As a sub-genre of film noir, fight films usually reflected the conditions in which middle-class people struggled in conforming to the demanding forces which society enforced through depicting optimism in characters, while emphasizing individualism. As we see in The Set-Up, the photography captures a rugged realism which portrays a brutal and oppressive world. The theme of individualism is explored through a boxing environment, where the audience witnesses the main character’s struggle to try and live a lifestyle based on chance and luck as a long-time boxer. During the current time period, boxing was a way for those living with low income to have a chance to make it big. As a result, the film utilizes boxing as a metaphor for capitalism.
In the beginning of the film, we see a man selling programs, who is then overturned by another man selling programs, who mentions how he has to make a living for himself. This sets the stage for the individualistic approach, which director Robert Wise takes in suggesting that these two men cannot cooperate and it is one man for himself. Throughout the film there are many references toward the idea of chance and luck playing a major role in becoming successful. When Stoker is talking to Julie before he leaves for the fight, he tells her how he believes and feels like he is going to win. We can get an indication that he is relying somewhat on
faith; however, it is his illusion about his dream and what he wants in society which ultimately takes over. Later, he mentions to Julie that after he wins he will take out money for the cigar store they were planning to buy. In addition to this, when Stoker is getting ready in the dressing room, he comes across other fighters who are all discussing their need for luck with such statements, “It’s only a one in a million shot.” After one man says this, Stoker looks determined and cracks a smile and squeezes his fist. As we see Stoker having the idea that because of luck, things can change, and with all of the other references that the boxers display, the boxers stand as only a symbol for a loss of social reality.
While the fight begins between Stoker and Nelson, we are presented with many character roles which serve to represent how people act when confronted with competition. We see a young couple, where the woman is complaining that she hates fights because of how vicious they are, while as it turns out, she becomes aggressive as the fight pursues. We are confronted with a blind man who yells, “Blow his eyes out,” suggesting that he is bitter about the world because of his own health. In addition, we see an overweight man who constantly eats and drinks, and watches the fight in pure pleasure. In a metaphor, we can say he is feasting off the pain of others. We are also confronted with an old man who is not only attentively watching the fight, but has a radio glued to his ear listening to a baseball game. Each of these characters represent how fans become loyal to who is winning at the time. Along with this, the fights which happen inside the ring, are only exemplars of what the broader society is like. Not only because of the fact that there is a set-up, in which Stoker does not know about, but we see a statement being said about gambling, and the fact that there are kinds of beliefs for those who are not at the bottom of the social class, but not at the top. It indicates that when gamblers lose, it doesn’t make them want to stop as there is a need to keep up with social demands.
After Stoker holds his ground with Nelson, his manager is forced to tell him to take the dive, but Stoker eventually knocks Nelson out. When Stoker attempts to escape the threatening forces of Little Boy after the fight, he enters the boxing ring again and the area is completely isolated and there is a sense of entrapment as Stoker cannot find an open door. Confined in darkness, Stoker eventually manages to escape where Little Boy and his men are waiting for him. As we see Stoker about to get his hand broken, the camera shifts to a blank wall with the shadows of drums and all we hear is the music, emphasizing a violent realism, while Stoker then staggers out into the street where it appears as if no one cares to recognize what happened.
As Little Boy loses the fight but maintains his control by beating Stoker up, he stands as a social force. He is able to manipulate and break the rules, the way society works. While Stoker is laying on the ground with a bloody face, the couple above him are kissing and believe Stoker is some drunk passed out. In looking at this we can see the couple are placing themselves, literally, above Stoker and are insensitive to what Stoker has gone through. While we take chances in life, there are those people in power, who don’t need to take chances and already know the outcome. As such, the film portrays the boxing ring as a market economy, and behind the ropes are the people controlling the market.
The film served as a strong, if not primary influence on Martin Scorsese’s later film, Raging Bull. In knowing this, if you watch the fight scenes taking place within the boxing arena, you can clearly see a correlation in the visual manner and technique between the two films. Even though Scorsese might have emphasized the technical style in a more aesthetic fashion, in the Set-Up, the reality of the fights are just as powerful.