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.