For all those people who thought Rocky losing the fight was too damn sentimental, I have a film for you. The Set-Up is an allegory for the chaos of life. The film takes place in realtime over the course of about an hour. We know it’s in realtime because we can see the clock in the opening and closing shots.
The main character is a man named Stoker (Robert Ryan). He is a boxer who hasn’t won a fight in a long time. To the sound of his alarm clock, he wakes at night in a hotel room with his wife played by Audrey Totter. She pleads with him not to go to work, but he does and leaves her a ticket to the match. As Stoker is crossing the street to the arena, he looks back to the hotel room and can see the light in the room. He will repeatedly check on that light from the locker room throughout the film as he is preparing for the fight.
He goes to get ready for the fight and we get to see other boxers as they prepare for and return from their fights. They are all hopeful about their fights even though they have as much chance as Stoker does to win. At the same time, Stoker’s wife leaves the hotel and walks the street trying to decide whether to attend the fight. She never comes to the fight, but all Stoker sees is that the light is out in the room and thinks she’s coming.
Stoker gets into the ring and sees his wife’s seat is empty. What follows is a fight where Stoker takes a beating. He isn’t losing, but he’s not exactly winning.
In between rounds his manager comes to him and tells him …
Let’s go back to the start of the film before Stoker wakes up in the hotel room. His manager takes money from a local mobster in order to have Stoker take a dive. The manager figures that’s no problem because Stoker always loses anyway. Why tell Stoker?
… Back ringside, Stoker is beginning to find the strength to win. That’s when the manager tells Stoker he needs to go down. If he doesn’t, they are going to be in real trouble.
Instead of losing, Stoker goes back into the match and wins the fight. His manger flees and soon after returning to the locker room, the mobster and his men pay Stoker a visit. They tell him that it doesn’t matter whether he knew or not. A service was paid for and it wasn’t delivered. The men go outside the building to wait for Stoker.
He tries to find a way out of the building, but they find him. They beat him unconscious and make sure to break his hand so badly that he’ll never fight again. After waking up, he stumbles out of the alley leaving streaks of blood on the wall as he goes. He collapses next to Paradise City, in front of the Dreamland arcade and ends up in his wife’s arms.
While my description of the film is accurate, it doesn’t show how director Robert Wise weaves chaos and fate into the small moments in addition to the main story. The best example is near the beginning of the film in the Dreamland arcade where a man is playing ‘The Claw’ game. It puts all those wonderful things in front of you. Let’s you try to pick them up with a mechanical claw on a wire. You rarely can pick anything up, but when you do your hopes soar. Then those hopes are crushed as the object slips out of your grasp and falls back into the pit. You can catch hold of your dreams and still have them taken away in the blink of an eye.
Another example is the newly weds who are having their picture taken at Dreamland. They are behind one of those boards where you stick your face through the hole. On the front of the board is some picture with roles that you fill in with your face. In this case, it’s the man who becomes a “Life Guard” carrying a girl. It’s sentimental to Stoker’s wife who sees it, but it’s also ominous. There are no people who are watching over you in marriage or elsewhere. Like Stoker and his wife, we are all at the mercy of fate and chaos.
Given the images above, I probably don’t have to tell you of Robert Wise’s mastery of the trappings of film noir. I just needed a reasonable excuse to show the next image. Stoker is looking in desperation for an escape when he runs down to the corner of the ring and stops. The boxing arena becomes a bulls eye with the far corner post singling out Stoker with it’s shadow. His fate is inescapable.
I love this film. If Rocky is a pick me up, then The Set-Up is a kick me down. It earns it’s unhappy ending rather than just having one. Many films screw up by having an ending that doesn’t arise out of what preceded it. Everything in this movie sets up the ending (pardon the pun). It’s my favorite example of the unhappy ending that works.