Monday, January 5, 2009

In Brief: THE RACKET (1951)

John Cromwell's film for RKO is producer Howard Hughes's second go at this story, the first appearing in 1928. The movie betrays its theatrical origins in having so much of the action take place in one setting, a precinct station where Robert Mitchum presides as a tough, incorruptible police captain who gets transferred whenever his activities become inconvenient for local corrupt politicians. "Presides" is probably a misrepresentation, since Mitchum takes a while to show up in his own movie, and the captain really isn't the protagonist of the story. It's actually hard to figure out who is. There's a younger cop (William Talman) who recklessly resolves to emulate Mitchum, but he gets killed. Then there's a reporter who shows up even later than Mitchum does, but eventually emerges as an important character through his determination to tell the truth and his influence on the nightclub singer who might herself be the protagonist, since she undergoes a conversion experience from hard-boiled floozy to righteous stoolie. These last are the primary romantic couple of the story, and one gets the sense that Mitchum's part has been built up, including a scene when gangsters try to blow up his home, in order to justify his star presence. And who's the villain? Is it Robert Ryan's old-school thug or the mysterious "Old Man" who controls everything behind the scene, speaking to his minions only through his mouthpiece? The DVD builds up Ryan's character as a sort of anti-hero equivalent of Mitchum's old-school cop, almost an object of sympathy for being out-of-date. But in practice the character is an unsympathetic thug, brazen enough to storm a police station to kill an informant (only to take out a cop instead), but maybe to be pitied in the way he's set up to be eliminated in the end. One aspect of the story (or this version, at least) that I liked is that, while two subordinate villains are defeated by a virtual deus ex machina device, perhaps for the sake of the Production Code, the "Old Man" makes it through unscathed. We don't even get the revelation I expected of the mouthpiece actually being the Old Man. You're left with the sense of a battle being over, the war going on, and two people who didn't belong leaving the field lucky to survive.

The interesting thing about the scene I mentioned in which Mitchum's home is bombed is the way it reminded me of Fritz Lang's The Big Heat (1953). In The Racket Mitchum's wife is rattled but unhurt, and encourages her husband to carry on. In The Big Heat, the wife of Glenn Ford's crusading cop is blown up and killed by a car bomb, and the film focuses thereafter on Ford's implacable pursuit of justice and revenge. Having seen Lang's movie, I found myself thinking of The Racket as a rough draft of The Big Heat and inevitably inferior to the finished product. But Robert Ryan makes it entertaining, as he does many noirs of the period. Mitchum fans may be less impressed, however.

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