Chicago—night, circa 1925. A high window opens and a head bobs up in front of the dim, disquieting jumble of the city. From shadowy perches in brick buildings, a few ugly mugs peer out into the street. One gives the nod. We know by their eye-line matches that they’re looking at the indistinct, moving blotch that must be a lonesome man walking down the rainy, deserted street—with a gun trained on him from above.
What a curtain-raiser! And all without a word, without a noise. This tense little opener suggests the compact sophistication of storytelling that films had achieved on the brink of sound—and how much of the gangster picture was already there, already loaded, before audiences could hear the Tommy gun, that great star of the talkies, add his voice to the melee.
Directed by Lewis Milestone and nominated for Best Picture, The Racket snappily adapted a smash stage play by Bartlett Cormack. The plot follows a stubborn cop, Captain McQuigg, in his attempts to take down Nick Scarsi, a notorious bootlegger—a thinly veiled stand-in for Al Capone.
Unfortunately for McQuigg, Scarsi wields power over certain important political wards that could slide an upcoming election. The gangster calls on his friends in high places to get McQuigg exiled to a precinct far from the action.
But fate intervenes, sending Scarsi’s beloved baby brother—and his platinum blonde fiancée—to jail for a hit-and-run in McQuigg’s precinct! The stage is set for a major showdown between the fiercely determined, besieged lawman and the dangerously amoral outlaw.
If that doesn’t get you interested, here are five reasons why this movie is more than worth any trouble you might go through to see it.
5. Because it was long considered to be lost!
Howard Hughes, who went on to produce Scarface, perhaps the greatest of the 1930s gangster films, also produced The Racket. For years, the film was out of circulation and historians figured that it had been destroyed, given the widespread callous neglect of silent films, thought to be obsolete and non-bankable as soon as sound came in. Well, Hughes might have been a real nutcase, but fortunately he knew well enough to stash away a print of this terrific gangster flick, which was discovered in his home after his death and restored. So tune in to it if you can—you almost didn’t have the chance!
4. Crackling dialogue—and more time to enjoy it.
I don’t know about you, but I can’t watch a Ben Hecht newspaper comedy without getting the Benz, in a delicious way, of course, but it takes effort to process that much cleverness so quickly. The nice thing about snappy silent “dialogue” is that you get to read it and actually savor a moment to chuckle over some of the puns and double-entendres that might get overlooked in the rolling tide of talkie wisecracks or patter.
A few samples of The Racket’s funny or clever lines:
Scarsi (getting into his luxurious car, as poor police officer McQuigg stands in the rain): “Take a tip Mac—change your racket.”
McQuigg (holding a gin bottle just thrown through a window by a drunk reporter): “This is a fine thing to come sailing out of a police station in this God-forsaken Zone of Quiet.”
Scarsi (commenting on rowdy on-lookers at the funeral of a man he killed): “They ought to have some respect for the dead.”
Helen (to a hilariously naïve reporter): “I wonder what’ll happen if you ever have a baby, and no one’s tipped you off about storks.”
3. Because you can spend quality time with some wonderful, all-but-forgotten silent stars.
Thomas Meighan. Marie Prevost. Louis Wolheim. Do these names mean anything to you? If you’d lived in 1928, these three would have been considered, respectively, what Ryan Gosling, Mila Kunis, and Christoph Waltz are today—fan favorites in the all-round hot guy, cute hot girl, and charismatic character actor categories.
Smiley, cheekbone-blessed Thomas Meighan parlayed his good looks into romantic leads in Cecil B. DeMille’s refined sex comedies and shared billing with La Swanson. Unfortunately, the new influx of talkie stars and the effects of the transition to sound torpedoed Meighan’s career, even though his voice apparently wasn’t a barrier. Any chance of a comeback was destroyed a few years later when he succumbed to cancer.
It’s very sad since, in The Racket, Meighan’s black Irish sparkle and pearly, mocking grin make his tireless Captain McQuigg a delight to watch. He manages to project as much cockiness and swagger as the gangsters he’s fighting and thus avoids falling into dull good-boy hero territory. My favorite moment? When he tears up a writ of Habeas Corpus and snarls, “I’m sick of the law.” Maverick cops: making us identify with the Fuzz since way before Lethal Weapon.
Curvaceous, flirty Marie Prevost sure knew how to light up a silent screen with her naughty, fun-loving, yet cynical demeanor. As the golddigging speakeasy singer Helen, she strikes the perfect balance between sultry, sentimental, and vulgar. And smart, too—she’s the one who manages to wrench a confession from tough guy Scarsi in the end! This is one sharp tomato. Watch and learn, ladies, watch and learn.
And Louis Wolheim gives us one of the most arrogant, puffed-up gangsters of all time—a theatrical, yet efficient SOB who grins and chuckles one instant and shoots a guy in the back the next. Wolheim’s nose, so broken and battered that it’s practically a historical landmark, deserves its own Supporting Actor Oscar, if they’d had them in 1928. He’s so irrepressibly, sneeringly good that you can hardly believe he’s a multilingual Cornell grad and ex-math teacher and not a bona fide former racketeer. Although, boy, I bet every kid in his class knew his multiplication tables by heart!
As a bonus, you can also savor seedy, runty five-foot-three character actor George E. Stone—who would continue to play gangsters and snivelling sidekicks in the sound era, most notably in Little Caesar and in the Boston Blackie series—who turns in a delightfully caddish performance Scarsi’s slimeball little brother. This spoiled dirtbag even goes so far as to pull the “my car ran out of gas routine” on the luscious Prevost hoping for a little roadside petting. Sorry, but no dice, little man. Maybe it’s the ‘stache.
2. Because The Racket‘s attitude toward corruption is really ahead of its time.
“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” That utterance makes it onto every list of the best movie lines of all time because it epitomizes the unresolved cynicism, the disillusionment, the paralyzed force of the New Hollywood’s noirish dark side. How newfangled, how courageous, how ambiguously—oh, wait. The Racket did something totally similar in 1928. Sorry, Bob Towne.
As much as Captain McQuigg has struggled to bring down Scarsi—and ultimately gets him out of the way—he watches a new crime lord, a new shady political honcho immediately step in to win public favor. Exhausted and defeated, the exiled policeman hunches over his desk as the already jaded Helen comes over to inform him that it’s a dog-eat-dog world. He was wrong to expect positive results from his heroism.
McQuigg’s deputy suggests that the worn out policeman get some sleep but he shrugs it off, explaining that there’s a lot of clean-up questioning and statement-giving to do. By the time the production’s over, morning will have dawned and “it’ll be time for Mass,” he sighs.
Whoa! No triumphalism, no note of self-congratulation. Just grim soldiering on in the face of insurmountable vice. Way to portray an unrelenting cycle of violence and the Sisyphus-like labors of a decent man in a bad world! The Racket refuses us the comfort of a happy, neat ending and thus delivers a stronger message about crime, corruption, and society than many movies that have come after it.
1. Because it showcases the force of the cinematic medium.
In some ways, The Racket proves how a silent crime picture could actually use cinematic language better than its soon-to-follow talkie descendants. The need for sound synchronization snuffed out some really witty material, as this movie shows us. For instance, in one farcical scene, Scarsi pays his phony respects to a bootlegger rival (whom he himself filled full of slugs!) at a big production gangland funeral. Why, no self-respecting punk would miss the event! As the seasoned racketeer Scarsi surveys at a row of trimly dressed mourners, the camera lingers to examine the black bowler hats on their knees… and then a dissolve provides this laugh-inducing shot of what they’re hiding!
Scarsi chuckles at these deceiving appearances—since his trained mobster X-ray vision can see through them. These kinds of purely visual, abstracted touches don’t show up as often in sound gangster films. Don’t get me wrong: talkie crime films possess moments of apt creativity, like the off-screen killings in The Public Enemy, but I love The Racket for its whimsical, abstracted moments.
For me, this film also deserves major props for proving that the movies can improve on stage play source material—not just reproduce its success. For instance, that opening sequence in which all the eyeline matches, as the hired killer trains his gun on McQuigg, harness the power of editing to keep us on the edge of our seats—that rhythmic use of shot length couldn’t exist in theater. That manner of orchestrating and taming space is unique to the Seventh Art.
Again, when Scarsi shoots his rival in a speakeasy, we see him pull the trigger from under the table. Of all those present, only we the viewers are in on his secret, though we experience the killing from the vantage point not of Scarsi, but of the gun itself. This movie’s sly, fast-paced visual storytelling, carefully trimmed down to slick efficiency, should hardly come as a surprise, since it was shot by Tony Gaudio (who also did the cinematography for talkie gangster classics like Little Caesar and High Sierra.
So check out this silent gem. And if you think silent films are composed of all swooning maidens and melodramatic plot twists, you better watch The Racket and reevaluate your prejudice. ’Cause the boys are all here—and it’s gonna be one wild, hard-hitting ride.
This post is part of the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon, hosted by Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club, Aurora of Once Upon A Screen, and Kellee of Outspoken and Freckled. Visit their blogs and learn more about this wonderful blog event! Find the blogathon on Twitter by searching the #31Days hashtag.
I’m doubling my fun here, since this is also part of the Scenes of the Crime Blogathon! Check it out, see?