' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: The Set-Up (1949)

Friday, April 26, 2013

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Set-Up (1949)

Movies about boxers and/or boxing are so durable, I suspect, because the most durable clichés of life are so easily transferrable to the ring. “The Set-Up”, a rough & tumble real time account of a fixed (kind of) boxing match – its lead-up, its aftermath, and the match itself – offers its own mantra: “Just one punch away.” Well, one punch can end a boxing match, of course, but the brawl at the center of “The Set-Up” is about a multitude of punches – the punches in the ring itself and in the punches in all the rings in all the fights leading up to it. It’s the cumulative effect of all those punches that opens and closes this story.


Directed by Robert Wise and written by Art Cohn, “The Set-Up” is based on a long form 1928 poem by Joseph Moncure March, which is less Emily Dickinson and more Scrap Dupris. “All youth becomes old age at last. All fighters weaken. All fighters crack. All fighters go – And they never come back. Well, So it goes: Time hits the hardest blows.” The film’s story is relayed, essentially, in real time, cutting across an expansive old school set that re-creates a nowhere town with a name – Paradise City – packed with symbolism like a thundercloud is packed with rain.

First, we are introduced to the grungy boxing arena where patrons file in for the night’s lengthy card of fights. Then the camera drifts across the street to the dingy bar where you can almost smell the down-and-out sweat emanating from the screen as the rotund Tiny (George Tobias), manager to bedraggled palooka Stoker Thompson (Robert Ryan), pockets a wad of cash from gangster Little Boy (Alan Baxter) to ensure Stoker takes a dive at the gloves of Tiger Nelson (Hal Fieberling). Never mind that Tiny, so confident in his own boxer’s inability, decides not to actively tell Stoker to take a dive, assuming he will be knocked out by natural means.

The camera moves back out into the street and down to Hotel Cozy where we finally find Stoker himself, going on and on to his blonde better half Judy (Audrey Totter) that if he can just win this fight he can get the cash they don’t have to begin anew. Even if the tone in his voice didn’t bely the nature of a promise he must have made dozens of times before, Judy’s reaction would tell us all we need to know. We return to March’s poem: “Pansy was through – They knew. Why didn’t he know it too? Christ Almighty, He ought to have quit Long ago And been done with it.”

Finally we re-enter the boxing arena. We hardly leave. And it is here, in this portion of the film, building to Stoker’s match, as the various pugilists congregate before their fights and after their fights on the lengthy card that the film truly seems to sing. The setting evokes Edward Hopper’s Boulevard of Broken Dreams, a locker room substituting for a diner. The beginners are less weary, filled with more optimism, but the mere presence of the old-timers lets us know what fate awaits. Stoker watches it all unfold with a face that seems to register what promise he once had At least he made out better than ol’ Gunboat Johnson (David Clarke), a victim of one too many uppercuts, whose match concludes with him being carted off to the hospital. We never learn what becomes of him and this nicely underscores the chasm into which boxers can plunge post-career.


Stoker’s inevitable showdown with Tiger is not really a showdown at all. It’s not the glory-seeking of Rocky Balboa or the self-punishment of Jake LaMotta. Instead it’s more like a tragic farce. Remember, Tiger thinks Stoker is throwing the match and, thus, boxes accordingly. Stoker has no idea he’s supposed to be throwing the match and, thus, boxes accordingly. Yet even though his opponent thinks he’s specifically out to lose, Stoker gets bloody and bruised and knocked to the canvas and only makes inroads after a long while.

Boxing movies or movies revolving around sports in general so often are about winning or losing. And yes, someone in “The Set-Up” wins and someone loses but the film’s final fight does not even happen inside the ring. “The Set-Up”, in the end, like so many other boxing movies, mirrors life in its own way. Sometimes life isn’t as much about winning and losing as it is just trying to hang on.

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