The Set-Up is a 1949 boxing picture considered to be a classic film noir. The Robert Wise film starred Robert Ryan as a washed-up old journeyman boxer, Stoker Thompson, some twenty one years into his career as fighter at both the amateur and professional levels. In his last fight he got knocked around pretty hard and tasted the canvas a number of times. His wife, Julie Thompson (Audrey Totter), is tired of seeing him taking a beating and doesn’t want to go to see his next fight later that night. The last fight scared her badly. she remarks, “two hours after the fight you still din’t know who I was.” But he is adamant about this being the big night for him to shine: “Ya know something. I’m gonna take that kid tonight. I can feel it.”
The kid is an up and comer. 23 years of age. Cocky. And strong. Stoker is past his prime and not considered to be a great fighter. His manager has fixed the fight, odds against Stoker, and has big money riding on Stoker taking a dive. But he fails to mention the deal because he has faith that Stoker won’t be able to go the distance, and plus, he gets to keep Stoker’s cut if Stoker ain’t in on it.
Julie and Stoker continue to argue. He feels that he is just one shot away from getting a title shot and the big money that comes with it. She, scared for his safety, his mental well-being, and his life replies that he will always be just one shot away. “How many more beatings do you have to take?” He gives her the ticket to the match and tells her to do what she wants, but leaves for the ring obviously dispirited.
Next, Robert Wise shows us that not only is life difficult and hardboiled and down and out for the aging boxer, and scary for the woman who loves him, but the people who populate the ringside, the spectators are almost totally depraved. They cry out for bloodshed and one man can be heard yelling “Kill Him!” as Stoker enters the coliseum and catches a few seconds of the current bout. Another fan sits and watches the action as if a film playing out before his eyes. He reclines back, eating popcorn and drinking a sarsaparilla, notably unaffected by the whole ordeal. The brutality of boxing extends not only to the damage done to fighters in and out of the ring, but to the viewers ringside, less than a percent of which enjoy the sport as a sport and understand the sweet science of it all.
As Stoker waits for his fight, the final bout of the night, other fighters come and go from the dressing room. Some of them are victorious, but the majority fail in their endeavors. One man gets beat so badly that he imagines he is another man, one-time world Middleweight Champion Frankie Manilla. Stoker exchanges heartening words with many a boxer only to see a number of them return in bad shape as losers. He enjoys hearing the story of Manilla’s twenty-one losses before he hit his stride and became champ, but he is at a loss for words when his friend returns beaten badly. A young black fighter, an up and comer, wins his bout and ensures Stoker that “it only takes one.” But later he finds that his wife isn’t in the crowd and has left their motel across the way (only to be stalked by seedy cat-callers and vermin of the night through the city) and finds himself dejected once again. The mood is bipolar and oscillates fairly rapidly so that viewer of the film is unsure just how confident Stoker will really be once he enters that ring.
As he leaves the dressing ring and enters the Coliseum, calls from the crowd begin to irritate him. “Hey pops, where’s your wheelchair?” “Don’t hurt him, he’s an old man!” Another group holds up a banner advising those 35 years or older to find a different occupation. All of these factors, plus the cockiness of his young opponent, spur him on to fight like never before. His manager gets antsy at Stoker’s relative success at brawling and tell him to take a dive in the fourth. He refuses, beats his opponent, restores his pride and self-worth, gains the admiration of the roaring crowd (which begins to display more and more appreciation for the craft of the fight as it goes on), but angers the gamblers and mobsters who’ve put big money on him losing.
He and wife ultimately have that one last hurrah of pride and glory, but the money men make sure he’ll never fight again. The shadows race along the brick walls of the Coliseum’s alleyway as figures dart by and move with a frenetic pace. And Stoker’s career is brought to a premature end.
“I can’t fight no more,” Stoker cries. Emotional, but glad that the torment is over, Julie responds, “we both won tonight.” A response sure to be interpreted pretty negatively by Stoker in the coming years. A point of contention that doesn’t package the film up in a nice bow and leave things off clean. They had trouble, they have trouble, and they’re gonna get more trouble. Bleak, dark, down and out, no hope, nowhere to run, and things stay the same or get worse. But that’s film noir and that’s life. Tough.
(Martin Scorsese loves this film and highlights it as one of the better boxing films he saw a young man. He provides the commentary along with Robert Wise on my DVD version of the film. and it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that this film probably influenced a number of decisions Scorsese made when creating the greatest boxing film of all time: Raging Bull)