An enthusiastic Rocky fan, I was curious how the classic films on boxing would measure up. The Set-Up sounded intriguing because it was about the underworld attached to the sport, and shockingly, was based on a poem.
Let’s sit here and think about that for moment. A poem. Say it to yourself. Boxing. Poem. Can you put the two together? I sure couldn’t. But once I viewed the film, I did see a kind of poetry in it, and thought I’d say a few words about why this film is so moving and—yes, poetic. The Set-Up is about weighing choices, each of which shapes the film. The fact that the movie plays in the exact running time of the prep for and fight itself emphasizes the crucial timing of each decision…
Should a Manager Tell His Boxer He’s Fixed a Fight?
Manager Tiny (George Tobias) believes boxer Stoker Thompson will blow his match, satisfying mobster Little Boy (Alan Baxter), who has paid Tiny to fix the fight between Stoker and his favorite, Tiger Nelson (Hal Baylor). After all, Stoker is past his prime, and hasn’t been on a winning streak in quite some time.
If Tiny informs Stoker (Robert Ryan) about the fix, he will lose some of his cut. On the other hand, if Stoker doesn’t perform as expected, Tiny is in trouble with a mobster. Certain of his boxer’s ineptitude, Tiny considers neither the justice of his action, nor the danger it poses to Stoker. Only when his boxer shows spirit during the fight does Tiny begin to sweat—for himself.
Should An Aging Boxer Give Up The Sport To Please His Wife?
Stoker’s wife, Julie (Audrey Totter), proclaims her resolution to stop attending her husband’s fights. She wants him to quit. Stoker tries to convince her he’s almost done with the sport, but urges her to wait longer, until he can make a greater success. At the start of the movie, he keeps looking to her window and the chair he’s reserved for her at the fight; she wanders around the city trying to decide whether to go.
Clearly, Julie hates watching her husband get hurt, and worries about his survival. His love for her is painful to watch, as is hers for him. The problem is, all ambitions notwithstanding, Stoker also loves to fight. He enjoys the company of his fellow boxers, who thrive on hope, and rejuvenate his (comparatively) aging body and more resigned disposition with their energy and dreams.
How Long Should a Fighter Wait Before Abandoning that One Chance to Make It Big?
In the locker room, Stoker acts as a kind of patriarch to his peers, easing their nerves and encouraging their bravado. When a first-time boxer vomits before his first round, a trainer asks Stoker to admit it happens to everyone.
Yes, Stoker agrees aloud, recalling his own first bout, when he did the same: Trenton, NJ, 20 years before. Stoker’s face is poignant at the memory, back when he was as jubilant as the young men around him.
Among the many wonderful moments in the locker room, the best is perhaps the encounter between Gunboat and Stoker. Both aging fighters, both still trying to maintain ambition. Gunboat is inspired by a former middleweight champion who was beat 21 times before winning, a statistic he repeats to all who will listen, hoping his own record will soon resemble it.
“Can’t you see me, Stoke,” says Gunboat. “First I win the title, and then the exhibition tour, that’s where the easy dough is. I’ll be in the movie, Stokes, with a line of dames waiting for me a block long…”
When Gunboat returns from his fight unconscious, the camera pans over each fighter and trainer in turn, the fear and pain in all of their faces perfectly capturing the guts it takes to move from this moment, as several must do, to their own matches. And, of course, it presents Stoker with the inevitable question: Has he waited too long to quit?
What Spells the Difference Between Enjoying a Dangerous Sport, and Craving the Carnage?
The movie focuses in on just a few spectators the whole film, letting us see the fight between Stoker and Nelson through their often disturbing reactions. There’s the woman in the crowd who claims to hate matches, but reacts with glee when the fighting is most brutal, and grumbles when it’s not….
“Good,” his companion answers, and later yells at Nelson for not going for the eye again.
Stoker begins to suspect foul play when his manager keeps trying to convince him to ease up once he begins to win. The bout itself is riveting, moving from the match to those few members of the crowd we’re tracking.
Ryan boxed in college, which explains why his moves are so convincing onscreen, unlike those of many actors in boxing films since. The confusion, anger, betrayal, and uncertainty of how to handle this fix play on this talented actor’s face. Given his pride, his conflict over Julie, and his disillusionment, we aren’t sure just what Stoker will do….
How Faithful Should Filmmakers Be to the Source Material?
The Set-Up has been criticized for changing the race of the poem’s hero from black to white, and among the harshest detractors were the poem’s author, Joseph Moncure March. It’s easy to dismiss the director’s claim that this change was because RKO didn’t have an African-American star then. The date alone (1949) suggests less elevated motives, and the black fighter in the movie, Luther, is played by James Edwards, who starred in the award-winning Home of the Brave that very same year.
Luther is portrayed sympathetically, which suggests the same could have happened with a black leading man, and the kind of treatment Tiny doles out to his boxer would have darkened and deepened the meaning of the movie had they not shared the same race (not to mention more faithfully reflecting the boxing world at the time).
However, the poem’s author, Joseph Moncure March, according to scholar Jefferson Hunter, “attacks an injustice without fully understanding his own involvement in it” and “is more a denizen of his time and place than he knows.” That is, March referred to his hero as a “jungle jinx” and saddled him with bigamy and a prison record. Therefore, some changes needed to be made to the story, and given its audience’s likely prejudices, perhaps some might even have been a good idea. But what a film it would have been with a morally questionable fighter, and an exploration of race politics in the ring….