Diluted Noir: Robert Mitchum in THE RACKET (RKO 1951)

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A solid film noir cast headed by Robert Mitchum Robert Ryan , and Lizabeth Scott ; and a lineage that dates back to both a Broadway smash and an Oscar-nominated original can’t save THE RACKET from rising above minor status. Once again, tinkering behind the scenes by RKO honcho Howard Hughes, this time under pressure from Hollywood censorship czar Joseph I. Breen, scuttles a promising premise that coulda been a contender into an average movie.

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City crime boss Nick Scanlon is an old-school hood whose violent ways don’t jibe with the modern-day syndicate. Capt. Thomas McQuigg, “an honest cop” who’s a no-nonsense guy, is determined to take him down. But the city’s rife with tainted politicians, making McQuigg’s job that much harder. Scanlon’s got a headstrong kid brother named Joe dating a “cheap canary” named Irene, and McQuigg plans on using him to get to Nick. Add a crooked DA, a virtuous young cop on the rise, a newspaper reporter, and a detective on the take, and you’ve got a recipe for slam-bang gangland entertainment.

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Not so fast! Breen objected to several plot points, including Irene’s profession (she was supposed to be a hooker), some of the more violent aspects, and the fact that the bent detective gets away with murder. He called the film “a new low in crime screen stories” and “thoroughly and completely uacceptable within the provisions of the Production Code” (source: American Film Institute). Hughes and his producer Edmond Grainger made extensive changes, turning Irene into a nightclub singer, cutting out some violence, and making sure the bad guys get what’s coming to them. Sam Fuller was brought in to doctor the script, and Nicholas Ray, Tay Garnett, and Grainger himself reshot some scenes. The result is an average crime drama that, while still retaining some power, fails to rise above it’s restraints imposed by the Code.

Director John Cromwell and the stars of "The Racket"
Director John Cromwell and the stars of “The Racket”

Director John Cromwell had starred in the original 1927 Broadway production as McQuigg, along with a promising young actor named Edward G. Robinson. He knew the material better than anyone associated with this version, and must’ve been supremely disappointed at what they did with his film (Cromwell was soon to be blacklisted by the odious HUAC Commie hunters). William Wister Haines and W.R. Burnett’s tough-talking script was taken out of their hands and sanitized (Burnett also knew this territory, having penned the screenplays for LITTLE CAESAR, THE BEAST OF THE CITY , and SCARFACE). DP George Diskant’s camerawork retains some flashes of his brilliance, but nowhere near his work in THEY LIVE BY NIGHT or KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL.

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The performances by leads Mitchum and Ryan still hold up, with Ryan particulary brutal as the ruthless Nick. Scott’s role was changed so much it seems like she lost interest in it halfway through. William Talman is a good guy for once as the honest young cop who looks up to McQuigg, paying for it with his life. Ray Collins as the D.A in the pocket of the syndicate shines, as does William Conrad as the detective who acts as enforcer for the gangsters. The film’s loaded with Familiar Faces, including Robert Hutton as the reporter smitten with Irene, and Don Beddoe , Brett King, Harry Lauter, Eddie Parker, Don Porter , Walter Sande, Milburn Stone , Les Tremayne, and Herb Vigran .

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THE RACKET is okay for what it is, but when I think about what it could have been, I just shake my head. The early Fifties were a time of extreme paranoia in Hollywood, with both the censors and the Communist witch hunters clamping down on anything that didn’t jibe with their party line, making them just as bad as the other side. I haven’t seen the rarely-screened 1928 silent version (which lost the Oscar to WINGS), so I can’t really compare the two. What we’re left with is a film that’s like drinking a shot of watered-down booze; unsatisfying and in need of a stronger kick. If there’s any “classic” film in desperate need of a remake, this would be it. Are you listening, Hollywood?                 

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