Friday, 17 May 2013

Movie Review: The Racket (1951)


A straightforward crime thriller about one honest cop taking on a crime syndicate, The Racket benefits from a potent duel between the central characters played by Robert Mitchum and Robert Ryan. However, the rest of the movie stumbles into fairly conventional territory.

A professional criminal syndicate headed by a never seen "old man" has seized control of all illegal enterprises in the city. Led on the ground by long time local gang chief Nick Scanlon (Ryan), the syndicate also controls the civic administration and justice system through bribes, with the business of crime operated out of legitimate-looking companies. Scanlon's latest initiative is to get crooked District Attorney Mortimer Welch (Ray Collins) elected as a judge.

The one incorruptible senior cop in the city is Captain Thomas McQuigg (Mitchum), and he is determined to get Scanlon off the street. McQuigg tries to enlist the unwilling help of nightclub singer Irene Hays (Lizabeth Scott) to testify against Scanlon, and also finds an ally in idealistic honest cop Bob Johnson (William Talman). When Scanlon begins to sense that his old fashioned brutish tactics are at odds with the syndicate's newer, more corporate way of doing things, he lashes out against his enemies.

Produced by Howard Hawks to capitalize on a real-life high profile investigation into New York crime and corruption, and based on a stage play from the late 1920s, The Racket boils down to a two person face-off. Nick Scanlon and Thomas McQuigg are equally stubborn in wanting to get their way, and the film is a collision between irresistible force and immovable object.

In the acting competition, Robert Ryan's intensity registers higher than Robert Mitchum's integrity. Ryan has more to play with, since Scanlon is both a perpetrator of crime and a victim of a shifting landscape, his old fashioned, break-their-bones methods losing favour under the new regime of the old man. Ryan demonstrates authority drowning in increasing panic, as the law closes in from one end and his criminal allies frown on his violent retaliation.

In contrast, Mitchum is less interesting as a strictly linear straight cop, Hawks and his studio RKO Pictures apparently eager to rehabilitate his image after marijuana-related untoward publicity. Unable to use his laid-back persona to generate hidden menace, Mitchum resorts to the uninspired side of understated.

Director John Cromwell errs on the side of over-complication, with an avalanche of names littering most conversations and minor hoodlum characters getting unnecessary prominence without the necessary context.

The Racket is basic no frills cops versus criminals, honest in intent, humourless in style, and hard-edged in delivery.






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