At the Movies' is a fortnightly column on Hollywood's Golden Era (1920s-50s) revisiting films of historical, cultural and/or aesthetic significance. Read more from the series here.
Boxing films are always about something more than boxing. The violent quality of the sport, the limited space of the ring and the unique social profile of its participants render it conducive to productive artistic interventions. Adapted from Joseph Moncure March's prose poem of the same name from 1928, The Set-Up (1949) centres on Stoker (Robert Ryan, in a characteristically tough, anti-heroic turn), a 35-year-old boxer riding on a string of failures, getting ready for what may be his last shot at success. Unaware that his managers have made a $50 deal with the opposing team to ensure he loses the match, Stoker prepares for the fight against the wishes of his girlfriend (Audrey Totter), who wants him to give up fighting and settle down.
It isn't usual for Hollywood films to be adapted from poetry. But March's composition, which one commentator described as "a noir poem", with its vernacular language and short, punchy verse lends itself easily to cinematic transcription. March himself was a film enthusiast who admired the economy of movie storytelling ("I learn something of value every time I see a picture, even if it's rotten " and when it's a really good one, my eyes pop out and I feel like taking up embroidery as a life work.") His poem's protagonist is a Black man described thus: "Pansy had the stuff, but his skin was brown /And he never got a chance at the middleweight crown". In the screen adaptation, this character is changed to a white man, Stoker, who identifies with the one Black boxer in the changing room.
This whitewashing of the protagonist has two effects. One, it shifts the story's social focus from race to class. Hollywood before the Civil Rights Movement was still tongue-tied on the question of race, but it was always more responsive to the plight of the poor white. With the war over and veterans returning to civil life, the triumphalist tone of war-time movies made way for a more sombre atmosphere in films dealing with urban realities. RKO studio head Dore Schary, director Robert Wise and writer Harry Cohn were well-known liberals with interest in social themes. In The Set-Up, they use the situation of a washed-out pugilist to emphasise the impossibility of the American dream and the persistence of violence in public consciousness.
The first time we see Stoker, he falls face down in the ring following a knock-out. This downbeat image gives way to a shot of a street with neon lights sardonically reading "Paradise City" and "Dreamland". Stoker, like his peers, clings to the dream against incredible odds, always believing in the illusion that he is "one punch away" from success. The Set-Up is certainly an underdog story, but one which recognises that the underdog loses the war even if he wins a few battles, especially when the system is betting on his failure. Stoker does come out on top against his rival in the ring, but soon as he leaves the arena, he is thrashed by a group of men who break his right hand for good. Casinos, those embodiments of the American dream, have taught us the lesson: you don't get to win against million-to-one odds and walk away scot free.
Making Stoker a white character also imparts a markedly existentialist thrust to the narrative. This is because stories amenable to existentialist reading, or written in existentialist terms, were often structured around a white, male subjectivity. Stoker's predicament is explicitly formulated as that of a man trying to find meaning in an absurd universe. He is an aging boxer struggling to prove his worth in a world where the new is constantly replacing the old. In the changing room, he experiences vicarious pleasure and fear watching young, idealist debutants getting ready for their first match or expressing their hope for a chance at the title. This boxer of 20 years, whose sole supporter is another aging newspaper boy, sees the doors of his life shutting one by one. The spaces he inhabits in the film " his apartment, the changing room, and the arena " seem like claustrophobic, enclosed spaces with no exit.
More than the boxing ring, it's the changing room around which the film is structured.
This constricted room of male bonding, whose busy activities are filmed in deep-space compositions, is a zone where men can express their vulnerabilities without self-consciousness, a privilege unavailable in the ring or elsewhere. All the emotions Stoker experiences before his final shot at success " fear, ambition, disgust, temptation and domestic anxiety " are externalised through other characters in the room, who serve as a kind of Greek chorus. The changing room is a purgatory of comings and goings, a limbo between dream and reality. It is also a transitional space located literally between home and the ring; Stoker keeps peeking out to see if Julie has left their apartment, his anxiety relieved when he notices that she might be on her way to the match.
Julie, though, refuses to enter the arena. She spends her evening wandering the city streets, gripped by the dread of imagining Stoker hurt beyond repair. A moment of respite finds her observing young boys and girls indulging in pranks and games of chance at a penny arcade " a dream-like space as artificial as the ring. The film gives the appearance of unfolding in 72 minutes of real time. But it nests two experiences of time within its narrative. Julie's 72 minutes agonising over her boyfriend's fate feels much longer than Stoker's waiting for his match, which marches on like the clocks we see throughout the film, implacably, indifferently. It's this binocular perspective of time, accelerating or slowing down depending on whose point of view it's sharing, that lends the film a meditative, philosophical quality.
Julie's refusal to enter the arena is also a refusal to partake in its violence. Throughout The Set-Up, and during Stoker's fight in particular, Robert Wise intercuts the boxing with reactions of people in the arena. As men and women whoop and holler, changing their allegiance to whoever is landing the harsher blows, we witness a primal taste for animalistic violence sublimated in sports. Images of bellowing spectators make us aware of ourselves as movie viewers, revealing the sadistic gaze underpinning all violent spectacle, a gaze that has the power to kill. To this end, Wise photographs the match from outside the ring, so that the ropes are visible at all times during the fight. This decision conflates the film viewer with the spectator in the arena. It also creates a sense of entrapment around the fighters, who come across as captives made to kill each other for mass entertainment.
But that doesn't prevent The Set-Up from being a spectacle in itself. Wise, who edited Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941), exhibits a dynamic style comprising elaborate camera choreography, wide-angle, high-contrast cinematography that makes use of all image planes, and a great sensitivity to the movement of boxers in the ring. The film barely has any musical score, and its soundtrack is made almost wholly of dialogue and environmental sounds. Even so, we don't feel distanced from the action for a moment. In presenting the fight in all its vigour and energy, but breaking it regularly with somewhat repulsive shots of gesticulating spectators, the film has its cake and eats it too. Like many of the wonderful films discussed in this column, The Set-Up is a thing and its opposite, suffused with those perplexing, contradictory impulses that make the best of classical Hollywood cinema " so rich and alive.
Srikanth Srinivasan is a film critic and translator from Bengaluru. He tweets at @J_A_F_B