Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Forgotten Film Noir: The Racket

The Racket (1951, John Cromwell)

I was watching the documentary Film Noir: Bringing Darkness to Light, featured on the 6th disc in the film noir collection purchased a few weeks ago to conduct this marathon, and one of the many talented and intelligent people interviewed elaborated on some of the genres greatest qualities, one of them being that the ‘good guys lose.’ It is true enough that several entries in the genre prohibit their protagonists from attaining happiness by the end. Whether it is the cruel circumstances or poor decision making, oftentimes the ‘hero’, if we can describe them as such, end their journeys dead or their souls forever tortured. 1951’s The Racket, directed by John Cromwell, does not exactly follow that path despite many of the genres staples being clearly present. Cromwell’s picture is concerned with the perseverance of noble character paying off in the end. The ‘noir’ aspect of the film is littered throughout the supporting cast and the institutions in which those people operate. It is within this ring that two titans, each representing both sides of the law, clash for the final round in their long standing rivalry.

The Racket ‘s  opening scene, clunky as it is, has several city officials sit around a table and explain to the viewer, even though they are talking amongst themselves, just how prevalent corruption has become. The crime syndicate has successful snuggled powerful men, such as judges and police officers, under their blanket of influence, but the civil servants believe that only a few more pieces of evidence will enable them to convict one particular judge, Mortimer Welsh (Ray Collins), thus preventing him from becoming governor with an election looming. With the seeds of dirty deeds and greed having infested the public institutions so intensely, only a few good cops remain to clean up the city, one of them being captain Thomas McQuigg (Robert Mitchum), who has been transferred so many from precinct to precinct, keeping count has lost its purpose. He has been too honest and too nosy, and his former allies did not appreciate his ‘honesty is the best policy’ philosophy, so he was kicked around. Now he is captain in the same district where an ancient rival is performing dirty tricks. Nick Scanlon (Robert Ryan), who used to be a member of law enforcement, is a highly influential figure within the crime syndicate. Taking ‘no’ or ‘that would be difficult’ is not the sort of answer Nick accepts and he has been known to slap his own partners silly for the simple sake of intimidating them into doing his bidding. With so many threads of corruption between crime and civil servants, it is high time captain McQuigg and his men force a change onto the system.

John Cromwell has his filmmakers have left us with a film blessed both with some terrific strengths and a few rather obvious weaknesses. The film moves along at an indecisive pace, sometimes offering great moments like a furious  fist fight atop a multi-story building at night, other times pitting two characters face to face with any false move possibly being the last for somebody. Between these fantastic scenes are some rather long stretches of dialogue that do not quite sizzle as they did in some of the other movies we have watched up until now. The screenwriters made sure to hand the principle cast some quirky and witty replies, with actors such as Mitchum, Ryan and Lizbeth Scott (who plays Irene Hayes, main squeeze to one of the hoodlums and who changes colours late in the story) all benefiting the most. Mitchum in particular is quite good here, displaying a no-nonsense attitude but for once it is for the side of good. I have not seen a huge amount of Mitchum films, but among those that I have, this the black sheep of the bunch in that Mitchum plays an honest, truthfully good protagonist. His official position does not belie a fiery thirst to squash the crime syndicate, with a bull’s eye set squarely on the head of Nick Scanlon, a man McQuigg has long desired to see thrown behind bars. Seeing Mitchum be so strict about being so good was an interesting novelty, even though this reviewer prefers him as a darker anti-hero. All that being said, there remain a number of scenes featuring people talking about other people and what those other people are doing, with some technicalities about elections and requested documents to start official investigations. These scenes are not so boring and some even help flesh out a little bit of what exactly is transpiring, but none have the verve that film noir scenes should. Most resemble dialogue scenes out of a dry police procedural rather than a sexy film noir.

Another element The Racket does not fully succeed at is juggling the number of characters it throws onto the screen. Some are obvious. Captain McQuigg, Nick Scanlon, District Attorney Mortimer Welsh…these characters are their purpose in the plot are defined sufficiently and serve legitimate purposes. However, there is a host of supporting players, not all of whom deserve significant spotlight time but get it nonetheless. There is a young news reporter who is smitten by Irene Hayes, but does not really do anything even though he keeps coming back during the second half of the movie. I have watched the movie twice and I am still unclear as to what purpose the fat man with the moustache is doing in the Nick Scanlon clan, yet he keeps reappearing as well (he seems to be some sort of lower level middle man, but I am not certain…). Even Irene Hayes, who is played wonderfully by Lizbeth Scott, does not seem to serve any major purpose until asked, very late, to testify against Scanlon. None of the actors involved are at fault, I feel the need to stress this particular point, but their respective characters do not necessarily have equal weight of importance or relevance. 

Despite its evident flaws, The Racket nonetheless has much in its favour. As briefly stated above, the performances are top notch. Robert Ryan is playing the opposite of the same coin from On Dangerous Ground, which he would star in only one year later. Intense, demanding, ruthless, only this time he truly is the villain and not a representative of the law gone astray. William Talman has a nice little role as a younger version of Captain McQuigg who unfortunately does eventually pay the price for being a ‘brave, tough cop.’ Even though I wrote above about how certain scenes were lacking in impactful dialogue, the actors rarely let me down. The few face offs between Scanlon and McQuigg are terrific, One can sense the history between the characters interpreted by Mithcum and Ryan. Simply seeing these two powerful and charismatic actors together on screen was pure joy. There is also the matter of good versus evil. In The Racket, the lines are drawn more clearly for the audience, even though in the world these people inhabit the lines are indeed blurred due to corruption seeping into supposedly honest institutions. We know who the heroes are and what they represent, just as the crooks and corrupt are clearly defined. This leads the viewer to a battle of wits and in many instances sheer bravery. When the forces are evil have spread their tentacles to the point where those who seek protection and refuge can no longer find haven under traditional figures of law and justice, there is a major problem going down. For all the movies about dirty cops and cops who are tempted by vice to make ends meet, it is perfectly fine, in my humble opinion, to have a film in which the police are behaving just as the police should.

And thus concludes the marathon (which was reasonably quick). The Racket does not end things on a ‘bang’ per say, but it is nonetheless a competent and at times quite enjoyable police story. I think that when one considers the little nuggets of great moments and the wonderful performances, one can conclude that the parts that make up The Racket are greater than their total sum. That certainly is not the greatest compliment one can award the movie, but it still comes recommend.

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