Saturday, January 3, 2015

The Racket: A Review (Review #686)


It's a strange thing that a silent film could have dated dialogue, but there it is.  The Racket was among the first films to be nominated for Best Picture by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (losing to the epic Wings).  Speaking of losing, The Racket was thought to be a lost picture, until a copy surfaced in the vaults of the film's producer, eccentric tycoon and movie mogul Howard Hughes, after his death.  I believe this is the only copy of The Racket known to be in existence, and it's a good thing we have this film beyond the historic significance of its Oscar nomination.  The Racket has a 'you-are-there' immediacy to its tale of bootleggers, speakeasies, corruption and one honest cop fighting the system. 

Police Captain McQuigg (Thomas Meighan) is a rare breed on the mean streets: an honest cop.  He has an interesting relationship with Nick Scarsi (Louis Wolheim), a major bootlegger.  They know each other, and it could be said they are not personally antagonistic to the other.  Their rivalry is purely business.  We know this because despite McQuigg's constant arrests of Scarsi's men, Scarsi invites McQuigg to his little brother Joe's birthday/homecoming party.  More surprising, McQuigg accepts, even though the party is taking place at a speakeasy.

Joe (George Stone) admires his brother, but Nick makes it very clear he wants Joe to be a college kid and stay out of the racket.  This involves Joe not getting involved with any women, whom Nick considers poison.  Joe, however, takes an instant shine to a jazz baby with the improbable name of Helen Hayes (Marie Prevost).  Helen Hayes is a flirt who takes a bit of a shine to Joe, but is non-committal to him.

After Nick guns down a rival at the speakeasy, he uses his influence on the corrupt public officials to send McQuigg to a quiet precinct away from the city proper.  Here, McQuigg is queried by three journalists: the enthusiastic Pratt (Lee Moran), the lackadaisical and slightly inebriated Miller (Skeets Gallagher) and the new cub reporter Ames (John Darrow).  The first two know McQuigg was sent into exile and want the exclusive, but they also know that McQuigg is planning his comeback and takedown of Scarsi.  Fortunately for him, Joe inadvertently helps him.

Joe, despite Nick's stern warnings, starts taking Helen Hayes out.  After he gets fresh with her, she walks out of his car, and in his pursuit of Helen Hayes he causes the death of a pedestrian.  The police quickly apprehend him and her and take them to the 28th Precinct, which just happens to be McQuigg's new beat.  McQuigg at first doesn't realize who Joe is (as he had never actually met Nick's brother and didn't see him at the party).  Pratt and Miller however, do know, and it's the hottest story in town.  Ames for his part is actually part of the story.

Nick finds out what Joe has done and wants to break him out, but in his efforts he ends up shooting a cop Nick tried to bribe, which both Ames and Helen Hayes (whom Ames is attracted to) witnessed.  The police soon get Nick, and for once McQuigg will ignore the lawyers who always get Nick out and decides to take a stand.

Things come to a head when McQuigg tells Nick that his influence can't get him out of this.  Nick thinks he can get out of this by escaping, with his gun nearby, unaware that it's been emptied.  An aide to the corrupt District Attorney kills Nick, and despite Ames' pleas Helen Hayes decides to stay in the seedy world, telling him, "No kid.  I'm not going your way." 

The Racket has one drawback, and that is its use of slang.  When McQuigg finds that he cannot get at Nick and has been fooled, the title cards read "This time, it's a horse on you".  I take it this is the equivalent of "Backfire on You", or "Joke's on me".  This does read rather odd today though I imagine back in 1928 it would have been part of the vernacular.

There's another title card that now reads funny, and that's when McQuigg asks if Nick has been searched for any weapon.  "Did you fan him?" McQuigg asks one of his deputies, and I figure this means if Nick was frisked.  The use of 1920s slang puts it squarely in the right timeframe, but it also might make it hard to figure out exactly what is being said.  Fortunately, the lines the reporters use ("First he plugs 'em, then he plants 'em") isn't that confusing.

This is a minor point, as The Racket is not afraid to be a tough look at the underbelly of the city and tackle the issue of corruption.  The Racket also has incredible moments of visual wit that tell things expressively.

At the rival mobster's funeral, we see Nick observe a group of seated men with their hats on their laps.  Director Lewis Milestone then fades to show us that underneath the hats are pistols, which shows how creative and inventive silent film directors could be with their visual flairs.

The performances were also quite strong.  Meighan's honest cop was strong and secure, and Wolheim was dastardly yet almost wryly humorous with his Nick.  For me, however, it was the supporting roles that were the most impressive.  Prevost has a beautiful face and her Helen Hayes was an excellent performance, from the tough cookie to the love-struck girl who knows she'll never change her wicked, wicked ways.  Darrow was also equally strong as the honest and lovelorn Ames.  We had comic relief with the pairing of Moran and Gallagher as the intrepid reporters, in particular with Gallagher who seemed to stumble through the situations with a shrug and a bottle. 

The script had strong moments of comedy and irony (such as Nick being a member of the Anti-Liquor League) and also subtlety.  When Helen Hayes (still a strange name given the theatrical legend who shares it) tells Ames she's not going his way, the double meaning is clear.

It's good that The Racket has survived, as it is an excellent picture.  The dialogue is a little dated, but the story is easy to understand, the film is well-acted and visually clever, and a fan of both silent and gangster films will find much to enjoy and admire. 

Who knew the First Lady of the American Stage
started out as a gangster's moll?


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