The Racket (1951)

*. There’s a scene in The Racket where I actually winced a bit. It comes at a point when Tom McQuigg (yes, that’s the tough-guy name for the no-nonsense police captain) gets exasperated and tosses a paper cup to one side. It just seems off. I don’t buy it. Someone has to pick that cup up off the floor now, and a character like McQuigg shouldn’t have had to punctuate his words with such a silly dramatic gesture anyway.
*. As awkward as this plays, it’s actually repeated in a later scene where McQuigg confronts crime boss Nick Scanlon (yes, there’s a pair of names you won’t encounter outside of such films as this). Scanlon doesn’t have a cup, but he’s eating an apple and at one point he takes what’s left of it and throws it to one side, the exact same gesture made earlier by McQuigg. It’s very silly.
*. Perhaps I only noticed moments like this in The Racket because there was nothing else going on that I was paying much attention to. This is a not-very-interesting crime drama that’s actually a remake of a silent film of the same name that was also produced by Howard Hughes, which was in turn based on a popular play that had made a star of Edward G. Robinson. Hughes had remade it to cash in on the public interest in the Kefauver Committee’s hearings.
*. The Kefauver Committee (full title The United States Senate Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce) held hearings in 1950-51, which made The Racket timely if nothing else. The next year there would be a number of pictures inspired by the Committee, including The Captive City, Hoodlum Empire, and The Turning Point. It was also portrayed in The Godfather Part II, where Michael Corleone testifies before it.

*. I guess I’m going into other stuff here rather than discussing the movie. Eddie Mueller has a very good DVD commentary where he talks about some of the background. It’s informative, but you can tell he isn’t a big fan of it either. Here are some quotes: “Man that is a clunker of a line,” “not a particularly well choreographed fight scene”, “it’s not a very action-packed screenplay,” “does Robert Mitchum look like a cop? I really think he would have benefited immensely from actually wearing the uniform,” “I think Mitchum was less than fully engaged with this one” (meaning he was just walking through the part, which was his habit when he didn’t care about a script according to his Out of the Past co-star Jane Greer), “this is another absurd bit of screenwriting,” “that whole nightclub scene was pretty low rent . . Howard Hughes could really make an impoverished looking production sometimes. There was virtually no money spent on sets in this movie.”
*. The only part I might disagree with in all this is Mueller saying that it’s not an action-packed screenplay. In fact, I think there is a fair bit of action. It’s just that the action isn’t well handled. Robert Mitchum isn’t the most energetic actor on screen at the best of times, and here he really is “walking through” his part. Look at the scene where he discovers the wounded Johnson (William Talman), who is dying from a gunshot wound. “Better get a doctor,” he says, with all the concern and urgency of someone telling the time.

*. In summing up, Mueller admits he prefers the 1928 version and how it would have been better if the remake had been more like the original: focusing on the battle between the cop and the crook for control of the city, with less attention given to things like the Committee. He also suggests that it might have been better if Robert Ryan and Mitchum had switched roles. At least it would have been fun seeing Mitchum wearing that tie Scanlon has on in the final scene. That’s a showstopper.
*. I did think it was an interesting decision not to show the Old Man, head of the criminal syndicate. We don’t even hear his voice over the phone. Mueller says that to increase his amusement while watching the film he likes to imagine the Old Man was Hughes, a reclusive figure who controlled, even micromanaged everything but according to Mitchum never set foot on the RKO lot.
*. Such speculations help to pass the time. As do arguments over whether or not it counts as true noir. Mueller jokes about this as well, saying that the shadows made by a Venetian blind on William Conrad’s face are what tell us it’s noir. I’d maybe point to the lighting in the scene in the garage. Aside from that, however, I think this is just a “conspicuously uninspired” (Bosley Crowther) tales of cops and robbers.
*. Perhaps I’d like it a little more if I had a clearer idea of what’s going on. What with Hughes’s interference the film is a mess, making use of several different directors and turning the original script into something ungainly. I was never sure what exactly Turk’s role was in all this, and what was going to happen to him at the end. Part of the problem is what Mueller identifies as the way all of the corruption is taken totally for granted. McQuigg knows who all the bad guys are, and they know he knows, but . . . life just goes on. At least until the Committee arrives. Then something is mumbled about Acme Real Estate and the door closes, leaving Mitchum to deliver some lines about the turning of the wheels of justice that you’ll have a hard time remembering any more than all the rest of it.

8 thoughts on “The Racket (1951)

  1. Tom Moody

    Given the degree of Hughes meddling in RKO films (notably His Kind of Woman, which you covered a while back), it’s amazing to think of him never being on the set while all this inept backseat driving was going on! I guess I’d somehow envisioned him grabbing the bullhorn from the director’s hand, but it does make sense (knowing how he ended up) that all these terrible edicts were issued by intermediaries coming and going from his private screening room.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      One of these days I’m going to have to read a good Hughes bio. Interesting cat, to say the least, and I really don’t know that much about him.

  2. Tom Moody

    I’ve never read an “objective” bio, and yes, I should. I admit many impressions of Hughes come by way of art: Sam Shepard’s play Seduced (which I was fortunate to see on stage with Rip Torn as the Hughes character), Melvin and Howard, The Aviator, and especially James Ellroy’s fiction, where he is a recurring creepy character, spying on everyone and pulling strings from his cloistered hotel room.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      It’s interesting how Hughes was, at least for a while, such a mythic figure. But today I wonder how many people, young people I guess, would even recognize his name or know who he was.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      Alas, I don’t think we can take Cher as all that representative. I think she has more on the ball and is better informed (yikes!). She’s also one of the last young people to grow up before social media, meaning before young people’s brains were fried. My grumpy old man take for the day.


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