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).

Crossfire (1947)

crossfire4Well we’re back to noir and the 1947 drama Crossfire starring Robert Mitchum (Out of the Past), Robert Ryan (On Dangerous Ground) and Robert Young. Directed by Edward Dmytryk (The Sniper, Bluebeard) the film also features Gloria Grahame (It’s A Wonderful Life, In a Lonely Place, The Big Heat) in a supporting role. That’s quite a pedigree, and also so many connections to other films I’ve seen; how could it fail?

Well, it can’t fail, really- as far as noir films go, this one looks utterly gorgeous, photographed by J.Roy Hunt, whose work here is simply high-art; its so beautiful (I only wish I had watched this on a Blu-ray, instead of an off-air recording). Although the script and acting are very good, its how the film looks that really struck me. Regular readers of this blog will know I’ve watched plenty of noir, particularly over the last year or so, so I’ve plenty to compare it to, and this film’s visuals compares with the best. Its moody, atmospheric and full of all sorts of creative and imaginative touches, painting with light indeed.

Police investigating the brutal death of Joseph “Sammy” Samuels (Sam Lavene) find that the evidence leads towards a group of demobilized soldiers, “Monty” Montgomery (Ryan), Arthur “Mitch” Mitchell (George Cooper), Floyd Bowers (Steve Brodie), and Floyd’s friend Leroy (William Phipps) who were seen with Samuels in a bar – particularly Mitchell whose wallet is found near the body, and who has gone missing. Capt. Finlay (Young) of the police department is approached by a fifth soldier, Sergeant Keeley (Mitchum) who is convinced his friend Mitchell is incapable of murder and sets out to investigate the crime himself, and try track down Mitchell before the police do.

Crossfire is a very atmospheric and gripping murder mystery telling the tale partially via seperate flashbacks of the events leading to Samuels murder, which we see in the immediate post-titles sequence but in such a way that we cannot identify the assailant. Gradually the film reveals to the audience who the murderer is and how he intends to cover up his guilt, instead pointing the blame upon Mitchell, and from that moment on it becomes a drama regards if the police or Keeley will discover the truth. The film is very good, with plenty of twists and turns, featuring some memorable characters and simply superb acting, particularly from Robert Ryan whose work resulted in him Oscar-nominated for Best Supporting Actor and Gloria Grahame, whose turn as Ginny, a girl from the wrong side of the street resulted in a Best Supporting Actress nomination.

The film received five Oscar nominations in all, perhaps indicating just how well the film was regarded at the time, and its aged very well, except for when it becomes, for me, a little too preachy towards the end. That last observation really is just a personal viewpoint, films back then, as I have mentioned before concerning films of that period, had an habit of preaching messages at the audience and sometimes its just, well,  a little too forced, as I thought it was here, in the form of a long monologue from one character to another but clearly intended direct to the audience: I half-expected the speaker to directly face the camera. I’m not contesting the moral point that is voiced at all, the film carries a worthy and important  message that’s unfortunately as timely now as it was back then, its just that I would have preferred more subtlety, but as I say that’s a personal view and many will likely have little problem with it.

Other than that, the film is pretty much perfect, and I hope a Blu-ray release arrives over here in the UK so that I can watch it again in better quality. Its funny; noir films have been well represented on Blu-ray over the past few years and its clear I’ve been rather spoiled. It just goes to further prove just how important home video releases on physical media really are for older, classic films such as this, especially HD and 4K.

Out of the Past (1947)

out2Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) has spent the past three years running a gas station in the small Californian town of Bridgeport, where he dates a local girl Ann (Virginia Huston) to the disapproval of her parents and the local sheriff who is sweet on her. Its a quiet, small-town life, one broken when someone from Jeff’s past turns up in town, pulling him back into his old life and the troubles he thought he had left behind. The only person Jeff can confide in is Ann, so on a late-night drive to a rendezvous with his past, Jeff relates his story to Ann. Jeff’s real name is Jeff Markham, and he was once a private eye in New York. He was hired by gangster Whit Sterling (a charmingly threatening Kirk Douglas) to track down a woman, Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer in the definitive femme fatale role). Kathie had shot Will and left with $40,000 of his money- Will wasn’t bothered about the money though, he just wanted Kathie back; “when you see her, you’ll understand better” Will told Jeff. And when he does see her, he does understand. And at that point, he’s doomed.

out1Out of the Past is one of the very best film noir, but deceptively so- indeed, it starts like any other 1940s melodrama, so much so you could be forgiven for thinking you’re watching the wrong movie, with bright scenery of the sierras and idyllic small-town life, complete with gentle music score. Its quite the opposite of, say, Double Indemnity, another classic noir that instead wears its noir credentials from the very first titles.  Its only when Jeff relates to Ann the truth of his past that the film’s visuals turn towards the traditional nightmare dark of noir, as it relates in flashback the events that led to Jeff hiding away in Bridgeport. When we finally first see Kathie, as Jeff tracks her down to Mexico, she just looks like any beautiful woman, maybe even an innocent victim. There is a subtle ambiguity to her- when some noirs would frame her in shadows immediately revealing her true nature, Out of the Past prefers to suggest she may indeed be a victim. We have no idea, just like Jeff, that this woman will be his doom. Greer is simply astonishing as Kathie; beautiful, exuding innocence and sexiness at the same time, Kathie will do anything to survive, even fall in love, only later throwing greed and treachery into the mix.

out3Robert Mitchum is perfectly cast as Jeff- I’m not a big fan of Mitchum, but his real-life laconic, laid-back reputation bleeds into his onscreen persona well here, ignorant of the trouble he is in, always thinking he has a way out, a trick to play, yet always falling back into the mistakes that ultimately seal his fate. When he falls for Kathie he thinks he’s in control. His over-confidence is in his eyes, his smile.  At the end he realises he has no escape, his character finally reaching the stature of noir hero. What starts as a simple romantic melodrama slowly darkens into a labyrinthine plot of lies and double-crosses and deceit and murder; its fascinating to see this film turn from romantic melodrama into a completely different movie and earn its reputation as a classic film noir. Out of the Past is a very, very good movie. How strange to think I’d never seen it until now. Looks like that unwatched pile still has plenty of surprises…