The Bell

The Set-Up (1949)

The Set-Up (1949) | Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

The bell rings.

The boxer stands and moves towards his opponent, ready to start the fight. The crowd in the arena cheers. His trainer shouts instructions. He ducks and dodges, throws a left and then a right. Time ticks by.

The bell rings.

The clock starts ticking, and the boxer must, in Rocky’s words, “go the distance.” He has to stay standing longer than the other fighter. If he’s knocked down, he has until the count of 10 to get back up. Whatever the number of rounds in the bout, he only has so many to go, and with each successive ring of the bell, the amount of time he has left ticks away. Victory and defeat are determined by the boxer’s successful negotiation of the time he spends on his feet. If he fails to master time, he loses. If he bends time to his will, he wins. His arm is raised. The crowd cheers.

The conventions of the boxing film are so deeply ingrained that they have become clichés. Instantiated by the genre’s long history, but chiefly by Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky films, there is the underdog narrative, the training montage, the crusty but benign trainer, the doting wife who looks on helplessly while her husband gets pummeled, the crooked gangsters who want the fighter to go down in the sixth. The list goes on. The calcification of these tropes speaks to the boxing genre’s power; they’ve been making boxing movies for as long as cinema has been around, and they’re not all that different from one another, despite the radical differences in the world outside the cinematic ring.

The boxing film really codified into its most recognizable form in the late 1940s, where it coincided with the development of film noir in the postwar United States. A trio of classical boxing films established the boxer as a quintessential postwar protagonist: Body & Soul (Rossen, 1947), Champion (Robson, 1949), and The Set-Up (Wise, 1949). The boxer was a perfect noir anti-hero, navigating a world fraught with economic peril, negotiating with unsavory members of the criminal underworld, and, above all, doing battle against an environment out to crush him. Body & Soul, directed by Rossen and written by future blacklistee Abraham Polonsky, is a left-leaning parable that uses the sport as a metaphor for what the filmmakers saw as an unfair capitalist system that rewarded the ruthless and destroyed the weak. Champion is a dark story about the rise of a morally compromised fighter who reaches the pinnacle of the sport, basking in its glory, despite his horrible treatment of his brother, trainer, and wives.

The Set-Up is a 72-minute cinematic poem. Director Robert Wise, who cut his teeth in Hollywood as an editor, strips away many of the fight-film conventions that his contemporaries used quite liberally. There is no training montage, no meteoric rise and fall, no climactic bout between the fighter and his hated rival. Set in the cruelly named Paradise City, a backwater town populated by crooks and human detritus, its streets lined with garbage blowing in the wind, the film opens with a long shot of the street, the camera drifting past a clock on a post that reads 9:05. When the film concludes 70 minutes later, the camera floats back and the clock reenters the frame, reading 10:15. Wise uses clocks as a visual motif throughout the movie, but its real-time narrative device can almost slip by unnoticed. The story is brisk, unencumbered by the genre’s tendency to elevate its characters into heroes. This is one round of its boxer’s ongoing struggle. In this hour-and-change fight, he risks his pride, his body, his soul, his marriage, his future, and his life. Like many boxing films, The Set-Up makes its ring a metaphor for life itself; unlike other films in its genre, Wise’s film uses the part to stand in for the whole. In Wise’s hands, the round becomes the match and the moment becomes the lifetime.

The Set-Up (1949) | Warner Bros.

The bell rings.

The fighter at the center of the ring in The Set-Up is Bill “Stoker” Thompson (Robert Ryan), washed up and on the wrong side of 35. He’s waiting for his match with the much younger and stronger “Tiger” Nelson, against whom he’s almost sure to lose. His manager Tiny and trainer Red are so sure that he’s no match for Nelson, in fact, that they haven’t told Stoker that he’s supposed to take a dive at the behest of local gangster Little Boy. They don’t want to hurt Stoker’s pride, so they figure they can nurse him through a couple of rounds, and then Tiger will knock him out, and everybody will come out ahead. But Stoker has something to prove to his wife Julie (Audrey Totter), who is struggling with her desire to see her husband give up boxing. She’s tired of seeing him in the aftermath of a fight, punch-drunk and battered, and wants him to hang up his gloves before he does permanent damage to his brain or gets killed in the ring. Stoker wants to show his wife he still has what it takes to beat his opponent, and prove to himself that he’s not washed up. As a man who’s given his entire life to fighting, he can’t imagine himself doing anything else. When he looks in the mirror, he sees a fighter. If he can’t fight anymore, the bruised and battered face looking back at him will belong to a stranger.

The first half of the film follows Stoker from the hotel where he and Julie are staying to the locker room at the boxing arena, and a 20-minute sequence inside the ring plays out, like the rest of the film, in real-time, complete with four full three-minute rounds and breaks between. The film’s final 10 minutes take place after the fight, when Stoker’s choices come back to haunt him. In each of these sequences, Wise’s camera captures an entire world made up of desperate people, each grabbing at a piece of an elusive American Dream. The boxing arena at the center of Paradise City is its beating heart, but it’s badly clogged with arterial plaque. With such a brief running time, each character beat carries more weight; every moment the camera witnesses communicates an entire existence. People line the street, sizing each other up. That one looks like a sucker. Here’s a crook on the make. There goes a pickpocket. The air is thick with the hustles of a thousand hustlers. The carnival music and ka-ching of arcade games fill the space with noise, and flashing lights blink out the hope that one of these wasted deadbeats will win big. But the music and the ka-ching and the lights, they’re all lies. It’s a city-sized game of three-card monte, the queen always under the card you didn’t flip over. It ain’t no place for an honest boxer like Stoker, paradoxically trapped in cities like these, America’s undercard. The boxer is driven by the sense that he’ll make it big one day, fight in Madison Square Garden, and take the championship belt from a worthy opponent in a fair bout, besting his rival mentally, emotionally, and physically. But in order to get there, he has to fight his way out of this crooked maze of blind alleys and dead ends, guarded at every turn by wastrels looking to get one over on him. And all the while, he gets older. The clock ticks louder. Time slips away faster.

The bell rings.

On the street outside the arena, Wise finds little moments of poetry to encapsulate the film’s themes. In a traveling long take that introduces a few key supporting characters who will fill out the fight’s audience, Wise emphasizes the immediacy of time, which is running out for just about everyone in Paradise City. A craggy, older man selling newspapers, his voice hoarse and husky, is displaced by a handsome teenager who can belt. A small crowd is suddenly interested in buying papers from the young man, while the washed-up fella looks on, his expression betraying the defeat he feels. A few other denizens of Paradise City gather around the poster advertising the night’s lineup, one of them amazed that Stoker, who he remembers from when he was a kid, is still fighting.

Paradise City is a place where the promise of the American Dream still lingers, but its light is growing dimmer all the time. Inside the city’s arcade, Dreamland, a few dreamers dump money into a claw machine, only to watch the item slip through the claws and tumble back into the mess of unattainable trinkets below. These people cling to the faintest hope that they’ll win something, because that’s their ticket out. But if they were going to earn their living, it would have happened by now. If the American Dream was ever within reach, then surely, they would have grabbed onto it by this point. There’s no longer any possibility of “when,” so they pin their uncertain futures on “if.” They gamble. Nearly everyone in the arena has money on one of the fights, each of these desperate people trading nickels around, nobody really gaining, nobody really losing. The people here are out of time.

The Set-Up (1949) | Warner Bros.

The bell rings.

Inside the locker room, each fighter is confronted with his own place in time. A kid about to step into the ring for his first fight runs to the toilet to vomit out of nervousness. When the other fighters reassure him that it happens to everyone their first time, Stoker recalls his own first fight back in 1928, in Trenton, New Jersey. Ryan’s soulful performance fills this moment with all the years between then and now, making you feel every punch he’s taken in every ring in every arena across the country; all the victories, all the defeats, all the glory, all the pain.

Another fighter, Gunboat Johnson, permanently punch-drunk, goes on and on about Frankie Manila, a fighter who he says lost 21 times in a row before he became middleweight champion of the world. The other fighters know the story of Frankie Manila, and they know how Gunboat sees himself in that story, adopting the past to visualize his future. Just like in the ring itself, Gunboat knows somewhere, deep in his punched-out head, that he has to get his arms around the clock. The other fighters have had the same thoughts. One punch, and I can take him. One good round, and I can outlast him. One good fight and I’ll be back on the way up again. One good streak and I’ll get my title shot. Gunboat, face scarred and ears cauliflowered, believes he’s just like Frankie Manila, one win away from glory. He goes out to prove it, but Wise austerely doesn’t show him in the ring. Stoker is still in the locker room waiting for his own fight when Gunboat is carried in unconscious, having lost his bout in the second round. When the doctors manage to bring him around, he’s convinced he is Frankie Manila. He’s slipped entirely into the past, where he preserves his own future. His addled mind can’t face the present, with its opportunities foreclosed, doors slammed shut. When Stoker looks at Gunboat, he knows he’s seeing his own potential future. It’s not hard for him to imagine a world where he’s carried in to a locker room, babbling and broken. He’s about to step in the ring, knowing it’s all on the line. This is his last chance. Time is running out.

Stoker is waiting to fight, but he’s also watching out the window, waiting for the light in his hotel room to click off. Then, he’ll know that Julie is really coming to see him fight, despite her insistence that she would not. When the room finally does go dark, he smiles and starts to wrap his hands, comforted that Julie will be in the crowd to watch him. But she is walking the streets, trying to work up the courage to go in the arena, unable to overcome the disgust she knows she’ll feel watching Stoker take a brutal beating from a fighter nearly half his age. She can’t take the imagined pain. She won’t sit there, helpless, waiting for the clock to tick past and the punishment to stop. When Stoker finally enters the ring, he sees an empty seat where she was supposed to be.

The bell rings.

The match itself is relatively unadorned, bereft of the more ostentatious stylistic choices that dominate the boxing sequences of many films that followed. In the boxing film genre, one of the key decisions a director must make is how to shoot the fight sequences. Martin Scorsese rewrote these rules in 1980 with Raging Bull, shooting each of the boxing matches differently. He manipulated sound effects, used slow motion, varied ring size, edited in a staccato that matched the pace of punches, and craned the camera over the squared circle. Wise takes a much more neo-realist approach, choosing not to distort time or space, but to largely shoot the fight from the perspective of a spectator. The camera is frequently outside the ring, looking up through the ropes at the fighters as they dance around each other.

Wise also uses this approach to critique the spectators themselves, turning his camera on a variety of grotesque caricatures who have come to see the night’s fight card. A middle-aged woman shouts “kill him!” at the fighters, much to her husband’s shock. Another woman, much younger, watches the fight in horror while her young husband shadowboxes in his seat, vicariously feeling every blow and throwing every hook. An enormous man eats constantly; each time Wise cuts back to him, he’s shoving another greasy piece of food into his face. Another man holds a radio to his ear, his attention divided between a baseball game and the boxing match in front of him. A blind man listens to his friend’s descriptions of the fight’s action, and he switches his loyalties seemingly with every traded punch; when his friend says that Stoker’s eye is opened up and bleeding, the blind man snarls, “Good. Good.” One imagines a whole external life for these characters, none of whom are named, all of whom feel like representative denizens of this forgotten place. In Paradise City, idle hours let its inhabitants get up to the devil’s work. Few other boxing films place so much emphasis on the crowd itself, but in doing so, Wise highlights the disparity in stakes between the fighter in the ring and the audience watching him. Stoker is fighting for everything. The crowd risks nothing. A few bucks. An evening’s entertainment. For the audience, this is one moment out of many, each relatively equal in importance. For the boxer, this is the moment—the only one he has.  

In this brutal arena where favor is won and lost moment-to-moment, the fickle crowd boos the ring announcer when he refers to them as “Ladies and gentlemen.” They have come to see punishment, and they react violently when fights end before their prescribed four rounds. They repeatedly chant “Let them fight!” when the referee tries to stop the action out of concern for an injured fighter. Wise’s camera refuses to look away from the violence of the ring, but stares unblinkingly at the savagery of the crowd, too. These are people consumed by the present moment, brought to roaring life by the brutality of the ring. For three minutes at a time, they forget their own troubles and watch another punished for his failures.

Time is finite. Each of us is granted only so much, and it must be spent wisely. The boxer, for whom time is everything, feels this pull of the clock more acutely. Like a car depreciating in value the moment it is driven off the lot, the boxer’s body will eventually betray him. After getting knocked down, Wise gives Stoker a rare first-person point of view shot, his eyes coming into focus on a billboard in the arena that reads, “Over 35?” His clock is ticking. His opponent is younger, faster, stronger. Stoker will be displaced by time, but between the mocking advertisement and the anonymous shouts from the crowd calling him “old man” and asking “where’s your wheelchair?” everything conspires to make that inevitable decline personal. It’s Stoker’s fault for allowing time to do its work.

The Set-Up (1949) | Warner Bros.

The bell rings.

Before the fight’s final round, with time to take the dive running out, Tiny tells Stoker that he’s supposed to go down. Stoker refuses, and after narrowly avoiding a 10-count after being knocked to the canvas, he roars back and decks Tiger with a sledgehammer right. Nelson is out, Stoker wins, and his so-called friends scatter, afraid of retribution from Little Boy.

The film’s final sequence plays out in a darkened, empty arena, as Stoker races to escape before Little Boy and his goons catch up with him. Even in his moment of triumph, the clock begins ticking again. When the thugs eventually find him in the alley and smash his right hand with a brick, ending his career, it is the final judgment of the clock. Even though Stoker momentarily found a way to regain control over time in the ring, outside the boxing arena, it catches up with him.

From the hotel room window, Julie sees Stoker stagger into the street, his hand folded into his suit jacket. She runs to him and holds him, calling to the gathered onlookers to send for an ambulance. He’s delirious, and she comforts him. He says, “I won, Julie. I won.” Julie, knowing that his career is over, nods, and through tears says “We both won.”

The lingering, drifting camera shot that closes the film, the clock on the right side of the frame tipping the real-time structure, plays out without a triumphant final score. There is no great victory here. There is no flourish. Though Julie believes they’ve won, the emptiness of this final moment, the clock dominating the frame, calls that into question. Yes, she has her husband back, and he’ll no longer be able to fight. But what else will he do? What kind of work will a washed-up fighter be able to get? What does a man do when the only thing he’s ever done is taken away from him?

Despite the sport’s declining popularity in the United States over the past 40 years, the boxing film remains a relevant vehicle for examination of the human condition. The recent Creed-driven reinvigoration of the Rocky franchise, along with Antoine Fuqua’s Southpaw in 2015 and Ben Younger’s Bleed For This in 2016, demonstrate that there is something timeless about the boxing film. Their narratives, which foreground the individual’s struggle against the odds, transcend era. Though American society may no longer be interested in boxing, the sport, its cinematic iteration remains alive and well. Boxing films are about men (with Karyn Kusama’s Girlfight in 2000 and Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby in 2004 notable exceptions). These men fight to overcome their self-doubt. They step into the ring to defeat their opponents, against whom they compete to prove their own worth. They lace up their gloves to win money. They throw punches to release the anger that drives them through their lives outside the ring. They take punches to mitigate their self-loathing. But in the ring, the boxer’s real enemy is time.

That’s what we all think about when we hear the bell. The alarm bell that tells us to wake up in the morning. The school bell that tells us it’s time to get to class. The doorbell that tells us our date is waiting outside. The wedding bell that tells us we’ve found the one we love. The bell, the last one, that tolls for us all, sooner or later. Who am I? Have I been who I wanted to be? Have I spent my time the way I wanted to spend it? Have I used my time to be with the ones I love?

The bell rings.