Born: 10 September 1914, Winchester, Indiana, USA.
Died: 14 September 2005, Westwood, California, USA.
Directing career: 1944 – 2000.
Movement: Post-war Hollywood.
Traits: Started out as an editor at RKO studios, working for directors like William Dieterle and, most famously, Orson Welles, editing both Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. Although not considered to have the personal touch of an auteur, his reputation remains that of a consummate, technically proficient craftsman who tried his hand successfully at a wide range of genres: film noir (The Set-Up), horror (The Haunting), science-fiction (The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Andromeda Strain), and even the musical (The Sound of Music, West Side Story).
Collaborators: Julie Andrews (Actress), Robert Mitchum (Actor), Robert Ryan (Actor), Nelson Gidding (writer), Ernest Lehman (writer).
The Set-Up (1949)
Here’s a lean boxing noir classic, weighing in at not one ounce over. Robert Wise was an editor-turned-director and knew how to be efficiently economical. 70 minutes of screen-time correspond tautly to 70 minutes of real story-time on one apparently ordinary, but ultimately life-changing, fight-night at the Paradise City Arena. A name that already suggests The Set-Up, like many a Hollywood sports-related noir from Body and Soul or Force of Evil to The Hustler, is a film about individuals competing for the promised ‘paradise’ of the American Dream. In other words, it combines the sociological and the existential, like any great film noir. And more, the philosophical, the quasi-spiritual even at times. There’s layers to this film, rings we could say, not only boxing rings but concentric rings like the nested layers of Hell or Purgatory in Dante. The reference may sound grand for a modest B-movie, but this is a film that spans the outer spheres outside the arena to the inner core of a man battling for his very soul.
That man is Bill ‘Stoker’ Thompson (Robert Ryan, so often an unsavoury villain but here in his finest lead). Tonight, he fights a much younger up-and-comer and, though he does not know it, his trainers have sold him out in a deal with a local gangster: Stoker is destined to lose and all but him will take a cut of the fix’s shady profits. Tonight, the oblivious Stoker has no idea of the designs made for him and quite fancies his chances, thank you very much. A self-belief placing him in scant company. Even those being kind to Stoker would describe him as an unglamorous checkpoint for younger fighters en route to bigger things. Those less generous would call him a washed-up has-been, routinely pummelled in exchange for a pay-check. Tonight, nobody gives him a shot, not the punters, not his long-suffering wife who refuses to watch him risk his own health any longer, not his Judas-like coaches, not his opponent who’s been informed that his victory is already scripted. Nobody. Tonight, it’s Stoker against the world and we ride with him along the descending concentric levels of his Purgatory.
In a film shot entirely in-studio, the outermost layer is everything surrounding the arena, the most sociological layer, a microcosm of a post-war, malaise-ridden capitalist society built on false hopes and inequality. In an arcade suitably called Dreamland, suckers covet a chimerical jackpot by gambling their savings in expectance of a different result the next time. A physical illustration of Einstein’s definition of insanity later to find its echo in the self-deceptive hope of the boxers themselves. Life under capitalism means believing if you want to survive, believing that your piece of the pie will come, whether through one hail-mary punch or a fruit machine payday. Navigating through these zombie-populated streets and amusement parlours is Julie, Stoker’s wife (Audrey Totter). After an argument in their room of the symbolically named Hotel Cozy1, she has torn her ringside ticket and chucked the smithereens into a river. Usually Stoker’s conscience, confidante, and guardian angel2, tonight she’s had enough of her man’s delusions coming before his health and their future. Tonight, Stoker will be truly alone staking his life and soul in a final shot at the Dream.
1. Julie is the lone character who rejects the myth of the Dream and its socially-approved goals, in favour of a more modest but also contented and, yes, cosy conjugal life free from the shackles of expectation and ambition.
2. Interestingly she is also the only character who never calls him Stoker, suggesting that she’s the only one seeing something else in him, something more than a walking punching-bag to make others rich.
Next comes Paradise City Arena itself, a name promising possible redemption, but to its regulars synonymous with an evening’s viewing of cathartic blood-letting. In the film’s opening sequence, the camera roams around the nocturnal exteriors of the arena’s entrance, setting up several faces we will see again later: reluctant visitors dragged by their friends, degenerates paying to see some bloodshed, nervous punters weighing up who to wager on, magazine hawkers, ticket-booth sellers, the trainers on their way from a Faustian pact selling off Stoker to the gangster, a whole gallery of secondary characters who will recur intermittently during the fight to come. The poster on the wall gives billing to Stoker’s fight, allowing the to-and-froing flow of spectators to look at his name and laugh him off as an old-timer, someone who “was fighting when I was a kid” as one middle-aged ticket-holder scoffs, while another marks his name with a match just as his loss tonight has been ‘marked’. More than a boxing arena, this feels like the assembly outside a courtroom where Stoker is set to be judged. More than a boxing match, there is already the sense it is a trial that awaits him.
Deeper within is the locker room, where boxers warm up, share anecdotes, wait to be called to their fights. These are moments before the hour of reckoning, the limbo prior to the weigh-in, of their souls not their weight divisions. One idealistic boxer repeats a well-worn story about the guy who lost 21 times in a row before finally lifting the world championship belt; this one’s a staunch believer in the Dream, more avid even than Stoker who merely listens with an avuncular smile. Another boxer’s a high school kid, an ingenue set for his first fight and setting off Stoker’s reminiscences about that milestone in his own life, two whole decades and a host of shattered illusions earlier. Other boxers philosophise on whether it’s worth believing, nominally speaking about God, but in the context of the film faith is the very act of continuing to believe in your 1000-to-1 shot at the Dream, that magic knock-out punch that will change your life forever like a lotto ticket. Why not believe, Stoker responds, for belief is a wager worth taking on and “everyone plays book on something”. In the world of these men, life is a gamble, and there’s no room for croupiers or observers here. You have to be foolhardy enough to keep trying, keep believing, and for Stoker tonight’s the night. Except, however much he may believe, his fate’s already sealed.
When the call comes, Stoker enters the arena and the next level of his purgatory, the rows of ringside seats forming hellish circles of clamouring spectators. This audience is here to judge Stoker’s existential battle, every bit as much as the judges marking scorecards. Robert Wise, originally an editor, cuts back and forth between fight and crowd with expert handling of rhythm. We see, grotesquely baying for gladiatorial bloodshed in their seats, many of the same punters we had seen two levels up trickling into the arena, even more maniacal in their bloodlust now they’ve coalesced into one mob. Even those previously professing their queasiness at watching such brutality are now fully absorbed, egging on every punch. Faces in the crowd gurn in eagerness; a blind man receives commentary from his neighbour and beams in satisfaction the bloodier the reports get; the gangster watches with a passive smile comfortable in the knowledge that everything is pre-destined to go his way, while his moll uses her eyes to flirt with the young middleweight fighter set-up to conquer Stoker. Hostile chants of ‘Kill him!’ ring out, or groans of ‘Let them fight!’ every time the referee gets involved. The only empty seat seems to be the one reserved for Julie. In her absence, Stoker is utterly alone, out of sync with the chorus of the crowds, and alone in front of his destiny.
Finally, we reach the core of these concentric circles, not a concentric ring but a ring of a different kind: the boxing ring in the middle of it all. If the outermost layer was the most sociological, this is the most existential of the narrative strata. Here is where, with nowhere to hide, Stoker is physically and spiritually alone in the ring. Here is where he, increasingly aware of what’s going down (his opponent’s bemusement at Stoker fighting back is a giveaway…), continues to fight. Like Camus’ Sisyphus, he fights on despite meaninglessness, fights for the sake of fighting, for pride, for his soul. He refuses to pay heed to the cut over his eye and doggedly demands to keep fighting. “It’s your funeral,” the umpire shrugs, underlining the life-and-death dimensions this bout has taken on. Any material benefits are no longer relevant; the game was rigged all along just like the capitalist illusions of the American Dream are rigged for almost everyone. And yet, a defiant Stoker grows into the fight, a fight taking up the bulk of the film’s final act, in real time. Robert Ryan was a competent boxer before turning to acting, and the fight seems as realistic now as it must have in 1949, the camera frenziedly catching every stance, every blow, every bead of sweat. Somehow, the dynamic, animalistic violence of a George Bellows painting is turned into black-and-white cinematic poetry3.
3. Suffice to say this film was a strong aesthetic influence on Martin Scorsese for the boxing sequences of Raging Bull.
Tonight, somehow, Stoker wins. But it is a pyrrhic victory. Tonight, Stoker loses, for the gangster is not the kind of man you welch on a set-up from, whether you were in the know or not. He and his cronies make sure Stoker will never fight again — a repetition of the ‘impotent right hand’ symbolism which also curtails Burt Lancaster’s boxing career in The Killers. Then again, tonight Stoker really wins, for he is back in the arms of Julie. Unlike Beatrice, who in the last book of the Divine Comedy turns away from Dante towards the abstract aspiration of eternal promises, Julie brings Stoker back to life in the firm meaningfulness of the physical here-and-now, at last ready to hang up his gloves and his delusions, to settle for Hotel Cozy rather than Dreamland Arcade. Tonight has been the most pivotal evening of Stoker Thompson’s life and we have been privy to all 70 minutes of it. (August 2021)