Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Set Up: One Punch Away...

One of my regular reads, the always engaging Noir of the Week, recently posted a commentary on one of my favorite noirs, Robert Wise's The Set Up. Although their write-up veers a little too close to verbatim summary, it also gives some good insight into the film's backstory. Probably the most memorable aspect of the film, 60 years later, is that it was filmed in (more or less) real time. That aspect works pretty well in building suspense and providing a semblance of reality, although I have to admit, the protagonist boxer Stoker Thompson (Robert Ryan) spends an excruciating amount of time changing into his shorts and gloves.

An example of Robert Wise's use of real-time and the long shot.

I figured I'd add some of my own thoughts to the mix, but, if you haven't seen the film yet: Beware. Spoilers ahead.

For Thompson, redemption is always just one punch away. He repeats that mantra to his wife, his manager, his cornerman and himself, as if sheer repetition will make it true. Like the amateur criminals that dwell in the shadows of film noir, Stoker yearns for something more than the sweat-stained towels of second-rate stadiums. With a measure of brute force, skill and dumb luck, he hopes to have one last shot at the title and the $500 it promises. The boxer, as portrayed in The Set-Up, becomes another tragic film noir protagonist who, despite having only tenuous links to criminal activity, falls prey to blind ambition.

Professional athletes aren't obvious candidates for the Walter Neff treatment. We've become accustomed to seeing them survive scandal and navigate the legal system with ease. Although shady women may scramble to spend one night in a basketball player's bed, seldom does it lead to anything more than an embarassing press conference and the ensuing tabloid feeding frenzy. Ask Kobe Bryant. Even athletes of the washed-up variety have Viagra commercials and used car lots to turn to. While the cliches surrounding private eyes and insurance salesmen typically involve back alleys and broken hearts, athletes are rarely subject to such fatalism.

While a baseball game could never serve as the backdrop to the real-time suspense of The Set-Up, an inherent tension present in boxing lends itself to such treatment. The prize fight consists of four rounds of equal time. When one fighter is laid flat on the mat, there is the countdown to the knockout and the inevitable—at least in cinema—last-minute resurrection. Time itself also imposes its own tension on the proceedings. At some point, a prize fighter will be too old to continue challenging fresh-faced upstarts.

There is immediacy to a boxing match that few sports can rival. Like many of the crimes perpetrated in film noir, boxing is an endeavor that rewards aggression. Even spectators are swept into the action: timid middle-aged women become hecklers and mild-mannered husbands beat the air with their fists. The fighters need to be able to both give and take a punch, to size up their opponents quickly and act with little concern for the consequences. Stoker pushes himself to the limit every night, despite the fact that he’s “blown 100 fights” according to his manager Tiny. Mrs. Dietrichson of Double Indemnity continues to kill in order to attain her goals; Stoker continues to take a beating in order to keep his dream alive.

The crowd is frothing with testosterone as Stoker Thompson looks on at the fight. He knows he will soon be on the other side; from a spectator to an an actor.

Before the audience gets a glimpse of Stoker, we know he has crossed that invisible divide between experienced boxer and aging has-been. After the camera passes a middle-aged man exclaims that he remembers seeing Stoker in the ring as a kid, Stoker’s ever-supportive wife entreats her husband to give up his foolhardy passion and open a cigarette stand. “I remember the first time you told me that,” she says, her back turned. “You were just one punch away from the title shot then.” This time, Stoker insists, is different. “They’re building this guy up,” he says of his 23-year-old opponent Tiger Nelson, “feeding him a lot of pushovers.” Deluded by the promise of glory, Stoker fails to see himself amongst those aforementioned pushovers. With no sense of irony, he presents Julie with a variation on the old chestnut: “if I could belt him solid just once…”

Even after learning that he must throw the fight, Stoker continues against seemingly insurmountable odds. “It’s better to play it safe and go the distance,” Tiny says, “than to get your head knocked off.” The closest people in his life are pleading with him to follow the safe road toward a safe life eking out a safe living. Stoker’s rebellion cements his position as a film noir hero. While the others play for the easy money and the comfortable life, Stoker dreams of the big score. Although his delusions aren’t as literal as Gunboat’s—believing he is Frankie Manilla, the underdog middle-weight champion of the world—they are no less potent in their influence and disastrous in their consequences. With little concern for what Little Boy will do, he continues to fight for his pride, his masculinity and the title run. To fail now, so close to the big score, would be the ultimate defeat.

Another element that aligns boxers with the noir hero is isolation. Whether they leave the ring victorious or require smelling salts to walk away under their own power, both boxers are alone in the ring. The Set-Up plays up this aspect of the sport through low-angle shots of the ring with no audience members in the frame. It’s just two men approaching the point of total exertion, trying to land that one solid punch that will fell the opponent.

For Stoker, the world recedes into darkness after the fight, as well. Tiny and Red abandon him as soon as Tiger Nelson hits the floor. The spectators immediately file out of stands. Gus and his assistant blow with one word from Danny. The lights are out in his hotel room—his wife isn’t with him and she isn’t waiting up for him. She may be picking up sandwiches, deciding to stand by her husband as he faces a slow descent, but Stoker doesn’t know that. With fear supplanting single-minded ambition, he dashes through the darkened arena, from door to door. He’s trapped inside the arena, forced to face whatever grisly end awaits.

Consumed by an impossible dream of personal glory and a shot at the big time that has escaped him, Stoker Thompson blinds himself to the trap he falls into. His solidarity with the film noir protagonist springs from this desperation and the tragic end it expedites. Although he never actively pursues a life of crime as a path to his dreams, the character flaws at his core leave him vulnerable to defeat. In some alternate movie universe, in which Stoker lost in the third round, the boxer is one punch away from returning to Julie a vegetable. And he, too, is a tragic hero in search of a film noir.
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