The Racket (1951)

racketHot on the heels of Crossfire comes another noir thriller starring Robert Mitchum and Robert Ryan – Hollywood was a pretty small world back then when actors were signed to studio contracts, and they sure were kept busy. In 1951 alone, Ryan appeared in five movies (including the wonderful On Dangerous Ground), Mitchum in three and co-star Lizabeth Scott appeared in four herself that year; one of the pleasures of watching these noir is seeing familiar faces turning up in all sorts of roles and movies (Scott for instance appeared in Dark City and I Walk Alone, two noir which I saw last year).

I actually first watched The Racket in early September, but although I enjoyed it didn’t write about it at the time  – after having seen Crossfire with Ryan and Mitchum onscreen together again, I decided it might be timely to give The Racket a re-watch, and hey, then opportunity to finally write a post about it. 

The Racket is a crime thriller, in which mobster Nick Scanlon (Ryan) has become increasingly marginalised as his turf has become amalgamated by a high-level organised crime syndicate, more prone to hire corrupt officials and law officers to manage its will rather than resorting to Scanlon’s old-school violence. This is a familiar theme in noir during this period (711 Ocean Drive is an example) – the idea of a nameless criminal syndicate operating across the nation, led by unseen masterminds corrupting the system from within and rendering the law powerless seems to have been perfect for the increasingly paranoid, reds-under-the-bed, enemy-within times. Science fiction films of the time suggested alien menace, while many noir suggested faceless criminal threats and communist espionage, but it all feels very similar and a reflection of the Cold War era. 

racket2Scanlon’s foil in this film is incorruptible police captain Tom McQuigg (Mitchum), who has been repeatedly sidelined to ever-more backwater precincts by corrupt superiors in the pay of the Syndicate in order to undermine him doing his job. Ryan is brilliant as the fiery mobster getting angrier and angrier at being reined back by his Syndicate superiors, bristling and ready to explode, but Mitchum possibly proves to be the films weakest link. To be fair his relentlessly honest police captain is sadly one-dimensional, but Mitchum just seems happy to stride around like a cowboy from one his western flicks transplanted onto the then-modern day streets. His whole demeanour (walk, sneer and drawl) is so much that of a cowboy its a little irritating, but one has to remember Mitchum wasn’t a trained actor (at least that’s what I gather from what I’ve read) but seems confident that he can get by with just his sheer physicality alone. He’s ruggedly handsome, tall and powerfully built: he looks the part of a cinematic hero and it seems that was enough: guys wanted to be him, girls wanted to be with him, its a familiar story in Hollywood. 

Unfortunately while its a competent crime thriller, The Racket has the air of almost comfortable routine- its cinematography doesn’t look as arrestingly imaginative as, say, that of Crossfire did, the script doesn’t surprise too often and the last reel fails to generate the tension it needs to. It certainly isn’t as edgy and dark as the best noir prove to be. This is a police procedural morality tale of an honest police captain inspiring one of his men, and a reminder of the supreme price some lawmen (and their wives) have to pay. A tale of corruption and frustrated lawmen trying to clean the dirty streets, unfortunately for the film those lawmen are awfully plain and unmemorable compared to the bad guys like Ryan and, in a nice sleazy turn William Conrad as an openly corrupt Detective, Turk. Strangely enough, its the latter who struck me as likely inspiration for Tim Burton and one of his films corrupt cops ( Lt. Eckhardt) in the 1989 Batman movie: it seems quite evident that Burton likely looked at films like The Racket for inspiration for the gothic noir look of his comicbook film that enabled its own timeless look. 

I think its safe to say that The Racket is Ryan’s movie though- he seems perfectly suited to playing ruthless, hardboiled bad guys and having seen him in a few films lately, he’s really caught my attention and impressed me. Maybe the reason Mitchum seems so lazy and seemingly uncommitted in this, is that he knows that its a waste of time trying any harder, Ryan is stealing every scene- mind, to be fair, the villains always tend to steal movies, and Mitchum would play some memorable ones himself (The Night of the Hunter, for one).

One thought on “The Racket (1951)

  1. Pingback: “Hey, Pops, where’s your wheelchair?” – the ghost of 82

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