The Set-Up May 11, 2015
A cheap thrill is a cheap kill, at the best of times and at the worst of times. In The Set-Up’s seedy palooza of sweaty promoters and grinning crooks, a couple of bucks for a pack of peanuts and a ticket to a fight is like a doctorate, a winning lottery card. The distraction of a blood-soaked beating is a relief. It’s an escape from the lower-class travesties of its patrons.
Is a dogfight just as cruel? As audience members eat their hot dogs like murderers and heckle with the gusto of a cannibalistic Ethel Merman, anything even suggesting humanity is about as relevant as an anorexic sewer rat. At a dogfight, at least the victims are put out of their misery. In a sordid boxing match, the repeated poundings disfigure the athletes until they are no longer men. They become meat, sitting alone and limp while surrounded by a pack of rabid wolves.
The Set-Up is a seminal boxing movie, setting the path for hard-hitters like Fat City and Raging Bull. Hollywood bullshit doesn’t plague its airwaves. Instead, the film takes place in what feels like a diamond of sleaziness, surrounded by accommodations like the Hotel Cozy and the Paradise City Center — the names are paradoxes. Paradise, coziness, anything in the way of conventional elation is nonexistent. The people in this city are lying to themselves; they attend boxing matches to feel powerful in a world that renders them powerless.
Stoker Thompson (Robert Ryan) has always been victorious in his field, but at 35, he’s considered to be a boxing veteran that people respect rather than bet on. The Set-Up sees him headlining his final match before finding a better life with his long-suffering spouse, Julie (Audrey Totter). But plaguing the couple are separate existential crises; Stoker is having trouble figuring out what he’ll do once he stops acting as a piece of meat for ravenous onlookers, and Julie doesn’t know how much longer she can stand by a man that puts his body before his soul.
The Set-Up takes place in real time, beginning at 9:05 and ending at 10:17 p.m. Those 72 minutes are some of the most visceral in film noir history, straining themselves with fierce fight sequences (the main event lasting over ten vivid minutes) while getting just deep enough under the skins of the characters to make a lasting impression. Though they usually distract themselves with broken promises and false smiles, The Set-Up finds them almost incapable of keeping up the masquerade any longer.
Perhaps Stoker’s characterization is marginally one-conventional — he only seems to be tortured when in the ring, when in danger — but it’s extraordinary how textural the characters feel, despite how quickly we get to know them. As we watch Julie wander around the city, avoiding the realities of the fight, something as simple as the tilt of the head is voluminous. Totter fleshes her out as a severely tormented woman torn between love and responsibility; there’s a feeling that she and Stoker have been together since they were teenagers. She stays with him out of obligation, out of worry that he’ll be beaten so harshly that he’ll live the rest of his life as a fractured vegetable.
Even the audience members seem to have their own backstory: one woman, beautiful but wrinkled, screams for more bruising action — she craves to see carnage as a way of needed catharsis. A man, overweight, sweating, and devouring a sausage like it’s his last meal, is the guy the girls ran away from in high school; after the fight, he probably masturbates himself to sleep, wishing he could be a Tiger Johnson, even a Stoker Thompson. Even in all his misery, he wouldn’t be so lonely.
The only problem with The Set-Up is that it’s much too short. It works scrumptiously as a quick, to-the-point short subject, but it’s so searing and so original that it’s only human to want more. A-