Robert Wise. The Set-Up. 1949.

Norman N. Holland

One way to enjoy:  I think that you will savor this movie more if you read the essay first. It should point you towards some of the subtleties of this film, not often seen, but much admired.

    Stoker/Ryan in the ring
I don't ordinarily go for boxing movies. The brutality makes me anxious. But this one, I think, is a minor masterpiece of film noir, even though the boxing scenes spill more blood and sweat and human misery than even a boxing movie is entitled to. It has a plot that goes beyond the boxing film cliché of conflicts around a fixed fight.

    The deeper conflict begins in a sleazy room in the "Hotel Cozy." Julie (Audrey Totter) tries to persuade Bill "Stoker" Thompson (Robert Ryan), her beloved husband, to give up boxing. "Stoker" (as everyone but his wife calls him) is an over-the-hill boxer, thirty-five years old, fighting brash kids in their twenties, but he proudly says he can tell he's going to win tonight in the arena across the street. "Maybe you can go on taking the beatings," says Julie. "I can't." Ryan was an intercollegiate boxing champion at Dartmouth, and he's the reason the fight scenes feel so painfully authentic (as in this still).

    Julie doesn't succeed in dissuading Stoker, who leaves her a ticket to the fight, although she has said she won't watch him being beaten up any more. Stoker crosses the street to the arena, where customers buying tickets speak contemptuously of his age and his chances. His oily manager, Tiny (George Tobias), even scratches a match across Stoker's name, crossing him out of the fight. So sure is Tiny that Stoker will lose against "Tiger" Nelson tonight that he has accepted $50 from a local mobster, "Little Boy" (arrogant, sinister Alan Baxter), for Stoker to take a dive. And he was so sure that he didn't tell Stoker, knowing, probably, that Stoker would have refused. In the actual fight, to everyone's surprise, Stoker manages to hold his own and ultimately knocks Tiger out.

    Little Boy, smug, expressionless, but quietly furious, has his boys beat up Stoker, and the mobster himself smashes Stoker's hand so that he can never box again. Yet Stoker proudly says to Julie, cradling his battered body, "I won tonight." But she knows that he will never box again and that he can retire with his self-respect. "We both won tonight," she replies.  Julier cradles her beaten husband

    When the movie was released in France, they gave it the title "We Have Won Tonight," and that theme, winning and losing, shapes this picture before it even begins. Behind the credits, we see two boxers' legs as they battle, and at the end of the credits one has knocked out the other. Then, in the opening shot of the movie proper, an aging, slow-witted man is trying to sell fight cards to the crowd outside the arena. A brash young newsboy selling newspapers pushes him aside. "Hey, kid, I gotta make a buck, too," pleads the first seller. "Aw, take a walk!" the kid scornfully replies. Outside the arena, a poster lists the bouts, one boxer "vs. " another, one wins, one loses. Shortly after, we go to the scene in the hotel room where Julie loses in her struggle to get Bill/Stoker to give up boxing. He tries to persuade her that it's a win-win situation—he'll win tonight, and then they'll both have enough money to start over—but she knows it's a win-lose situation, and she believes he will lose yet again.

    The scene before that takes place in a café where we see one of those arcade games where a player tries to maneuver a grapple over one valuable object among a pile of junk (and invariably loses). Over and over, Wise brings us face to face with win-lose situations, the big one, of course being the succession of boxing matches that we hear about in the long locker room scene. A nervous first-time fighter throws up before his first match, but wins anyway. A know-it-all wins and goes off to take it out on some unlucky woman. A Bible reader loses despite his faith. An ambitious young black fighter wins. An old punch-drink fighter gets knocked out and loses what was left of his brain. Finally, we come to Stoker's match with Tiger Nelson and ultimately with Little Boy. One he wins and the second he both loses and wins.

    Wise uses a lot of footage to look at the spectators in the arena. These people don't participate in the actual win-lose struggle. They satisfy their bloodlust vicariously while some other wretch pays the price. "Kill 'im, kill 'im " one man shouts over and over. A woman who, outside the arena, said she was repelled by the fights, becomes excited and cries for blood again and again. A skinny young man acts out the punches. A great fat glutton enjoys the whole spectacle stuffing his face with every kind of food and drink on sale. A blind man has come to the fight, although he only knows what's going on from his companion's blow-by-blow account. He too gleefully shouts for more violence and bloodletting. And one man divides his attention between the fight and the baseball game on his portable radio. These repulsive people get the fun of the win-lose competition without paying the price. They only risk the occasional bet. And, of course, Little Boy sitting in the audience, Tiger Nelson's crooked manager, Tiny, Stoker's manager, and squeaky little Red, the "cut man," in Stoker's corner, the referee, the indifferent doctor in the locker room, all of these watch without paying the price or taking the risk. And we do too, don't we? We in the audience in the movie theater watch that final brutal bout and the even more brutal bout between Little Boy and Stoker.

    Wise sets up a few situations in which some decent person refuses to watch the bloody win-lose battle. The trainer in the locker room hears about all the fights when the boxers return, having won or lost, but he himself, during the last bout, doesn't watch. He reads a "Thrilling Love" pulp magazine instead. Most importantly, Julie who opts out of her husband's fight. In a long, dark scene she contemplates her future. She finally tears up the ticket to the fight that Stoker had left for her, letting the pieces flutter down on a passing trolley car.

    Then the film shows one or two situations where the win-lose competition is fixed ahead of time. We see it in the café and the grapple machine whose player never wins. And we see it most of all when the trainer, Tiny, and Little Boy's man and Little Boy himself arrange "the set-up." Even when Tiny, in the third round, finally tells Stoker he has to take a dive, Stoker refuses. For him, he will proudly take his chances.

    But Wise, presumably, is after bigger game than boxing. He puts in the film what I see as a variety of signals that we should read the film as symbolic of something more. Some are the names, like "Hotel Cozy," the site for the marriage story. The town is called "Paradise City" and the arena the "Paradise City A. C." "Boxing Wednesdays, Wrestling Fridays." In other words, people's bloodlust goes on and on, and wrestling is surely another situation in which what should be a win-lose battle with risk is fixed so there is no risk. "Dreamland" is the name of the penny arcade that Julie strolls into on the walk she takes instead of watching Bill's fight. The barker outside says, "Little lady, what would you like to know about your future?" And she indeed sees her future and her present. She sees one of those photo set-ups where people can poke their heads through holes in cardboard painting. Here, a boy gets his picture as a life guard and his girl the swimmer he has rescued—something like Bill's support of Julie. She smiles, pleased, and walks on. She sees a girl get her skirt blown over her head. The victim of the set-up flees and Julie laughs (sex in her life?). But then she sees a soldier and his date working the handles on a machine in which two boxers slug it out. One fighter gets knocked down, and Julie turns thoughtful, seeing the story of her life. She frowns and turns away, and walks out of the arcade, resuming her gloomy self-examination.

    Martin Scorsese, in his commentary on the DVD of this film, speaks of "allegory." I'd prefer the idea of a microcosm: the penny arcade and the boxing ring are microcosms of the larger world around them. In particular, I think the boxing ring in this film mimics a competitive, capitalistic society in which one person wins at the expense of other people. "Le capitalisme sauvage," the French call it, savage capitalism. "Think what we could do with five hundred bucks," says Bill, trying to persuade his wife. "That's the way it is," he ends up saying. "You're a fighter, you gotta fight." He leaves their home and gloomily crosses the street to his job, fighting, wearing coat and tie, carrying a gym bag that his wife has packed, just like any working stiff on a Monday morning. Then there are the privileged souls, two kinds of them. One kind doesn't have to be in the competition. They can just sit by and get their pleasure from the pain and suffering of others. The other kind has the competition fixed. They will profit without all the blood, sweat, and tears.

    Wise puts us into this microcosm by a special symbol, the clock. We see a big street clock as the opening crane shot takes us to the Paradise City A. C. Again and again, we see the timekeeper's clock as another round of fighting is about to begin. And again and again, we see the alarm clock on Julie's bureau as the evening goes on. Near the end of the movie, just before Julie sees her beaten husband, in a remarkable shot, Wise shows us Julie's face reflected in that alarm clock as if to identify her with time itself. Julie stands for the reality of the fight game as against the hopes and fantasies of the fighters, especially those of the man she loves. Time is the enemy Bill "Stoker" Thompson fights against as he carries his thirty-five years into the ring against an ambitious twenty-three year old. It is a fight he is bound to lose. And time is the enemy every one of us has to fight against—and lose.

    Wise brings the point home with a remarkable device. The opening crane shot takes us past a big street clock that says 9:05. The closing crane shot, pulling back from the battered Stoker cradled in Julie's arms, shows us that same clock. Now it says, 10:16, marking the 71 minutes that the film has taken. This is one of those rare films in which screen time ("diegetic time") matches the audience's time. I think it links me tightly into the picture. I am myself as part of its microcosm of life.

    That's how I read this film, as a microcosm, an allegory, if you will, of the fights we all are locked into, perhaps in a society built on win-lose competition, but even more, in a battle to hang onto life against the inexorability of time.

A way to enjoy: Keep an eye out for the theme-and-variations that Wise plays with win-lose situations and watch those clocks!