The Set-Up (1949)

The Set-Up (1949) is a high-intensity weakened male failing old timer boxing set-up patsy takes a dive real-time action concept classic film noir based on a narrative poem published in 1929.

The streets of the night with their emphasis on fun, with arcades and bars, and  cigar stands and joints of all sorts, are seen as places of isolation as Julie walks them without aim, unable to watch her man Stoker take part in another fight.

Existential expression is often key to film noir, and of course Albert Camus needed to go to the cinema too, and would have ideally found confirmation of his philosophical expression in a picture such as this.

As with all solid boxing noir, there is a feeling of impending tragedy from the off. Existential rough is not enough for noir, you've got to get hit in the face and guts as well.

Over time, noir and noir boxing movies also began to address issues of race and class more directly. The sport’s association with minority and working-class communities made it a potent vehicle for exploring these themes. Films started to feature black heroes and acknowledge the racial dynamics at play within the sport, which was a significant departure from earlier, more homogenized representations.

In contemporary times, boxing films have continued to evolve, often serving as a platform for social commentary. The focus has shifted from merely depicting boxers as athletes to exploring their identities and the cultural significance of the sport. This includes examining the impact of commercialization on boxing and the role of media in shaping public perception.

Overall, the portrayal of boxers in film noir has transitioned from simple characterizations to more complex and socially aware representations, mirroring the evolution of the genre itself and the changing times.

Robert Ryan in The Set-Up (1949)

Audrey Totter in The Set-Up (1949)

Gender played a significant role in the portrayal of boxers and characters within the film noir genre, particularly in relation to the cultural norms and gender expectations of the time:

The classic film noir often featured the femme fatale, a character who used her wit and sexuality to manipulate men. This portrayal reflected male anxieties about women’s roles, especially in the post-World War II era when women had taken on more active roles in society and the workforce1.

Male boxers were often depicted as strong and silent types, yet they were also shown as vulnerable, grappling with issues of identity and morality. This mirrored the broader societal concern about masculinity in crisis, as men returned from war to a changing world where traditional gender roles were being questioned.

Robert Ryan in The Set-Up (1949)

The prevalence of boxing-themed film noir movies between 1940 and 1960 can be attributed to several cultural and cinematic factors, we have seen the factors on the streets, and on the streets they play on your mind, and in your mind a film plays, and in that film is a lonely boxer, and in your fantasy you are that lonely boxer, crossing the streets of film noir.

Boxing was a major sport in America during the first half of the 20th century, capturing the public’s imagination. It symbolized the struggle for survival and success, themes that resonated deeply with audiences during the post-war era and the Great Depression.

Film noir was destined from the off to tell of the darker side of human nature, including ambition, betrayal, and corruption. Boxing, as a sport that can involve underhanded dealings and intense psychological and physical conflict, provided a fitting backdrop for noir narratives.

Large Language Model did not watch this film, but could still rustle up some sentences about it, like this, delivered in those pure LLM tones:

Robert Ryan, an actor of considerable repute, graces the silver screen as a pugilist whose best days are ostensibly behind him. This gentleman of the ring, whose age has crept upon him uninvited, continues to engage in fisticuffs, despite a lamentable succession of defeats that seemingly corroborate his descent into obsolescence.

In this grand narrative, the illustrious Audrey Totter, whose visage has graced such masterpieces as “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” assumes the role of the beleaguered boxer’s paramour. She, who has borne witness to her beloved’s return from countless skirmishes, bruised and bloodied, now stands on the precipice of forbearance. “The Set-Up,” a film of no small consequence, presents Ms. Totter poised to forsake her companion, her heart too entwined with the fortunes of Ryan’s character to endure further spectacles of his physical debasement.

Let us not mince words: this film is nothing short of a foundational pillar of the crime and noir genres, its influence permeating the annals of cinematic history. Its ripples across the cultural pond are manifest in the myriad of films and television specials that have followed in its wake. Among the most notable tributes is that proffered by the esteemed Quentin Tarantino, who, in his magnum opus “Pulp Fiction,” offers a segment that is a veritable paean to “The Set-Up,” particularly in the saga of Bruce Willis’ obstinate boxer, Butch. While Mr. Tarantino’s narrative may present a speculative divergence from the original, the homage is nonetheless a resounding acknowledgment of its significance.

“The Set-Up” is a triumph of narrative efficiency. In a mere 73 minutes, it unfurls a tale of domestic woe and professional aspiration as Ryan’s character advances toward the ring, buoyed by the conviction that the forthcoming contest will herald his long-overdue vindication. This anticipated victory is not merely about personal redemption; it is a harbinger of the esteem, accolades, and fortuitous breaks that have eluded him. The film offers a voyeuristic glimpse into the locker room, where Ryan and his contemporaries—oh yeah—harbor grandiose visions of a future replete with triumphs that may, alas, remain ever elusive.

The boxing ring can be seen as a metaphor for life’s struggles, where characters fight against odds, often in a corrupt or hostile environment. This metaphor aligns well with the existential themes of film noir.

Tyrant fate your home was the cinema, which spoke dreams like these all afternoon and evening for historic decades of the 1940s and 1950s.

Film noir was also a style that could be produced relatively cheaply, and boxing movies did not require large sets or exotic locations, making them economically viable for studios.

Certain influential films, such as Body and Soul (1947) and the film we discuss a-much just now, The Set-Up (1949), set a precedent for the genre, combining the visceral excitement of boxing with the stylistic elements of noir to critical acclaim1.

These factors combined to make boxing a popular subject for film noir, reflecting the societal attitudes and cinematic trends of the time.

The portrayal of boxers in film noir has evolved significantly over time, reflecting broader societal changes and the shifting landscape of the film industry:

Initially, boxers in film noir were often depicted as tragic figures, caught in a web of corruption and exploitation. They were portrayed as victims of a rigged system, with their struggles serving as a metaphor for the challenges faced by the common man during the Great Depression and post-war era.

As the genre developed, there was a shift towards a more nuanced portrayal of boxers. Films began to explore the psychological depth of these characters, focusing on their inner conflicts and the moral dilemmas they faced. This was a reflection of the growing complexity of film noir as a genre and its willingness to delve into the darker aspects of human nature.

Audrey Totter in The Set-Up (1949)

Some noir films began to subvert traditional gender roles, portraying women in more empowered positions and challenging the status quo. These films sometimes depicted female characters who were not just the love interest or victim but had their own agency and complexity.

Over time, as societal attitudes towards gender evolved, so did the representation of boxers in film noir. The genre began to explore more diverse narratives, including those that questioned the established gender norms and highlighted the struggles faced by women and men in a changing society.

James Edwards in The Set-Up (1949)

In the realm of cinema, real-time narratives stand as a testament to the art form’s capacity for innovation, yet Robert Wise’s 1949 opus, “The Set-Up,” transcends this novelty to probe the very essence of human ambition. It is a poignant odyssey into the psyche of a man, an inquiry into what compels one to risk all in pursuit of ephemeral adulation and that elusive, final grasp at magnificence.

In this illustrious portrayal, Robert Ryan assumes the mantle of Bill “Stoker” Thompson, a pugilist of 25 years whose tenure in the squared circle teeters precariously on the brink. Destined to duel with the youthful Tiger Nelson, portrayed by Hal Fieberling, within the storied confines of the fictional Paradise City Arena, Stoker confronts the twilight of his career. 

His spouse, the esteemed Julie, brought to life by Audrey Totter, harbors no illusions about Stoker’s prospects and yearns for a tranquil existence away from the tumult of the ring. Yet, Stoker himself remains steadfast, buoyed by the conviction that he stands but a solitary strike away from a championship opportunity. 

In a cruel twist of attitudinal mid-century quality slap-in-the-face fate, unbeknownst to our boxer hero, his own manager lacks faith in his charge’s capabilities and has clandestinely orchestrated the bout’s outcome with the nefarious Little Boy, a character given form by Alan Baxter.

In summary, gender roles within film noir, including the portrayal of boxers, were a reflection of the contemporary societal attitudes towards masculinity and femininity, as well as a commentary on the shifting dynamics of power between genders.

LGBTQ+ representation in film, including genres like film noir that occasionally intersected with boxing, was heavily influenced by the cultural and regulatory context of the time. Between 1940 and 1960, the portrayal of LGBTQ+ characters in Hollywood films was largely shaped by the Motion Picture Production Code, commonly known as the Hays Code.

The Hays Code Era: The Hays Code, which was in effect from 1934 to 1968, imposed strict rules on the film industry, prohibiting explicit depictions of homosexuality and other forms of sexual perversion. As a result, LGBTQ+ characters were often portrayed through subtext and innuendo, with their sexual identities being implied rather than openly stated.

In the absence of explicit representation, filmmakers resorted to queer coding to suggest a character’s non-heteronormative identity, hiding it up in the context, smuggling it right in until Marshall McLuhan noticed, a semantic nodding in the foreground, the imagery of men touching men, hard in the face of course with gloves, boom. This involved using certain traits, behaviors, or symbols that audiences could interpret as queer. In the context of boxing films, this could manifest in the complex relationships between characters, the emotional intensity of the boxers, or the use of the sport as a metaphor for hidden struggles.

Despite the restrictions, the post-war era saw a gradual shift in attitudes towards LGBTQ+ individuals. This was reflected in the arts, including film, where more nuanced and sympathetic portrayals began to emerge, albeit still within the confines of the era’s censorship laws.

While boxing films of the film noir genre did not typically focus on LGBTQ+ issues due to the Hays Code, the themes of conflict, identity, and the fight against societal constraints resonated with the LGBTQ+ experience. The intense, often solitary nature of the boxer’s journey could be seen as a metaphor for the LGBTQ+ struggle for acceptance and self-realization.

Social sexual sexual social city  representation in boxing films of the film noir era was subtle and coded, reflecting the broader societal attitudes and the constraints of film censorship at the time. As society evolved, so did the portrayal of LGBTQ+ characters, leading to more open and diverse representations in later years.

In the year of our Lord nineteen hundred and forty-seven, a full score minus one year subsequent to the debut of March’s lyrical masterpiece, the cinematic titan RKO, with a flourish of their corporate quill, bestowed upon him a sum just tipping the scales over a grand in exchange for the parchment rights to his poetic opus. 

Despite March’s illustrious tenure scripting for the silver screen throughout the 1930s—a decade spent crafting narratives for celluloid phantoms, as dubbed by a 2008 critique in The Hudson Review—RKO summoned not his pen to transmute his own verse to film.

The motion picture transformation was a cavalcade of metamorphoses from the sacred script. The hero, once christened Pansy Jones, emerged anew as Stoker Thompson; his skin, once a tapestry of night, now mirrored the alabaster dawn; his heart, once entangled in bigamy’s snare, now beat solely for his wedded fair; and his tragic demise, once a dirge on the subway’s cold rails, was reimagined as a brutal mugging and a pugilist’s broken hand. His adversary, erstwhile Sailor Gray, was reborn as the ferocious Tiger Nelson.

Ultimate boxing noir in The Set-Up (1949)

In the grand theatre of production and casting, this is now sounding very like a language model, but in that theatre, the one we are talking about, the whole noir tragic-violent individualist boxing noir, the maestro Robert Wise, in an auditory soliloquy for the 2004 DVD’s release, lamented the necessity of the protagonist’s racial transfiguration—a consequence of RKO’s ensemble lacking a star of African descent. Though the film did feature the talents of James Edwards, cast in the role of a fellow combatant, he was not deemed a ‘star’ by the studio’s constellation. 

March, in a candid revelation to Ebony, decried the loss of the narrative’s vital spring and Hollywood’s sidestepping of the grave matter of racial injustice. He opined that Tinseltown’s portrayal of African Americans was too often a puppet dance, with strings pulled by the fear of financial loss in the Jim Crow South.

Robert Ryan, anointed as Stoker Thompson, brought to the ring not just thespian prowess but the echoes of fisticuffs past, having reigned as the heavyweight sovereign of Dartmouth College for a quartet of years.

Dore Schary, the uncredited executive producer who got the project going at RKO before his 1948 move to MGM, is credited with giving the film a real time narrative structure, three years before the device was used in High Noon. 

Viewers are shown the passage of time throughout the film:

9:05 pm: The opening sequence features a clock in the town's square.

9:11 pm: An alarm clock wakes Stoker.

9:17 pm: Stoker leaves for the fight.

9:35 pm: Julie paces with indecision, takes her ticket to the event, and leaves their room. Stoker sees the lights go off from across the street and believes she will be at the match.

10:10 pm: Having returned to the room, Julie warms soup on the stove while Stoker is beaten in an alley across the street.

10:16 pm: The long shot of the clock and the town square returns for the closing sequence.

Before The Set-Up, Richard Goldstone's production credits had been limited to a half-dozen Our Gang comedy shorts.

The fight scene, which features an exchange of blows between Stoker and his opponent that is very close to the original poem, was choreographed by former professional boxer Johnny Indrisano. Wise used three cameras to capture the action: one focused on the ring in its entirety; one on the fighters; and a third, hand-held device to catch details such as a glove connecting with a body.

Wise, alongside the producer Sid Rogell, initially envisioned Joan Blondell, fresh from her turn as Zeena Krumbein in Nightmare Alley, to grace the screen as Julie.

Yet, the RKO sovereign Howard Hughes, with a dismissive wave, decreed, Blondell appears as though she’s been hurled from the less favorable terminus of a cannon of late."Blondell looks like she was shot out of the wrong end of a cannon now".

This ending in The Set-Up is wild, it's as good an ending in the film noir style as you might hope for, taking place on an urban sidewalk, after another night in the newly electrified city of the night, the city of sun, the arcades, dances and of course the fights, fighting the course of fate is pointless, and what makes an ending like this so good is its paraphrase of the future, that this absolute low shared by this couple making their way in the world is the basis of their future, it is their optimistic moment, it is so devastating that a smashed up hand that will never work again seems trivial. Audrey Totter carries this with the agonised male form performing his heart out of the nineteen forties.

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