Robert Ryan did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Bill "Stoker" Thompson in The Set-Up.
Robert Ryan is best known for playing heavies in supporting roles so it is interesting to see him here playing not only the lead but also one of the few characters who is not corrupt in the film. Early on we learn of the setup then we are introduced to Ryan's Stoker as he speaks to his wife Julie (Audrey Totter) before he goes off to fight. One only needs to look at Ryan to see that Stoker is an over the hill boxer as Ryan carries this certain underlying despair in his eyes. Stoker though wishes to fight and even speaks about the fight as a chance to potential greatness in the ring. Ryan is very moving as he carries that despair yet is convincing as Stoker makes such statements. Ryan does not depict this as lying to his wife, but rather unintentionally lying to himself. In his delivery Ryan doesn't invoke really a hope but rather this desperate need for a hope in every statement. Ryan reveals this man just trying to put himself in this optimistic mindset despite always reinforcing that underneath Stoker's feelings of doubt are probably as stronger if not stronger than his wife's. Ryan setups so effectively the state of Stoker before he goes to the arena to prepare, portraying just this man dangling on a thread trying so hard not to fall.
Now Robert Ryan is the lead in the film yet in a very specific manner as he acts as the focal point for what is Robert Wise's rather brilliant portrait of the whole atmosphere around the boxing ring. The film takes a great deal of time with Stoker as he awaits his own matches and watches the other boxers prepare to fight. Ryan makes the most out of every second in this largely reactionary performance. Ryan amplifies every other little snippet of a boxer's story through his performance, and in each of these we get a little more insight into Stoker's own life. In the womanizer coming off a victory, Ryan infuses Stoker with an intense distaste not exactly for the behavior rather reflecting his sorrow over his tense relationship with his wife. In the face of the few boxers who are up and comers Ryan finds this incredibly poignant moments as in his eyes you can see a bit of happiness for the men, as well as in the idea of success at all, but also again that sadness still underlines it as he seems to look at himself in the past when he still had an overt hope. This despair only becomes all the stronger though in watching another washed up boxer being beaten within his life. In every single one of these moments there is such a power to them because of how honestly realizes Stoker's investment in their stories since in some way they are like his own.
Eventually it becomes Stoker's turn for the match where we get one of the most powerfully realized boxing matches ever depicted in a fictional film. It is not quite typical though as we focus on almost everyone in the stadium in addition to having the drama right within the ring with Stoker taking on the younger smug boxer who is in on the fix. Ryan is terrific in this sequence, now Ryan a former amateur boxer is believable in terms of fighting, but he goes far further than that with his performance. Ryan portrays physically a certain type of fight as in every moment there is such an intensity in really the heart he brings in every punch, and every moment of facing his opponent straight on. Ryan in every strikes shows a man fighting for his life in a way finding this strength within still an emotional desperation. I love the fierceness in Ryan's his work suggesting Stoker lashing out against everyone and everything doubting him. When Stoker is told of the fix late in the round Ryan only goes further with this idea revealing such a disdain for the idea, and showing a man doing something for himself. When Stoker achieves knockout it is a great moment though as Ryan depicts physically the sheer exasperation of the fight, but also the instance of pride in a man who has had so few of them. Robert Ryan proves his measure in a leading role, technically against type, by delivering this marvelous bittersweet portrait of this boxer. He does not hesitate in revealing the severity of the desperation and vulnerability of the man, which in turn makes his few moments of happiness and hope deeply affecting.