The Racket (1951)

The Racket (1951) is a tough-guy crooked cop corporate crime thriller noir which pits cop against mobster in a classic tale of urban violence, corporate criminality and corruption which may in fact go all the way to the to the top — a great new flavour of wickedness for the 1950s, as the more fantastical and psychological elements of personal corruption are left in the shadowy fun of the 1940s.

As an exercise in casting, The Racket (1951) is a film noir which pulls together so many favourite actors and even directors, that it might appear hard to miss. You'll maybe want to know why The Racket ain't a classic film noir — given that it features Robert Ryan, Robert Mitchum and Lizabeth Scott, supported by William Conrad and William Talman, and with direction from not just the credited John Cromwell, but from Nicholas Ray and Tay Garnett also.

The presence it is asserted of not just these three directors, but also Mel Ferrer and Sherman Todd, suggest that production was perhaps confused, perhaps fraught, and this is doubtless down to the presence of Howard Hughes, as this was the second project announced by RKO after it was purchased by Hughes in 1948. 

Mooks galore in — The Racket (1951)

The plot of The Racket is close to the original play and to the 1928 movie of which it's a remake. Racketeer and mobster Nick Scanlon (played by Robert Ryan) has managed to buy several of the local government and law-enforcement officials of a large midwestern American city. 

Tito Vuolo and Robert Ryan in The Racket (1951)

However, he can't seem to touch the incorruptible police captain Tom McQuigg, who refuses all attempts at bribery. The city's prosecuting attorney, Welsh, and a state police detective, Turk, are crooked and make McQuigg's job as an honest officer nearly impossible.

McQuigg persuades nightclub singer Irene Hayes (Lizabeth Scott) to testify against Scanlon, which marks her for death. McQuigg not only wants to nail Scanlon, but also stop all the mob corruption in the city, without getting himself or his witness killed. A bomb explodes near McQuigg's home, frightening his wife, Mary.

Honest cop Bob Johnson (played by William Talman) is helpful to McQuigg, as is reporter Dave Ames, who has a romantic interest in Irene. 

Death on the streets in The Racket (1951)

At the police precinct one night, Scanlon walks in alone demanding to see Irene, who is being held in protective custody, and kills Johnson in cold blood. After a car chase, Scanlon is arrested. McQuigg ignores the gangster's lawyer, ripping up his writ of habeas corpus. McQuigg has the gun that killed Johnson, which has Scanlon's fingerprints on it.

To combine the snarling Robert Ryan and smooth and unflappable Robert Mitchum is a prospect too exciting for any film noir fan to bear, and to see the two of them punching each other up on more than one occasion is noir violence at its best. 

The two also met in Crossfire (1947), but this is an entirely different kettle of noir. Robert Ryan plays an uncompromisingly violent and sometimes psychopathic hood, a perfect balance to the theme of the movie which is the drift from mobster-based criminality into the corporate criminality which was writ large on the film noir screens of the 1950s.

William Talman in The Racket (1951)

Mitchum is the good cop in a bad world, and incorruptible. Pitted against the violent and corporate criminality of Robert Ryan's character, he has his work cut out  — but that is the joy of this type of movie — a type of movie that is still being made.

William Conrad in The Racket (1951)

The Racket was originally a play on Broadway in the 1927-1928 season and was later made into a silent film by Howard Hughes. In 1951 with the Kefauver Senate Committee hearings ongoing, this type of corporate gangster film began to emerge.

Robert Mitchum's character was based on a man named Lewis J. Valentine who was a well known police captain in New York in the Hylan-Walker era. Valentine was assigned to a team called The Confidential Squad which looked into organised crime — although their title would have made a classic film noir in and of itself. Valentine like Captain McQuigg in The Racket, stepped on plenty toes and got transferred to poor assignments. Finally he was vindicated when Fiorello LaGuardia became mayor, and he made Valentine first the Chief of Uniform Patrol and later Police Commissioner.

Robert Mitchum and Robert Ryan in The Racket (1951)

Corruption is the force which drives The Racket (1951) — and it is systemic and ubiquitous. Robert Ryan as crime boss Scanlon is quite stunning. He is seen as vulnerable insofar as he is old fashioned and fated to die as one form of gangsterism turns into another. He stands for violence, which is a nuance to reckon with, when the newer type of crime evolving prefers other types of force. Scanlon cannot change, while his nemesis McQuigg (Robert Mitchum) is never going to, being a conservative type of cop who believes in protecting the public.

Lizabeth Scott in The Racket (1951)

However McQuigg's methods are still rogue, as he is happy to frame suspects, tear up writs of habeas corpus, and finally allows Scanlon to be killed.

The Racket (1951) is without doubt the strange result of several writers and directors, as Howard Hughes interferingly attempted to cerate cinematic gold. Samuel Fuller was the first writer to work on it, but his script was replaced by director John Cromwell — and finally Howard Hughes personally hired writer W.R. Burnett half way through production, and commissioned a half a million dollars worth of retakes from Cromwell and other directors — the result is a story not exactly rooted in any time and place, which creates a rather unusual atmosphere.

Lizabeth Scott and Robert Hutton in The Racket (1951)

This means prohibition-era elements of the original story combine with the complex political, criminal and police elements to create a film out of time, instead of a deep indictment of social forces. In fact The Racket (1951) even looks like a film that's been directed by several people at various times. The rivalry between the two men is squeezed into several scenes and the result hangs loosely together and at times skirts around its subjects.

Dark deeds in darkness — film noir The Racket (1951)

1951 was like any other year in the mid-century, a busy one for organised crime in the United States. New York mobster Mickey Cohen, a rival of Los Angeles syndicate boss Jack Dragna, was convicted of income tax evasion. Tony Brancato and Tony Trombino, known as the "Two Tony's", were found shot to death in the front seat of an abandoned car in Los Angeles. Both Brancato and Trombino had been identified robbing a syndicate-controlled Nevada hotel.

Robert Mitchum and Lizabeth Scott

In October of 1951 New Jersey mobster Willie Moretti was killed by four unidentified gunman while at a restaurant in Cliffside Park, New Jersey — while the same month the Revenue Act of 1951 was officially signed into law, which became effective November 1, establishing wagering excise and occupational taxes. Although later declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1968, the statute forced many leading bookmakers to move their respective gambling operations out of the United States for several years.

William Talman in The Racket (1951)

After decades of corruption, New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey also ordered the New York State Crime Commission to conduct an investigation of the New York waterfront — an area that had been mob controlled since the 1930s, a fact which encouraged mob and government co-operation during and before World War 2, as Nazi infiltrators were uncovered as they shipped people and equipment into the US.

Car smash in The Racket (1951)

Typically as the 1950s opened and proceeded, noir became somewhat and literally lighter in tone. The shadows were very much the work and style of the 1940s, and scenery and actors tend to be more bathed in light as the stories become more corporate, less fantastic, and more boardroom based at times. 

Showdown — Robert Ryan in The Racket (1951)

Showtime — Robert Mitchum in The Racket (1951)

The story involves two honest cops attempting to stop the mob's plan of electing a corrupt prosecutor to the position of judge — and perhaps the extra light shed on matters concerns the reality that none of this bears any relationship to the fantastical and fatally-twisted stories of the decade before. Instead the province of film noir was becoming a place of social truth. 

The effort here indeed, was to show things that were really happening, and depicting threats far above the heads of the ordinary citizens, while making the ongoing suggestion that corruption was all, and though even though good men and women may be fighting these powers, these powers were still winning because of criminal organisation which had achieved a level far and beyond the prohibition hoods and psychopaths of the previous  decades.

To be clear The Racket (1951) opens the decade wide by showing police chiefs controlled by criminal mobs, and cops who are being encouraged to be more modern and less violent in their approach. 

As well as these there are business-like gangsters who order killings when need be, and while the city's reformers are defeated in the elections, there is a hint that the head crime lord is indeed nobody less than the state's governor.

It's hardly the wholesome picture of a stable and promising 1950s — and in fact it suggests the very opposite in the notion that top to toe the system in which everyone is merrily baking pie and tending the lawn, is criminal in its entirety — hardly on message with the era and yet still eminently tolerable as a public entertainment. 

Corruption is by the 1950s in film noir, not simply an abstract force but a social reality, controlling every corner of public life. All the desires and mechanics of the city are aggregated into crime, and crime alone, a fact made more stark by the lack of moralising on the part of the move — which portrays good and bad as similar yet competing forces, neither of which are able to make any headway with the other.

William Conrad in The Racket (1951)

In fact this vision is crime is uncompromised even by honesty. When the character of Welch is asked why he sold out, he answers that it was because he was promised a judgeship. One form of gangsterism seems to be replaceable by another, by 1951. 

There's an older style mobster in the form of Scanlon, but an interesting take on the morality of the day when Welch says that for McQuigg, honesty is a kind of disease — and there is a suggestion throughout that this may be the case. His extreme honesty is in fact as destructive as Scanlon's old-school brute force approach to policing. 

And although McQuigg is not a mobster, his methods are similar — he tears up a write of habeas corpus and frames suspects, and in the end allows Scanlon to be killed. Unfortunately, the film was pretty much ruined of any chance at pure and consistent excitement by Howard Hughes whose rewrites and reshooting resulted in a  missed opportunity.

What could have been a highly complex and true-to-life portrayal of political, criminal and police forces, all working together, becomes something somewhat tamed and watered down, perhaps cobbled together in the editorial.

Here, the corruption is perennially abstract. The corrupt are taken in by greed, or hunger for power, or sometimes they are just plain twisted. The violence that bursts out of Robert Ryan and Robert Mitchum seems to be pale in comparison to the more blatant violence against the people’s trust by those in political office who sell out as we now expect all in public office to do, for their own gain.

The eternal streets of film noir in The Racket (1951)

It’s just hinted that the real evil comes from the top of the political hierarchy, and focuses on the governor and all his cronies. But The Racket never goes into that, possibly for reasons of circumspection. Instead the real meat is the personal battle between Ryan and Mitchum. 

Opening credits backdrop very similar to that in The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

The main difference between them is that Mitchum acts wicked for the good of society and only goes after the bad guys, while Ryan fights dirty in order to build an nasty little empire for himself and doesn’t care who gets hurt.


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