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?                 

Cleaning Out the DVR Pt 9: Film Noir Festival Redux

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Welcome back to the decadently dark world of film noir, where crime, corruption, lust, and murder await. Let’s step out of the light and deep into the shadows with these five fateful tales:

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PITFALL (United Artists 1948, D: Andre DeToth) Dick Powell is an insurance man who feels he’s stuck in a rut, living in safe suburbia with his wife and kid (Jane Wyatt, Jimmy Hunt). Then he meets hot model Lizabeth Scott on a case and falls into a web of lies, deceit, and ultimately murder. Raymond Burr  costars as a creepy PI who has designs on Scott himself. A good cast in a good (not great) drama with a disappointing ending. Fun Fact: The part of Scott’s embezzler boyfriend is played by one Byron Barr, who is not the Byron Barr that later changed his name to Gig Young.  

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THE BRIBE (MGM 1949, D:Robert Z. Leonard) Despite an A-list cast, this tale of a G-man (boring Robert Taylor ) assigned to break up a war surplus smuggling racket is as tedious as Taylor’s monotone voice overs. Agent Rigby is sent to the island town of Carlotta, off the coast of Central America, to crack the ring responsible for illegally selling airplane engines. He falls in love with married nightclub singer Ava Gardner (who can blame him?), whose booze soaked hubby (John Hodiak) is a major suspect. The oppressive heat in Carlotta seems to make the film’s players sluggish, like the movie itself. Obvious bad guys Charles Laughton and Vincent Price engage in a ham-slicing contest, with a slight edge going to Laughton here. Fun Fact: I couldn’t watch this without being reminded of the superb noir send-up DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID, which borrows some of this movie’s names (Rigby, Carlotta) and many of it’s scenes. Watch that instead of  THE BRIBE, it’s a lot more fun!

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THE WINDOW (RKO 1949, D: Ted Tetzlaff) This taut little thriller became a major hit for RKO, and child star Bobby Driscoll won a special Oscar for his performance as a 9 year old who likes to tell tall tales witnessing a murder. No one believes him, not his parents (Arthur Kennedy , Barbara Hale) or the cops, and he’s punished by Mom and Dad. Dad works nights and Mom’s called away to visit her sick sister, so little Tommy gets locked in his room overnight, and the killers who live upstairs (Paul Stewart, Ruth Roman) come to get him. The chase through an abandoned building is gripping, and former DP Tetzlaff (MY MAN GODFREY, NOTORIOUS) ratchets up the suspense. Filmed on location in NYC (a novelty in those days) and based on a Cornell Woolrich short story, THE WINDOW is unique, entertaining, and well worth watching. NOT SO FUN FACT: Disney star Bobby Driscoll (SONG OF THE SOUTH, TREASURE ISLAND, voice of PETER PAN), unable to shake the child star label, became a hopeless drug addict, drifting through a life of arrests and addiction. In the mid-60’s, he was briefly associated with Andy Warhol’s Factory group of underground filmmakers. Sometime early in 1968, he died alone in an abandoned New York tenement house. The body wasn’t identified, and Driscoll was buried in a pauper’s grave. His mother, seeking Bobby in 1969, asked the police for help, and through fingerprints he was finally ID’d. Bobby Driscoll was 31 years old.

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THE HITCH-HIKER (RK0 1953, D: Ida Lupino) Fear is the theme of this dark, disturbing psychological tale based on the true story of serial killer Billy Cook. Director Lupino cowrote the script with producer hubby Collier Young, about two pals on a fishing trip (Frank Lovejoy, Edmond O’Brien) who pick up a hitchhiking killer (William Tallman), and are taken hostage and forced to do his bidding. Extremely tense drama enhanced by Nicholas Musuraca’s camerawork, and a chilling performance from Tallman as Emmett Myers, as cold-blooded a killer as there is in noir. His deformed, unblinking dead eye will give you nightmares! O’Brien is also outstanding here, as usual. Fun Fact: Tallman is of course best known to audiences as perennially losing DA Hamilton Burger on TV’s long-running PERRY MASON, where he was outwitted every week by noir icon Raymond Burr.

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THE PHENIX CITY STORY (Allied Artists 1955, D: Phil Karlson) Another true story, this one of corruption in a small Alabama town ruled by gambling, prostitution, dope peddling, and murder. The unique prologue features real-life newsman Clete Roberts interviewing some of the locals, including the widow of slain Attorney General candidate Albert Patterson. Then the story unfolds, as Patterson (John McIntyre) refuses to get involved in the efforts to clean up the town. When son John (Richard Kiley) returns home, he does, and finally the older man relents, after the violence escalates to include the murder of a child, and a family friend. That violence is shockingly brutal for the era, and realistically handled onscreen by director Phil Karlson, who’d later helm another Southern crime tale, WALKING TALL. Screenwriters Crane Wilbur (HOUSE OF WAX) and Daniel Mainwaring (OUT OF THE PAST, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS) pull no punches, and supporting actors Edward Andrews, Kathryn Grant (the future Mrs. Bing Crosby), James Edwards , Jean Carson (one of the “Fun Girls” from THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW) and John Larch are all top-notch. Don’t miss this one! Fun Fact: This is one of Martin Scorsese’s favorite movies, and there are plenty of examples of it’s influence on his films to keep an eye out for here!

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A Soggy Bowl of PULP (United Artists 1972)

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They had the hook in me, and I was caught like a large mouth bass. The bait was the stuff my dreams were made of, a heady concoction of gangsters and femmes fatale, of faded Hollywood stars and references to Mickey Spillane and Ross MacDonald. I had let my guard down and plunged headlong into the trap, forgetting you can’t judge a book by its cover, especially one luridly titled PULP.

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It all started so promisingly. I was introduced to Mickey King, a second-rate English hack writing under the pseudonym “Guy Strange”, scribbler of paperback trash like “Kill Me Gently” and “My Gun is Long”. Mick’s paid a visit by a gravel-voiced goon called Dinuccio, a Neanderthal throwback who hires the wordsmith to ghost a biography for his mysterious boss. Next thing Mickey knows, he’s on a tour bus and told he’ll be contacted. An American named Miller could be the one, but Miller soon turns up dead, knifed in a bathtub that was supposed to be Mickey’s. The room gets cleaned and the body vanishes, and Mickey’s met by Liz Adams, a gorgeous young dame whose sugar daddy is none other than ex-Hollywood movie gangster Preston Gilbert.

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It’s Preston who summoned Mickey, eager to tell his story before he goes to meet his maker. Mickey’s taken to the old ham’s island villa to work on the bio. Dinuccio’s there too, and after a week passes, they return to the mainland. Preston goes back every year to commemorate his father’s death, but this year he joins pop as he gets rubbed out by a priest. Mickey’s told Preston held a deep, dark secret involving an old scandal, and the powers that be want to keep it very confidential, hush-hush, and on the QT. The writer in Mickey won’t let it rest in peace though, and he discovers that truth can be stranger than fiction.

PULP runs out of steam quicker than a broken iron. Writer/director Mike Hodges had made the previous year’s GET CARTER, a British gangster saga that was a hit on both sides of the ocean. He reteamed here with CARTER’s star Michael Caine , but the film doesn’t quite gel. Most of the blame goes to Hodges’ meandering script, which starts out so good before fizzling like a wet firecracker. Caine (who also produced) is fine as the purveyor of potboilers caught up in this mess, but the material he’s given isn’t up to par.

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Mickey Rooney plays Preston Gilbert, and he’s… well, subtle he ain’t! Rooney had a tendency to go over the top, which works for slapstick farce like IT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD , but in this he needed to be more reigned in by director Hodges. Screen vets Lionel Stander (Dinuccio) and Lizabeth Scott are on hand, but aren’t given much to work with. Nadia Cassini (Liz) was known mostly for her Italian sex farces. Al Lettieri (Sollozo in THE GODFATHER) appears all too briefly as Miller. Dennis Price (KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS) plays a “Mysterious Englishman” with a Lewis Carroll obsession. Robert Sacchi, whose claim to fame was an uncanny resemblance to Humphrey Bogart, plays a Bogie-esque cop for no other reason than he looks like Bogie.

PULP didn’t work for me at all. The intriguing premise fell flatter than an all-night diner’s pancake before the film was halfway through. It tries hard, but Hodges’ script and direction leave the film colder than a dead mackerel. Better you should go find a good 40’s B&W noir, and skip this soggy bowl of PULP entirely.

Bad Blonde: TOO LATE FOR TEARS (1949)

Too_Late_for_Tears_DVDI just finished viewing the 1949 feature TOO LATE FOR TEARS on TCM. The title may sound like a weepy tearjerker, but this is film noir dynamite. Once incomplete due to falling into public domain, the UCLA Film & Television Archive have restored it to its black & white glory. I’d never seen this one before, and it was time well spent. It’s based on a Saturday Evening Post serial by screenwriter Roy Huggins, who later went on to produce television classics like MAVERICK, RUN FOR YOUR LIFE, and BARETTA. TOO LATE FOR TEARS can hold it’s own with the better known noirs of the era.

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