The Fight Movie and Film Noir

The Set-Up 1949

The Set-Up (1949)

Film-maker David Mamet, in an interesting piece in today’s New York Times on his new film, Redbelt, about a movie fight director, has written eloquently on the fight movie and film noir:

Fight films are sad. There is nobility in effort, in discipline and, if not in suffering, in trying to live through suffering and endeavour to find its meaning… the fight film is a celebration of submission, which is to say, of loss. As such, it finds itself on the outskirts of my beloved genre of film noir. The punch-line of drama is “Isn’t life like that. …” But its elder brother, tragedy, is the struggle of good against evil, of man against the gods. In tragedy, good, and the gods, are proclaimed winners; in film noir, which is tragedy manqué, the gods still win, but good’s triumph gets an asterisk… The true story of any true fight must be sad. As Wellington said, “Nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won.”

Mamet explores this thesis that “All fighters are sad” by analysing the scenes featuring real-life fighters playing fighters in Jules Dassin’s Night And the City (1950) and Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956), and goes on to explore it more deeply in Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai (1954).

Surprisingly, Mamet does not mention two other films noir: Robert Rossen’s Body and Soul (1947), or Robert Wise’s The Set-Up (1949). The wrestlers in Night and the City and The Killing are not central characters, while in Body And Soul and The Set-Up, a boxer is the central character, and the tragedies played-out in these two movies more strongly evoke the existential angst of the ‘fight’. Indeed, The Set-Up as a real-time evocation of one fight, brilliantly confronts Mamet’s theme of the melancholy duality of winning and losing. Robert Ryan, also once a real-life boxer, as the aging fighter, “Stoker” Thompson, refuses to throw the fight and by winning loses when the heavies, who paid his trainer for the fall, cripple him in a dark back-alley outside the stadium.

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