Sunday, October 02, 2011

The Racket (1951)

“Who said I was an honest citizen? And what would it get me if I was?” - Lizabeth Scott to Robert Mitchum in The Racket 

 The traumatized figure of Robert Ryan as old-school rough and tough gangster Nick Scanlon towers over the wreckage of John Cromwell’s The Racket (1951), although the film has so many “punch up” scenes inserted after the completion of principal photography by director Nicholas Ray that it almost qualifies as a co-direction job. In addition, the actor/director Mel Ferrer, the film’s editor Sherman Todd, the film’s producer Edmund Grainger, and even director Tay Garnett (of The Postman Always Rings Twice) also took a hand in the proceedings, all under the overzealous and one might say hyper-controlling supervision of Howard Hughes, who at this point owned RKO Radio, the studio where this film was made, having acquired controlling interest in the company in 1948. Hughes could never leave a project alone after it was finished shooting, in some cases scrapping whole elements of a film’s plot after principal photography. William Cameron Menzies’ delirious noir The Whip Hand comes immediately to mind; the film originally was about a plot devised by Adolf Hitler (Bobby Watson) to fatally poison America’s water supply, but after the film wrapped, Hughes decided that the villains should be Communists, who were suddenly much more trendy, and large segments of the film were reshot, at considerable added expense.

In the case of The Racket, the film was based on a silent film from 1928, also produced by Howard Hughes, and directed by a youthful Lewis Milestone, which was based in turn on a Broadway play by Bartlett Cormack, and starred Thomas Meighan, Louis Wolheim and Marie Prevost. Interestingly, the Broadway play version starred Edward G. Robinson, and, as an actor, a young John Cromwell, the director of the 1951 version, and the stage production subsequently toured throughout the country, winding up in Los Angeles, where Robinson was discovered by Warner Bros. and thrust into a series of gangster films that made him a star. For many years, the 1928 version of The Racket was considered a “lost film,” but a print was finally located by Dr. Hart Wegner of the University of Nevada Las Vegas Film Department, and restored by Jeffrey Masino, with a new music track by Robert Israel. In 2004, the film was screened on Turner Classic Movies for the first time, but has yet to make it on to DVD; the 1928 version is certainly more coherent than the 1951 version, but the later version also has its merits - in a bizarre sort of way.

Chief among the pluses for the 1951 version are Robert Ryan, at his psychotic, raging best as outmoded gangster Nick Scanlon; Robert Mitchum somnolently strolling through his role as Captain Thomas McQuigg, an honest police captain in a city that has gone completely corrupt; the always dependable Lizabeth Scott as Irene Hayes, a nightclub singer who is predictably mixed up in the rackets; William Talman, surprisingly cast against type - he usually played murderers, thugs, and psychotic killers - as eager-beaver Officer Bob Johnson; Ray Collins as the exquisitely corrupt District Attorney Mortimer X. Welch; and last but far from least, William Conrad as Detective Sergeant Turk, another corrupt cop, who says almost nothing throughout the entire film but always seems to be hanging around the edges of the frame, chewing gum, and effectively stealing scenes from anyone who tries to upstage him.

Nor is this all; a gallery of pug-uglies, stoolies and other assorted noir characters round out the dramatis personae, from Walter Sande as a reliable sidekick cop to Mitchum’s Captain McQuigg, Les Tremayne as Harry Craig, head of the Crime Commission, the smooth heavy Don Porter as R.G. Connolly, front man for the never-seen “Old Man” who runs the entire corrupt enterprise, and noir regulars Harry Lauter, Don Dillaway, Howland Chamberlain, Tito Vuolo, Herb Vigran, Richard Reeves, Iris Adrian, Don Beddoe and others too numerous to mention. RKO had a heavy pool of talent to draw from in 1950s Hollywood, and even if these actors weren’t stars, they were solid professionals who could be counted on to show up on time, know their lines, and get through their scenes efficiently and with absolute conviction, even if the film’s script sometimes crumbled beneath them.

The film opens with a stern boardroom “get tough on crime” scene in which the members of a “Crime Commission,” transparently modeled after Senator Estes Kefauver’s Senate Crime Investigating Committee, then very much in the headlines as the first government inquiry with any real value into organized crime. Indeed, it was when the Kefauver Committee began dominating the headlines that Hughes decided the reshoots were essential, to bring the film right up the second with a “snatched from the headlines” feel, no matter how manufactured it might have been. Nicholas Ray directed this opening sequence, like most of the scenes in the film with any real punch, after Cromwell had departed the project; indeed, the key sequences of the film were shot very rapidly indeed, shortly after the film was supposed to have been finished.

Cromwell, who was not well at the time, shot the main body of The Racket from April 9 to May 14, 1951, but after one screening, Hughes called in veteran screenwriter W.R. Burnett (Little Caesar, among many other credits) to add more action to the film, which seemed curiously stagebound, and asked Nick Ray to take over the shooting, which Ray did from June 18 to June 22, 1951 - just five days of work. But Ray moved fast - very fast, especially for a Hughes production. In that time, Ray shot the opening chunk of the film, a scene in the police locker room, a fight scene between Mitchum and thug Eddie Parker, some glamour close-ups of Lizabeth Scott crooning during a nightclub scene, and numerous other bits and pieces which make the film more effective throughout, though it still seems like a patch job, which it is.


But what makes the film most effective, like so many RKO noirs, even after the eccentric and often unfathomable Howard Hughes took control of the studio, is the air of desperation that the production exudes, as if Hughes is constantly trying to get it right, convinced that reshoots and newly inserted sequences will transform The Racket, or any of his films, from dross into gold. Of course, it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work here, it doesn’t work on The Whip Hand, it doesn’t work on the remarkably schizophrenic His Kind of Woman, and least of all on the utterly botched Jet Pilot, which was “in production” under a hailstorm of different directors at RKO from 1949 to 1957, until the film was finally dumped on the market as one of RKO’s last releases. You can’t put a solid film together like a patchwork quilt; it has to be built from the ground up, but Hughes, a born tinkerer, couldn’t control himself.

Then, too, as an ardent - to say the least - anti-Communist, who bugged his studio’s soundstages and asked his employees to sign loyalty oaths if they wanted to continue working with him, Hughes was in the peculiar position of having in Ryan - a complete leftist - and Mitchum, who had just been arrested for possession of marijuana (thought the charges were later dismissed), the two biggest male stars in his dwindling stable of actors, while Jane Russell and Faith Domergue, a Hughes protégé, held up the distaff side. Then, too, Nick Ray was hardly on board with the HUAC witch-hunt, and had already directed the superb They Live by Night and In A Lonely Place, both excellent films, and yet here was doing pickup work for Hughes at RKO. Hughes had s strange hold on all these men in the fearful 1950s in Hollywood; Mitchum was grateful Hughes hadn’t dropped him after the pot bust, Ryan was trying to stay on top in a turbulent era, and Ray was too young to offend anyone; he wanted a career. It worked out for Ray, Mitchum and Ryan in the end, but right now, it was very uncertain terrain indeed.

It was an odd arrangement all around, and it made for odd films; films that are put together from shards and scraps of shooting, and then tied together with new material to supposedly pull it all together. Even the script went through a number of variations, even though Hughes owned the original script outright; for the 1951 remake, he first assigned young screenwriter and future director Samuel Fuller to try his hand at a draft in May 1950, but Fuller’s version was too dark - both McQuigg and Scanlon are equally crazed - that he rejected it outright, and called in William Wister Haines to craft a more conventional narrative, with Mitchum’s McQuigg as the instantly recognizable good cop, and Nick Scanlon as the main sociopath in view. Then, too, Hughes was constantly fighting the Breen Office on the script, which Breen felt projected an image of society in collapse that was unacceptable to him, and contained too much violence as well. This, it itself, led to numerous memos back and forth and many rewrites to satisfy Breen, which might account for the generally bland nature of what was left to shoot - before Nick Ray was brought in to add some fire to the picture.

But when the smoke finally cleared on the whole pre-production process, Ryan easily emerged with the better role, and grabbed it with both hands, making Nick Scanlon at once tragic, violent, and somehow curiously sympathetic. There’s also the Shelley Winters factor; the actress was announced for the role of Irene in January 1951, but then left or was removed from the project, so Scott could move in and take over the role. Then, too, for Nick Ray’s reshoots, W.R. Burnett was pressed into service to create some more action-packed scenes, and so you have a grab bag of writers, directors, and actors, with even Sherman Todd, the film’s editor, working as a director on the project, probably because he recognized in the cutting room that there were some missing scenes that were absolutely essential to put the finished film together.

So The Racket is a mess, but with Mitchum, even walking through it, and Ryan at his volcanic best, while Liz Scott coos coolly in the background and Don Porter smarmily fronts for the never seen Mr. Big, as well as some nifty cinematography by George E. Diskant, a noir veteran, there’s much to enjoy here. But for me, the real star of the film is the omnipresent and yet seldom heard William Conrad as Turk, who finally shoots down Ryan’s character Scanlon with two well-aimed bullets in the police station after Scanlon makes an ill-advised, last ditch attempt to escape through a fire escape window. “It was the second one that got him,” Turk idly observes, as if killing Scanlon was no more important to him than swatting a fly. Simply by doing almost nothing until the end of the film, Conrad (later a director, and an excellent actor in radio, television and film) manages to dominate the narrative’s rather hectic, uncertain proceedings, lending a much needed gravity to a film that seems to sprawl in all directions at once, sometimes effectively, and sometimes not. He’s always there, even when you think he isn't, lurking in the background, waiting to strike.


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Written by Wheeler Winston Dixon



Note: The author wishes to acknowledge the valuable insights afforded by veteran noir writer Eddie Muller on the DVD commentary of The Racket for many background details of the film’s production; additional material on the film was obtained from the author’s personal files, IMDB, and the UCLA Arts-Special Collections Library in Los Angeles.

About the Author: Wheeler Winston Dixon is the James Ryan Professor of Film Studies, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program, Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and Editor in Chief, with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, of the Quarterly Review and Film and Video. His newest books are 21st Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster; Rutgers University Press, 2011); A History of Horror (Rutgers University Press, 2010; reprinted 2011), Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia (Edinburgh University Press /Rutgers University Press, 2009), and A Short History of Film (co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster; Rutgers University Press, 2008; reprinted 5 times through 2011). His website, Frame by Frame, can be found at http://blog.unl.edu/dixon/, and a series of videos by Dixon on film history, theory and criticism, also titled Frame by Frame, can be found at http://mediahub.unl.edu/.



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