert Bert Sugar called the "search for the dream"- that is the motivator for boxers seeking to overcome astronomical odds.
Robert Wise, who would eventually direct one of the biggest moneymakers in film history with "The Sound of Music,"- began in the industry as a film editor and worked with Orson Welles in two of his greatest masterpieces, "Citizen Kane"- and "The Magnificent Ambersons."-
The sharp synchronization involving Wise's direction, Cohn's script, and Oscar winner Milton Krasner's camera work results in 72 swiftly paced minutes of drama. Cohn boils the dialogue down to a lean level, giving the cast, especially the two lead characters, the chance to internalize their performances as the camera generates probing close-ups.
The action all takes place in real time, making the film all the more unique. Wise makes this rare style of filmmaking, modeled on Aristotle's concept of dramatic realism, by frequently showing the clock on the Paradise City Arena Wall. Time has never seemed so precious in the world of veteran fighter Ryan and wife Totter.
Paradise City, the film's venue, is a lot like the Atlantic City of the late forties. It is revealed that, in the twilight of his career, Ryan as Stoker Thompson had his last fight in Trenton and has been appearing in smaller fight clubs on the Eastern Seaboard.
Ryan receives a jolt when Audrey Totter as faithful wife Julie refuses to attend the fight. It is the first time during their marriage that this has occurred. After the fighter enters the ring he peers a long look at the empty seat in the fourth row. He periodically looks in that direction with the same result.
Ryan listens attentively, his emotions being drawn, as he examines two boxers of differing ages. James Edwards, a lithe, supple-muscled African American, is young and on the upswing. He oozes confidence as he awaits his appearance in the main event.
Edwards makes Ryan hearken back to his own youthful days when a bright future loomed. Edwards talks about a big fight in Philadelphia, after which he looks forward to fighting in New York's historic Madison Square Garden and eventually a championship bout.
While Edwards evokes smiles, David Clarke generates worried concern. Cast as Gunboat Johnson, the veteran fighter's face is so heavily scarred that he appears to have been systematically hacked by a razor blade.
Clarke repeatedly insists that he will follow the example of a former middleweight champion who lost 21 bouts, could not even get a fight at Paradise City Arena, yet ultimately won the title in a major upset.
Ryan's expression becomes even more worrisome after Clarke is carried out of the ring following a vicious second round knockout. When he is asked to identify himself he begins spouting the name of the fighter he idolizes, the underdog who won the title.