Monday, October 24, 2011

Railroaded (1947)

Anthony Mann's Railroaded represents a number of missed opportunities and a few modest successes.

In 1947, Mann made his first really good film noir, Desperate, which was released by RKO Radio Pictures. It wasn't a perfect film, but the actors were decent, the story was suspenseful, and many of the lighting setups by Mann and his cinematographer, George E. Diskant, were stunning.

Railroaded was the next film he made. While I was watching it, I found myself frequently saying "If only..."

If only the script was more focused. If only the music wasn't so terrible. If only the actors were talented. If only the film featured more screen time for the interesting villains and less screen time for the uninteresting heroes. If only Mann had been given a larger budget. If only he had worked with cinematographer John Alton.

But if you want to watch that kind of movie, you have to dig into Mann's later work; his six collaborations with Alton, made between 1947 and 1950, or the five westerns he made with James Stewart between 1950 and 1955. Railroaded is a modestly entertaining little picture if you have no expectations, but if you're familiar with Mann's later work, it's bound to disappoint.

Mann made Railroaded for Producers Releasing Corporation (P.R.C.), a dependable old Poverty Row workhorse. It was the last really cut-rate movie that Mann would make. (P.R.C. was in the process of being bought by the powerful British film distributor J. Arthur Rank, and P.R.C.'s name would soon be changed to "Eagle-Lion International" to class it up a little. It was through Eagle-Lion that Mann's excellent T-Men would be released later in 1947.) While Mann's budgets were low, he was able to work with less studio control at Eagle-Lion International than he had been faced with at RKO, Universal, Paramount, and Republic.

In Jeanine Basinger's book Anthony Mann (published in 1979; expanded and republished in 2007), she writes that Railroaded "is more unified than Desperate and points toward the coherence of Mann's later works. It is perhaps his first really unified film, presenting the story of a young woman ... and her attempts to clear her brother's name of a murder charge." I don't agree with Basinger's assessment, and find Railroaded an even more uneven film than Desperate.

Guy Roe was Mann's cinematographer on Railroaded, and even though he's not as good as Alton, there are still a number of impressive sequences, particularly the robbery that opens the picture.

John Ireland (the only actor in the film with any talent) plays a sneering criminal named Duke Martin who perfumes his bullets. (What's a B-noir bad guy without a gimmick or two?)

The robbery is of a joint controlled by Jackland Ainsworth (Roy Gordon). It's a numbers operation hidden in the back of a beauty shop run by Clara Calhoun (Jane Randolph). Clara is Duke's girlfriend, and the inside job was supposed to be a cinch, but the cops show up, and Duke snuffs one of them, which sets the events of the film in motion.


Duke arranged everything to point in the direction of a patsy, Steve Ryan (Ed Kelly). Steve is a young guy who lives with his sister, Rosie Ryan (Sheila Ryan), and his mother, Mrs. Ryan (Hermine Sterler). At the breakfast table, Rosie talks about the movie she saw the night before, and how she cried at the end, when the police got their man. Even though he was a criminal, she felt bad for him. Steve is unsympathetic, and says "Maybe some guys need a goin' over." Minutes later the police bust in and arrest him for murder. (John C. Higgins's screenplay, which is based on a story by Gertrude Walker, could have used more clever and ironic moments like this one.)

Things look bad for Steve. Duke used Steve's scarf as a mask during the robbery. Steve's car was stolen and used as the getaway vehicle. A paraffin test to see if Steve has recently fired a gun comes up negative, but that doesn't mean much after Duke's partner, Cowie Kowalski (Keefe Brasselle), who was shot during the robbery, gives a deathbed confession that implicates Steve.

Railroaded isn't actually a very accurate title for the film, since the cops don't railroad Steve. They work with the evidence they have. (Framed would have been a more accurate title.) Unlike Desperate, which followed an innocent man's terrifying flight from both gangsters and the police, the unjustly accused protagonist of Railroaded pretty much disappears from the film as soon as he's jailed. Enter Sgt. Mickey Ferguson (Hugh Beaumont), a police detective who grew up in the same neighborhood as the Ryans, and is still sweet on Rosie.

Rosie believes her brother is innocent, and eventually starts to convince Sgt. Ferguson. This is where the picture really took a nosedive for me. Sheila Ryan is nice to look at, but she's a completely unconvincing actress. Beaumont is even worse. He brings the same gravitas to his role as Sgt. Ferguson that he did to the scenes on TV a decade later in which he punished Wally and The Beav. Watching his scenes is like watching grass grow, and he and Sheila Ryan are the protagonists of Railroaded, not bit players.

With no one to root for, the only enjoyment I got out of Railroaded was watching John Ireland's scenes, especially the ones with Jane Randolph. With the heat on, Duke orders Clara to hole up and stay off the booze. He's planning one last score — a robbery of the Club Bombay, where the vigorish from Ainsworth's bookie shops goes. Duke figures he can get revenge on Ainsworth and make off with $30 to $40 grand, which he'll use to finance his and Clara's getaway to South America. Of course, he can't keep Clara off the sauce, but things aren't all bad, since occasionally something exciting happens, like a vicious catfight Clara gets into with Rosie that Duke impassively watches while hidden:


Railroaded is a pretty typical P.R.C. product. The sets look like they're made out of cardboard, the dialogue is stilted, the music is awful, and actors who can carry a scene are in the minority. Stretches of the film are entertaining, and occasionally the cinematography and editing create suspense and some real excitement, but overall, this isn't one of Mann's better pictures. There are plenty of people who champion the film, but for me, if a picture doesn't have decent actors and strong characterizations, it doesn't hang together. A few great scenes do not a great film make.

Written by Adam Lounsbery

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Mine Own Executioner (1947)

“Do I have to take off my clothes or anything?”

Mine Own Executioner (1947) from director Anthony Kimmins and based on the excellent novel by Nigel Balchin is a dark British noir tale which explores the burgeoning and controversial use of psychotherapy in post WWII Britain. Dedicated psychologist Felix Milne (Burgess Meredith) divides his time between middle-aged wealthy women who bore him to tears, and poor patients who attend free sessions at the Norris Pile clinic--an impoverished charitable institution. Milne is married to Pat (Dulcie Gray), a tolerant, loving and understanding woman who bears her husband’s short temper and unconcealed lust for her long-time friend, bad blonde Barbara (Christine Norden). When the film begins, Milne’s marriage under stress from financial constraints and work-related problems is in trouble. Pat acts as both a sounding board for her husband’s rants and the receptacle for his low-level frustrated rage.

One of Pat’s latest ‘mistakes’ is to book an appointment late in the afternoon for a Mrs. Lucien. Felix is certain that this new patient is going to be yet another bored, unhappily married middle aged woman, so he’s delighted when Molly Lucien (Barbara White) turns out to be a young, pretty woman who has some genuine problems. She tells Felix that she met her husband, RAF fighter pilot, Adam Lucian (Kieron Moore) in 1940, and that he shipped out shortly after their marriage. She received news that he’d been shot down “in flames” somewhere near Rangoon, but in spite of the odds, she always believed that he’d return. And she was right, but the Adam who returned some time later after escaping from a Japanese POW camp was ‘different.’ Molly describes Adam’s detached behaviour and the fact that he mostly seems “as though he wasn’t there.” There’s been a significant development recently in Adam’s behaviour when he suddenly and inexplicably tried to strangle Molly.

Felix is visibly intrigued by the case, but he immediately tells Molly that Adam really should seek the help of a “medical man,” a certified doctor. He also cautions Molly against remaining with her husband. Molly, an engaging young woman, spiritedly explains that her husband loathes doctors--that’s why he’s likely to agree to see Felix, and she further argues that if Adam’s “got to half-strangle somebody, it’s got to be me, hasn’t it?” The implication behind Molly’s statement is that she can protect Adam from the legal consequences of his actions.

While the film, at first, divides the plot between Felix’s troubled personal and professional life, the plot then veers to the case of Adam Lucien. Although Felix feels out of his depth with the case, he continues to probe Adam’s strangely detached behaviour which he labels as “schizoid.” At one point, Adam even undergoes an injection which induces a semi-conscious state in an attempt to force him to recall what happened when he was taken prisoner.

The characters of Felix and Adam are a study in contrasts, yet there are also some commonalities. Felix is a man who’s devoted his life to helping others, and all of his patient understanding--his better self--goes to his patients while he’s unpleasant and difficult at home. Felix is capable of some rather underhanded behaviour and considers that it’s alright just as long as he talks about it and doesn’t keep it buried. This is manifested in his explanations to Pat regarding his lust for Barbara who appeals, as he explains it, to his adolescent self. While Felix accepts his feelings for Barbara as a perfectly natural desire, his compulsion to be ‘above board’ with Patricia about the situation would provoke the patience of a saint. Felix also argues that this immature attraction to Barbara is harmless (Pat argues, ineffectually, otherwise), and meanwhile Felix, feeling sanctified by telling his wife all about his attraction to another woman, actively seeks an opportunity to engage in an affair. At one point, he even agrees to see Barbara at the request of her older, portly, clueless husband for Barbara’s so-called “sex complex.” Given the glaring, mutual attraction between Barbara and Felix (not to mention the question of professional ethics), this scenario provides a springboard for hanky-panky. Barbara’s stuffy husband, Peter (Michael Shepley) is oblivious to the dangers of throwing his wife into Felix’s hands to discuss sex, but poor Patricia is informed about it, even has to book the appointment, and is expected to swallow her anger about it too.


Felix acknowledges that he’s frequently unkind to his wife--even though she deserves better. For Felix, simply acknowledging the problem somehow makes it better. One fascinating scene shows Felix, almost entirely in shadow, as he leaves Patricia’s bedroom moments after he’s supposedly ‘openly’ explained to his wife about agreeing to see Barbara for her “sex complex.” Because Felix is apparently open with Patricia about his decision, he seems to think this makes it okay, but in reality, Felix isn’t being entirely honest with himself. This deception--this acting in the dark--is symbolized by Felix seen only as a dark shape as he stands in the shadow saying goodnight to his extremely upset wife.

Then there’s Adam Lucien, a dangerously disturbed, violent young man whose behaviour covers a lifetime of not talking about things. While his problems initially seem to have erupted after his time as a POW, there’s a craftiness, a wariness about Adam that hints at far deeper, long buried damage. Indeed the plot addresses this issue at several points, but ultimately the film, which throws out hints about Adam’s other problems, lands on safe damaged-war-hero territory when uncovering Adam’s mental illness. This is, after all the 1940s, and it’s easier, and probably more topical, to create a film about a hideously mentally damaged war hero than to portray the book’s complex psycho who happened to go to war and returns home even more damaged than he was before.

Both Felix and Adam are men who have two distinct sides to their personalities, and in each case, it's really up for grabs which side is going to win. That's where the title comes into play, for the better side of both men is in mortal conflict with the darker, buried self. Interestingly, both Felix and Adam’s wives act as buffers for their husbands against the real world. Molly is willing to be killed, if necessary, and Pat acts as a sponge for her husband’s disappointments and petty rages.

The film also includes a sub-plot regarding Felix’s tenure at the Norris Pile clinic. Felix is called a “lay practitioner” throughout the film, and the story taps into an issue of some topical controversy in the underlying thread of Felix’s lack of medical certification. Felix styles himself on the Freudian model, and Freud, who moved to London in 1938, did not believe that it was necessary to have a medical degree to practice psychotherapy. Due to limited funds, Felix decided early in his career to study in Vienna rather than go to medical school. The lack of a medical degree is raised by Felix’s colleagues in the film, and while most of them respect his training in Vienna, he encounters prejudice for not being a medical doctor repeatedly in the film. Apart from his sessions at the Norris Pile Clinic, Felix, like most “lay practitioners” of his time practices in his own home, and this, as it turns out, exposes his wife to danger. This pre-National Health film rather subversively addresses the issue of the value of psychotherapy and the dangers its practitioners assume since they are not under the protected, and respected, cloak of the established medical community. While subtle, the film’s implication is that Felix is barred from the upper echelons of his profession largely due to class and inherent money restrictions. Felix chafes against the fact that it takes a Harley Street reputation to save him from total disgrace.

Nigel Balchin, the author and screenwriter of Mine Own Executioner, is sometimes described as one of the most neglected authors of 20th century British fiction. It’s true that some of his books have fallen out-of-print, but a few film versions of those books have helped keep some titles alive: The Small Back Room, Separate Lies (based on the book A Way Through the Wood). Balchin, whose father was a baker, won a scholarship to Cambridge where he studied agriculture and psychology. Later he became an “industrial investigator” and pioneered the application of psychology to the workplace environment. Balchin was also responsible for the creation of the highly successful Black Magic chocolate marketing campaign. One sly scene in Mine Own Executioner shows Felix attending a dinner party and being solicited by Julian (Joss Ambler) an advertising agent for the “psychological angle on cream cheese.”

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Written by Guy Savage

Sunday, October 09, 2011

The Long Night (1947)

Anatole Litvak's The Long Night is a remake of Marcel Carné's 1939 drama Le Jour se lève. It stars Henry Fonda, Ann Dvorak, Vincent Price, and Barbara Bel Geddes in her screen debut.

Litvak, who was born in Kiev, worked in the Soviet cinema system in Leningrad, in the pre-war film industry of Berlin, in France after Hitler's rise to power, and finally in Hollywood, where he became a contract director for Warner Bros. in 1937. Litvak became an American citizen in 1940, enlisted in the Army, and worked with Frank Capra on his Why We Fight series of short films. Litvak finished the war with the rank of colonel and returned to directing Hollywood features. Two of his most famous films would follow — Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) and The Snake Pit (1948).

The Long Night, his first post-war feature, is less well-known. For a long time, you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who remembered seeing it. But thanks to a pristine print on DVD from Kino Video (released in 2000 along with a VHS version), this flawed but worthwhile drama is now widely available. In the special features section of the Kino DVD, there are a couple of side-by-side comparisons with Le Jour se lève — a murder sequence in a darkened stairwell and the first meeting of the two lovers — that show how heavily Litvak borrowed from Carné's film, at least stylistically. (The ending of The Long Night is radically different from the ending of Le Jour se lève, however, which is a standard practice in Hollywood remakes of depressing European art films.)

Despite the happy ending, Litvak infuses The Long Night with a pervasive sense of doom. After shooting a man in his apartment building in an unnamed steel town somewhere near the Pennsylvania-Ohio state line, Joe Adams (Henry Fonda) sits alone in his rented room, the door barricaded as police and onlookers swarm the street below his window. Accompanied by a refrain from Beethoven's 7th Symphony, Joe tells his story through flashbacks, and we learn what brought him to this desperate place. "How can I explain when I don't understand myself?" he thinks to himself.

Joe Adams grew up in an orphanage. "Class of '34," he tells the pretty young Jo Ann (Barbara Bel Geddes) when he meets her. (We must presume that Joe is younger than the man who plays him, since Fonda was 29 years old in 1934.) Jo Ann also came from the orphanage, and her romance with Joe is simple, childlike, and profound. Fonda plays Joe like a sweet-natured boy with no ability to plan long-term or handle disappointment or frustration. Bel Geddes plays Jo Ann in much the same way, but instead of being petulant she is naïve and unworldly, and open to the manipulation of a slimy magician named Maximilian the Great (Vincent Price).

Maximilian is a congenital liar. His relationship with Jo Ann is nebulous for some time in the film. He first tells Joe that Jo Ann is his daughter, but that he had to go on the road for 15 years and leave her in the company of strangers. After another series of flashbacks, however, it becomes clear that Maximilian and Jo Ann were romantically involved. He took her to see the Cleveland Symphony when she had never been as far west as Pittsburgh, and forced himself on her when she had never been kissed. Jo Ann was uncomfortable with Maximilian's actions, but she was also lonely, and Maximilian offered her a world of excitement and glamor.

The visual style of The Long Night, its doomed protagonist buffeted by forces outside of his control, and its story told through flashbacks are all hallmarks of film noir, but it also has elements of social realism. For instance, Joe befriends Maximilian's assistant Charlene (played by the always wonderful Ann Dvorak). He lies on her bed on a Sunday afternoon, reading the funnies, in her crummy room full of clutter, next to a couple of big bottles of beer and a bag of pretzels he brought for them to eat. She provides a stack of toast. She's in the bath when he arrives, and throws on a slinky silk robe. It's unclear how close Joe and Charlene really are, but the realism of the setting and the intimacy of the situation push the limits of Hays Code acceptability.

Along with the realism and intimacy of some of the interior settings, there's plenty of artifice in The Long Night. Unlike the typical Hollywood production in which backdrops were either matte paintings or rear-projection film, production designer Eugène Lourié used elaborate sets with tricks of forced perspective in The Long Night. For example, a factory on a hillside in the distance is really a small model that could be lit in whichever way the filmmakers wanted. Lourié and Litvak intended to achieve a kind of "poetic reality," and they succeeded. At the same time, the artifice sometimes clashes with the realism, and when it does the film feels aimless.

The Long Night was a commercial and critical failure, and lost approximately $1 million, but it was also the springboard for Barbara Bel Geddes's long onscreen career. After seeing her performance in the film, RKO signed her to a seven-picture deal.


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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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