Sunday, February 19, 2012

'The Racket': A Gangster Groundbreaker


"The Racket" is a silent gangster flick released in 1928. It's most notable asset is that it was nominated for best picture for the first Academy Awards, and I can now say that I've seen all five best picture nominees for those awards. How fitting a week before the Oscars in which a silent film is nominated!

The inclusion of "The Racket" was a reflection of its popularity. While it received no other nominations, the film is considered by some to be the first major gangster movie and one that inspired the popularity of the genre during the 1930s. "The Racket" also was the fourth film produced by a young Howard Hughes. In fact, Hughes produced a remake that was released in 1951 starring Robert Mitchum and Robert Ryan, and for many years the silent version was considered lost.

Today it's an enjoyable yet not terribly exciting movie, considering where the genre would go in just a few years. The film stars popular silent screen actor Thomas Meighan as Police Captain James McQuigg, whose nemesis is Nick Scarsi (Louis Wolheim), powerful leader of a gang of bootleggers. The two are friendly - to a point. However, Scarsi gets out of one too many scrapes on McQuigg's watch, and McQuigg is demoted to a far-off precinct, where he proclaims vengeance against Scarsi.

The viewer is pushed into the action, and while the plot isn't complex, it takes a little time to figure out the main players and their relationships with each other.

Director Lewis Milestone keeps the action moving along, although considering how sophisticated silent filmmaking had become, the scenes feel a bit stagy like the early sound movies of the next two years. Even though the film is based upon a play by Bartlett Cormack, you would expect it to have more of a visual flair.

Interestingly enough, Cormack based the story on real events in Chicago. The result was both the play and the film being banned in the city. Still, the play was immensely popular on Broadway and starred Edward G. Robinson, who was shortly thereafter signed by Warners and became a megastar with his appearance in "Little Caesar" - a gangster film.

There are a few excellent sequences in "The Racket," such as the tense showdown between rival gang leaders. As Scarsi and his men are enjoying a night at a speakeasy, Spike Corcoran's posse comes in, breaks into pairs and slowly begin sitting at tables that surround Scarsi's. The tension builds as both gangs defensively eye each other, ready to jump if something happens.


Oddly enough, there's not much of a love interest here. Marie Prevost plays Helen, a club singer who sets her sights on Scarsi's younger brother Joe simply to get back at Scarsi, who threatens her when she flirts with Joe. Otherwise, the show belongs to McQuigg and Scarsi.

As for the two stars, the youthful Meighan doesn't look at all like he's nearly 50 as the police detective. Wolheim is a joy to watch as the villainous yet charismatic Scarsi. In real life, he was highly intelligent, earning a degree in Engineering from Cornell and teaching mathematics there for six years. He would star in Milestone's classic "All Quiet on the Western Front" two years later and was preparing for the lead in Milestone's "The Front Page" when he died from cancer. (The role was played by Adolphe Menjou.)

"The Racket" was nominated for an Academy Award against "Sunrise," "Seventh Heaven," "The Last Command" and "Wings." It's arguably the weakest film of the bunch, but for film buffs it's worth checking out.

6 comments:

  1. I've never seen this, CFB, and you know my love of gangster films! It's interesting to me that Edward G. Robinson played on Broadway, a real precursor to so much of his film career. I would like to see this just to see what is really considered the first gangster movie. Wow, Chicago was really sensitive about this! ("Interestingly enough, Cormack based the story on real events in Chicago. The result was both the play and the film being banned in the city.") Very interesting background info and plot synopsis. Good one, CFB!

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    1. You should check it out. I think you would find it interesting. Also, good to see you back!

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  2. I watched this years ago and was surprised that a silent film in the gangster-genre could be so interesting. I really enjoyed the scenes between Scarsi and McQuigg. They could have cut all the scenes with Marie Prevost, as that side story wasn't all that necessary.

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    1. Glad you liked it! And yes, I agree, the Marie Prevost storyline was pretty dull.

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  3. CFB ~ I have seen "The Racket" several time, and find it stands up with each viewing. I agree this is not the best of the genre, von Sternberg's Underworld (1927) is far more evocative, but this is a good film. The film represents an opportunity for a fan of silent films to see the work of the era's greats such as Thomas Meighan and Louis Wolheim, director Lewis Milestone and a new genre in the making. I like Marie Prevost; she was simply adorable and I enjoy watching her, but even I agree her role added nothing to the story. However, I am fascinated by the chance to see "the world of 1928 America" captured in the flickering shadows.

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    1. I'm glad you liked the movie! I agree with your last line; that's one fascination with classic films in general -- getting the chance to see past eras.

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