Monday 31 August 2020

Movie Review: Racket Busters (1938)

A routine low budget crime drama, Racket Busters is a flat story of truckers caught between goons and government.

In New York City, gangster boss John Martin (Humphrey Bogart) is gradually exerting control over elected officials, and turns his attention to domination of the city's food market. He unleashes his thugs to intimidate the food truckers into joining a new union under his control. The government responds by appointing Special Prosecutor Hugh Allison (Walter Abel) to break up the rackets.

Trucker Denny Jordan (George Brent), his business partner Skeets Wilson (Allen Jenkins) and old-school honest union boss Pop Wilson (Oscar O'Shea) are all opposed to Martin's power grab. Initially Denny takes a strong public stand to oppose the criminals, but when he is frozen out of a living and his pregnant wife Nora (Gloria Dickson) is imperiled, he has a difficult decision to make. In the meantime, Martin does not hesitate to leave a trail of victims as he muscles in on his next target group, the food supply merchants.

A filler feature recycling overused themes from the Warner Bros. crime repertoire, Racket Busters offers nothing new in a story of featureless hardhead goons threatening salt-of-the-earth truckers. But at least the film does not overstay its welcome: director Lloyd Bacon hustles the hard boiled action along in a B-movie appropriate 75 minutes, and does capture some decent street mood scenes with good camera work down at the bustling food market.

Humphrey Bogart's name was retroactively elevated to the top of the credit list once he achieved fame a couple of years later, but his role is quite secondary. He appears in just a few short scenes as intimidating crime boss Martin, and otherwise disappears for long stretches.

The real main character is independent trucker Denny Jordan, and co-writers Robert Rossen and Leonardo Bercovici send the protagonist on a wild and unlikely ride, first intent on stopping the racketeers with his fists, then suddenly changing course to meekly play along, before just as suddenly rediscovering his soul and working his way into a ridiculous climactic brawl. George Brent is miscast and fails to convince in any iteration of the role. 

The good government guys are represented by Walter Abel in the role of Hugh Allison, a character inspired by celebrated real life prosecutor Thomas E. Dewey. Abel is unable to do much in a repetitive portrayal, beseeching the truckers to resist the racketeers then failing to protect them when they do so.

Racket Busters is standard and uninspired, but also economical and unpretentious.

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