Monday, May 16, 2016

John Cromwell | The Racket

a story that never gets old
by Douglas Messerli

W. R. Burnett and William Wister Haines (screenplay, based on a play by Bartlett Cormack), John Cromwell (director, with uncredited work by Nicholas Ray, Tay Garnett, Sherman Todd and Mel Ferrer) The Racket / 1951

The Racket
is a good movie with a mediocre script and a far-too familiar plot. Part of the problem surely is the B-movie budget, wherein a supposedly Midwestern city alternates with streetscenes from Los Angeles and New York. And, although Robert Ryan and Robert Mitchum are both excellent as the leads, they play their roles pretty much to type, along with veteran actors Lizabeth Scott—the 1950s favorite femme fatale—and Ray Collins, playing a crooked politician which he had already perfected in Citizen Kane. The work itself had been done before, both on stage and as a film, and a great many of its tropes had long been incorporated into American films, including the vague homoeroticism between the good, incorruptible cop and the bad, hot-tempered gangster, Mitchum and Ryan.
      Despite their opposing temperaments and determination to do away with each other it is clear that they exist in a kind of ying and yang relationship, and they can hardly keep their hands off one another. Mitchum, as Captain Thomas McQuigg, in particular, by demanding that Nick Scanlon (Ryan) stay out of his precinct, almost dares his opponent to challenge him, and seemingly plots his visitation through the arrest of Nick’s brother Joe (Brett King) and his singer-lover Irene Hayes (Scott), along with publishing their arrests in the newspaper
      The hitch is that the young mentor of McQuigg, Bob Johnson (William Talman) publishes his name as the arresting officer, thus inviting the gangsters to do him in as well, Although Scalon’s goons fail to hit him at home, Scanlon does him in at the police station, which finally allows McQuigg to take down Scanlon in an embroidered and rather clumsy plot maneuver which ends the film.
       The real fun of this film, accordingly, is not the narrative but the noir cinematic sequences (the film contains a wonderful chase scene and a train-side crash) and the acting. Ryan as Scanlon is particularly good in his smug and unrepentant love of his evil ways. But Mitchum, although given a less flashy role, is equally adept in his high-scrupled refusals to give into the local corruption of fellow officer Sergeant Turk (William Conrad) and District Attorney  Mortimer X. Welch (Collins), and his wry maneuvers around their illegal legalities is a delight to watch.
      The smoky-voiced Scott as Irene Hayes sings a lovely torch song and pretends to be a hard-boiled floozy before giving in to the inexplicable charms of the movie’s only true innocent, Dave Ames (Robert Hutton).
       And then, there is a memorable scene between Joe Scanlon and Booking Sgt. Sullivan (Walter Baldwin) who comically demands Joe stop beating up on the police before pushing him into the camera’s gaze to “look at the birdie.” 
       But the real center of this parable is the invisible force of evil, symbolized by the never seen “old man,” who runs the terrible syndicate that is eating away at the goodness of the city’s citizens. The “old man,” as opposed to the violent old-fashioned murders of Scanlon and his men, attempts to control things quietly, slowing bribing and removing his enemies from any position of power. He has, after all, been able to move McQuigg from precinct to precinct instead of allowing him to rise to a position of power. He “eliminates” those who don’t join him with quiet intimidation instead of actual violence. And it is his power that truly makes this film such a dark work. Even though McQuigg finally arranges for Scanlon’s death (Turk kills him, and thus implicates himself and the District Attorney in the gangland activities), he realizes that the battle against evil is his unending daily duty.
       During the run of the film, McQuigg has witnessed the near-murder of his own wife, has fought it out with a gangster on a roof top who falls to his death, and seen the shooting of his favorite young police officer and Scanlon, to say nothing of the murders and beatings that Scanlon himself has accomplished. No one in this Midwestern paradise seems to be safe. And the good guys remain underpaid and lonely. If the tough gall Hayes has been redeemed, we can only wonder what she will have to face with her clueless new lover news reporter. At least her bad boy former lover, Joe Scanlon, could always depend upon his brother to get him out of scrapes—while providing him with university diplomas, a bit like the later “godfather” groomed Michael Corleone. 
       In short, “the racket” has not been destroyed at film’s end, but rather will simply operate, in the future, more quietly and surely more efficiently—like the way that corruption on all levels functions today. And, in that sense, perhaps The Racket, despite its old-fashioned story, will never get truly old.

Los Angeles, May 15, 2016

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