Friday, December 11, 2009

1927/28 - The Racket

New York is cold! As I write this, it is slightly below zero outside. That's zero degrees Celcius, although it might as well be zero degrees Fahrenheit. In fact, taking into account the wind chill factor, it's probably zero degrees Kelvin. It's not snowing tonight, but New York experienced its first snow of the season a few days ago, which looked marvelously romantic as I watched it float delicately against the bright neon lights of 42nd Street ... until I stepped outside, when it immediately lost all its romance by smacking me in the face, melting on my nose and dribbling down the back of my neck. Conclusion: snow is better experienced from indoors.

Today, I rugged up and watched one of the original Best Picture nominees from Oscar's freshman outing...

The Racket
Lewis Milestone
Bartlett Cormack
(based on his play)
Thomas Meighan, Louis Wolheim, Marie Prevost
Academy Awards:
1 nomination
0 wins

It is perhaps a stroke of fortune that I began this project when I did, because had I embarked on this journey a little over five years ago, the silent gangster film The Racket would have been near impossible to get a hold of. In fact, the picture had been considered lost for decades until a print was uncovered in the vast personal collection of the film's producer, Howard Hughes, leading to a restoration that was eventually completed just a few years ago when it first aired on TCM.

The story begins with organised crime boss Jack Scarsi (Wolheim) attempting to scare incorruptible police captain James McQuigg (Meighan) out of town. McQuigg tries to shut Scarsi and his crew down, but since they own almost everyone in the justice department, McQuigg is thwarted at every turn. Finally fed up with McQuigg's constant badgering, Scarsi orchestrates his transfer to a distant and quiet precinct where he can be no nuisance. But when Scarsi's brother is nabbed for a hit and run in this new precinct, McQuigg uses this as leverage and the tides begin to turn.

Like most people, I don't often watch silent movies and, when I do, it's probably Chaplin or some other slapstick fare. So, I was pleasantly surprised at The Racket's success in holding my attention. More than that, it was genuinely engrossing. Since there is no sound, I shouldn't be surprised that the filmmakers would concentrate on the visuals, but director Lewis Milestone is particularly smart in his use of striking images and evocative framing, foreshadowing many of the film's successors in the crime genre.

The titles delightfully exploit every stereotype of 1920s gangster slang and, while it may not be precisely how they actually spoke, it sure is fun to hear a man call his enemy a "dumb harp" or a "big balloon". It was also especially amusing to see a nightclub singer using a bullhorn. I guess I hadn't contemplated how singers made themselves heard before the advent of microphones. Finally, in a fascinating coincidence, the character played by Marie Prevost goes by the name of Helen Hayes, not to be confused with The First Lady of the American Theatre who would herself win an Oscar only a few years after this film was released.


  1. Looking forward to seeing this on February 16, 2010 on TCM. Along with "Underworld," this was a watershed film that was a harbinger to the big 30s gangster films "Little Caesar," "The Public Enemy" and "Scarface- the Shame of the Nation."

    As I mentioned elsewhere, I've had the 1951 remake in my noir collection. That one had Robert Mitchum as the intrepid Police Captain and Robert Ryan as the cagey thug. It was more political expose than classic noir, but a good story nonetheless.

  2. Matt, I just started a blog documenting my journey through all of the Best Pic nominees a few days ago. I'm still in 1927/1928 and the ONLY movie I haven't been able to find is The Racket. I stumbled across your blog when I was trying to find it available online and wanted to know where you were able to find it! I look forward to reading through your blogs as well. Good luck!

  3. Hi Laura. Yes, The Racket was a difficult one to find. It's on TCM every now and then, but since I don't get TCM, I had to be more creative. I'll just say this: BitTorrent is your friend :) Good luck with your blog! I'll follow along.