clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Everbody's a Sucker For Something: Robert Wise's 1949 Boxing-Noir 'The Set-Up'

Jacob Mazer takes a look at Robert Wise's 1949 boxing-noir film classic, The Set-Up.

It's been an interesting week for the boxing business and a quiet one for the fights. It's been an unremittingly gray week here in Philly, with temperature fit for neither man nor beast. Intriguing as the Golden Boy-Roc Nation-Haymon developments may be (to say nothing of you-know-what), it ain't the same as having a good fight to sit down with on Saturday night.

Here's some philosophizing:

Sport, the experience of sport, is more than what happens on the field, on the court, in the ring. Sports are constantly freighted with narratives projected from "outside the ropes"- narratives of nation and community, racial and cultural narratives, narratives of power, narratives of redemption, and so on. It's these narratives- not the sense of wonder at the athletic display, not the analyst's appreciation for the craft- that invest the spectator in the spectacle at the deep levels we see among sports fans. These committed dedications are the fuel source of the professional sports industry, and the industry in turn dedicates a lot of resources to spinning the narratives that foster them. Without these personal resonances, the game is just a game.

I have a pet theory that the personal resonance of a sport is that much more intense when the game's dynamics transpose easily onto some real-life situation. For example, the meter-by-meter, mass mobilization aspects of football lend themselves handily to metaphors of warfare, and I wonder if it's this quality that gives football fandom an edge less tangible in, say, baseball.

The action of boxing is not so far outside the register of "real life." In On Boxing, Joyce Carol Oates notes that boxers must overcome two elemental human aversions- to hurting and to being hurt. Boxing's essential situation- the violent encounter between one and another- is both a stylized distillation of the state of conflict and the enactment of a genuine possibility that we, the spectators, could encounter, one that inspires both fear and exhilaration. Much as football may furnish good metaphors, there are few life situations where we will actually have to run, catch a flying thing, dodge some guys, and cross a line. We might have to fight.

In other words, the fictive layer is very thin. It's said often about the sport, "you play baseball, you play basketball, but you don't play boxing." At its most white-knuckle, boxing always seems on the verge of crossing a line- from a strategic execution into an impassioned fight, from a manufactured adversity into a genuine one, from a competitive spectacle into a mortal conflict. It's as if the event breaks through the outer layer of its framing device and bleeds into real life. This is the feeling of boxing at its finest, its most tantalizing and torturous. There's definitely something twisted about it. That's part of the deal. It's almost irresistible to drape the sport in highfalutin values like courage, will, and valor, and it earns them. But just as often, the brute darwinian currents are the pressing ones.

These qualities and contradictions have been a wellspring to a rich tradition of art- on the canvas, the page, and the screen. It's fun to delve into this body of work, and it can even teach us about the sport- if not the science, then perhaps the myths and ideologies that frame it. Over the weekend, I watched Robert Wise's classic boxing-noir The Set-Up, from 1949.

Boxing and noir have always had a special kinship, in both literature and cinema. The noir genre emerged in the 1930's, influenced by early detective antecedents (Edgar Allan Poe's Dupin, Arthur Conan Doyle's Holmes), lurid and baroque European crime fiction, and American pulp traditions, particularly the Western. The latter is an important reference point. Noir is distinctly post-Manifest Destiny, a vision of a mercilessly ambitious America, having eaten its way to the farthest boundary of the continent, turning back and starting to consume itself. If the genre has a consistent thematic concern, it might be a certain skepticism about the whole project of civilization. Noir has always tread in the borderlands between the enlightened society of laws and moral values, and an underworld where the reigning powers are violence and rapacity. Usually, the deeper you go, the murkier that line gets.

Per Oates, from On Boxing:

"Considered in the abstract, the boxing ring is an altar of sorts, one of those legendary spaces where the laws of a nation are suspended...Boxing inhabits a sacred space predating civilization; or, to use D.H. Lawrence's phrase, before God was love."

and later:

"Clearly, boxing's very image is repulsive to many people because it cannot be assimilated into what we wish to know about civilized man."

The protagonist of The Set-Up is an aging club fighter named Bill "Stoker" Thompson, played by genre great Robert Ryan. We first encounter Stoker in a restless sleep, though we're unsure whether his dream is triumphant or a nightmare. His circuit is the world of dingy low-pay four-rounders, one heavier on the grind than the glory. Deep as hell into a losing streak, he's surviving on belief that one good punch could turn his luck around. His domain this night is the Paradise City Arena in the garish neon hellscape of Paradise City, New Jersey. The arena is a crucible of baser instincts, a place for fighters to realize their dreams or to see them ground down, with the wild-eyed, sweat-shiny audience as its fickle greek chorus. Stoker is such a sure-loser that his manager and cutman accept a bribe for him to take a dive against a younger prospect and don't even bother to fill in their fighter on the deal.

The camera pans down to the first shot of Paradise City's main drag from the face of a clock- an early tip of the hat to the film's abiding concern, time and its inexorable procession. This theme is underscored by the movie's formal structure, playing out the action in real time (more or less).

We spend much of the film's first half in a drab locker room as Stoker watches the other fighters go out and return from the ring. The entire life cycle of the fighter seems to be condensed in that room; some of the boxers are enthusiastic and invincible-feeling, ready to step up to bigger venues, while other are a mess of scar tissue and already punch-drunk. The fighters and everyone else in their world are trying to leverage time (and its attendant, fortune) in one way or another. Some try to gamble on it; some try to transcend it through faith; others, like the gangsters who set the fix, are trying to cheat it. Stoker, thirty-five years old with too much wear on the tires, is trying to play it straight the best he can. He hopes to break his losing streak and secure a bigger match, one that will give him the capital to get a start in something else.)

The cross-currents of time- the narrative time of the film marching forward, the time of the boxers running out, and the threat of that fatal measure of time, the referee's ten-count- come to bear at the end of the night, when Stoker's match finally rolls around. (In a clever move, Wise casts the famed crime scene photographer Arthur Fellig a.k.a. Weegee as the timekeeper, whose ring of the bill inaugurates each confrontation.) Still running in real time, the bout acts as a kind of play within a play; it's not just a dramatic snapshot of a boxing match, but a full staging (the fight was choreographed move-for-move with the help of former boxing pro John Indrisano).

It's one of the most remarkable ring scenes I've seen on film, and, in a way, it captures some of the experience of watching a real boxing match. It's not that you could mistake it for an actual bout. It's filmed for dramatic effect. The action within the ropes is interspersed with cutaways to the responses of the increasingly frenzied audience and to Stoker's crooked corner, poking their heads over the edge of the stage like two imps in the garden of earthly delights. The camera, too, gets more expressionistic as the drama builds, wheeling, blurry, and dutch-angled.

Rather, the film conjures the exciting and uneasy sensation of watching an event slip out of its parameters. Stoker's fight, which is to be a foregone conclusion, which, fixed, is actually to be a staged event, turns into a real battle of the wills. But it all really is a staged scene, although it plays out at the pace of life. It's a strange, interesting temporal puzzle. It's worth the time.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the Bad Left Hook Daily Roundup newsletter!

A daily roundup of all your global boxing news from Bad Left Hook