The United States of America
In his autobiographical account of his childhood as a young boy growing up in Cleveland during the 50s entitled The Quitter, Harvey Pekar recounted how he fell in love with the sport of boxing. The son of Jewish immigrants from Poland, Pekar admired how many successful Jewish boxers were able to become superstars despite racial prejudice. But after awhile, he began to notice something about the boxers that he looked up to. He wrote, “I didn’t know much about Jewish boxers, but they got into the sport when they were recent immigrants and didn’t have much money. Then got out in the 1940s with the coming of better economic opportunities. This indicated that they weren’t in love with boxing, just wanted to use it to make a living until something better came along.” That’s part of the majesty of boxing films: the best ones aren’t about people who love to box. They are about people who have to box.
Rocky Balboa had to prove to himself that he could go the distance. Jake LaMotta used boxing as an affirmation of his own insecurities surrounding his masculinity and self-image. Maggie Fitzgerald saw boxing as a means to escape her exploitative family and her own blue-collar purgatory. But what about Stoker Thompson, the working class hero from Robert Wise’s The Set-Up? What does he want? The man has been a boxer for most of his adult life. He’s 35 years old, hasn’t won a fight in years, and is scheduled to have a match against the rising superstar Tiger Nelson. Everyone expects him to lose. In fact, there are many who want him to lose. Stoker knows that this could very well be his last fight. So why does he box when the odds are so impossibly stacked against him?
Maybe it’s to escape the world that he inhabits. Stoker’s city is a tangled mess of dark alleyways and slums. Everyone is sweaty and greasy.
Only the local mobsters seem to have clean, unstained shirts. The masses who attend the matches aren’t much better, either. Rowdy off-duty sailors, disheveled businessmen, made-up streetwalkers clutching to their latest customers, and fat louts balancing hot dogs on their enormous guts call for blood.
The locker rooms where the various fighters prepare for their bouts reeks of desperation. Utilizing a real time narrative structure three years before it was popularized in High Noon (1952), the film keeps the audience largely contained in these lockers as they watch fighters get called up one-by-one for their fights. A young kid triumphantly rejoins his comrades after winning his very first fight in the wake of a minor nervous breakdown.
An enthusiastic older boxer with a cracked face only a couple of matches from hitting the big-time returns so badly beaten that he is rushed to the hospital.
Maybe it was here that Stoker found his motivation. But, maybe it was his wife, Julie. While Stoker prepares for his fight, she walks the mean, grimy streets around the boxing center. She hates that her husband has to fight. She’s tired of him being humiliated and used by the boxing industry. Stoker wants to make good so he can support them in the future. But Julie has begun to wonder if it is worth it. In a fantastic scene, she walks by a store with the radio turned on to the boxing matches. She hears that a boxer has just been brutally defeated, and her heart sinks. But then it is announced that this boxer was not Stoker and that his fight is coming up soon. Watch her relieved realization. At that moment, the spark of hope filled her heart.
Whatever Stoker’s reasons for fighting, one thing he didn’t count on was that everyone was counting on him to lose. His manager, Tiny, has made an arrangement with the mob for Stoker to take a dive. The only problem is that he never bothered to tell Stoker. He fully believed that Stoker would lose on his own. But he didn’t expect for Stoker to go for the glory one last time.
I mentioned that The Set-Up isn’t as much a boxing film as a psychological character study. But that doesn’t mean that the film doesn’t contain some of the best fighting footage ever featured in the genre. Ryan fight scenes are particularly authentic, probably in no small part to his being a boxing champion while studying at Dartmouth college. But more importantly, the fights aren’t just random flurries of punches and jabs. There’s a rhyme and rhythm to the fighting like a ballet. Each round of Stoker’s fight becomes symbolic of him overcoming his personal demons and doubts.
A word about the ending. Few times have I ever seen a film have an ending that was sad and uplifting at the same time. Don’t mistake that with an ending being bitter-sweet. The Set-Up ends with triumph and loss, punishment and salvation, humiliation and acceptance. This is a story about a man, after all...a man with everything to lose and nothing to win, except his own dignity.