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?                 

Happy Birthday Burt Lancaster!: THE KILLERS (Universal 1946)

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Yeah I know, I said right here on this blog yesterday that I was going to take a week off after my marathon “Halloween Havoc” series. But since it’s Burt Lancaster’s birthday (b. 11/2/13, d. 10/20/94) I thought I’d watch his film debut, THE KILLERS. Based on a short story by Ernest Hemingway and directed by Robert Siodmak, THE KILLERS is one of the best in the film noir canon, full of double-and-triple-crosses, great acting, and the beautiful Ava Gardner as the sexy but dangerous femme fatale.

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The story unfolds mostly in flashback, as insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien) looks into the murder of Peter Lund, aka ‘The Swede’ (Lancaster). We learn along with Reardon that Lund was really Ole Anderson, an ex-fighter and ex-con from Philly who drifts into a life of crime. Swede falls madly for the devious Kitty Collins (Gardner), whose boyfriend Big Jim Colfax (Albert Dekker) is serving time. When he gets out, Kitty dumps Swede for Colfax. Big Jim’s planned a foolproof payroll robbery worth a quarter million bucks, and enlists Swede and two others for the heist. I won’t get into the details if you haven’t seen this one yet, but suffice it to say things go decidedly downhill for Swede from here.

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The opening sequence featuring William Conrad and Charles McGraw as the hitmen who blast Swede is memorable for its dark, menacing tone, as the thugs take over a diner to wait for Swede, then slowly creep up the stairs of his apartment to blow him away. Elwood “Woody” Bredell’s cinematography shows us a world of shadow and danger, and Miklos Rozsa adds an excellent score. (By the way, the young actor playing Nick who goes to warn Swede? That’s Phil Brown, later to become Uncle Owen in 1977’s STAR WARS!)

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Lancaster plays The Swede as a naïve dupe who’s in over his head and no match for the devious Kitty Collins. Gardner is smoking hot as Kitty, a duplicitous dame if there ever was one. The cast is peppered with fine character performances  from the likes of Sam Levene, Jeff Corey, Donald MacBride, Jack Lambert (particularly nasty as Dum-Dum), and Vince Barnett. Screenwriter Anthony Veiller has uncredited assistance from John Huston and Richard Brooks. Producer Mark Hellinger went on to work again with Lancaster in the classic prison drama Brute Force the next year, along with Levene and Corey. Tough as a two-dollar steak, THE KILLERS was remade by Don Siegel in 1964 with Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, and Ronald Reagan in the Albert Dekker role (it was his last film). While the remake is good, the original is better (I’ve seen them both). So happy birthday, Burt Lancaster…and now back to my regularly scheduled break!