Stoker Thompson vs. Tiny Nelson, 'The Set-Up' (1949)
Think Rocky Balboa is the biggest underdog in boxing movie history? Consider the case of Stoker Thompson (Robert Ryan), a 35-year-old has-been who's own manager doesn't bother to tell him that gangsters have paid them to throw a fight. Stoker finds out during the fourth and final round that the fix is in — considering his opponent, the younger and faster Tiny Nelson, should have made quick work of him, it's surprising he lasted that long. Yet he refuses to go down, even with his life on the line. It's a hell of a fight: Stoker and Nelson trade blows in an electrifying free-for-all that, tragically, is fought entirely on the level.
Pretend boxing skills: Let's be honest here: There are a few times when a landed punch is clearly a couple of inches from the face or body. But The Set-Up is notable for its street-fight viciousness, so convincing as a war of attrition that Stoker feels he must win at all costs. 8
Style: Director Robert Wise stays in the ring for all four rounds, and the film's stark black-and-white photography and brutality inside (and outside) the ring were a clear influence on Scorsese when he made his boxing picture. 9
Stakes: If Stoker throws the fight, his loses his dignity. If Stoker wins the fight, he loses his life. High stakes, folks. 10
Overall rating: 8