One THEORY ABOUT film noir is that bitter, disillusioned soldiers returning from WW II helped create the genre (behind the camera and in the audience), which makes one wonder whether our present Iraq war will fuel some kind of comparable boom. Issued as part of a five-disc box set (on DVD July 6), 1949's The Set-Up is a particularly fine, hard-boiled example of the noir years. (All five go for $49.92, including The Asphalt Jungle, Out of the Past, Murder, My Sweet, and Gun Crazy.)
Each title boasts a different commentary track. Seeing The Set-Up's director, Robert Wise, listed next to Martin Scorsese drew me to this one, but that pairing proves to be misleading. Both have interesting things to say about the film, but the two don't appear to be in the same room while speaking. What you hear seems to have been cobbled together from a prior interview with Scorsese (who doesn't sound like he's viewing the film as he talks) and Wise's rather intermittent, uninformative commentary while he watches his old work. It's a blown opportunity, since Scorsese so clearly loves the movie and the 90-year-old Wise—an editor turned Oscar-winning director (The Sound of Music)—won't be much longer for this world. You can be sure Criterion would've gotten them together to watch the flick.
Still, some light gets thrown on the film, in which aging pugilist Robert Ryan refuses to go down in a fixed fight. Scorsese says the movie—filmed in real time in a crisp 72 minutes—"has no sentimentality to it." It's set "in this allegorical world where everyone deals with . . . this notion of fate. The gangsters are not foiled here." Ryan is doomed, and he doesn't know it until it's too late. Meanwhile his anguished wife (the fine but forgotten Audrey Totter) paces outside the arena. Will she leave him? Again, the decision doesn't seem to be hers.
Fascinatingly, what Scorsese calls "the most visceral fight in cinema" influenced his own Raging Bull in the opposite direction: Wise generally shot his bout objectively, from outside the ring, so Scorsese generally framed Robert De Niro inside the ropes, subjectively. It's just another tidbit that you wish had inspired a real, in-person conversation between the two great directors. NOT MUCH ELSE comes to DVD July 6. Scorsese's own four-hour, two-disc documentary My Voyage to Italy is the best thing out, a love letter to all his cinematic influences—Visconti, De Sica, Fellini, and others in their pantheon. There's a six-disc Jackie Chan gift set of old titles from MGM; Maggie Smith is wonderful in 1969's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie; and Big Top Pee-Wee is finally on DVD. Tabloid boy-toy Ashton Kutcher stars in The Butterfly Effect—couldn't Demi pay the studio to hold that one back? Brian Miller