“Who said I was an honest citizen? And what would it get me if I was?”
– Lizabeth Scott to Robert Mitchum in The Racket
Left to right above: Robert Ryan, John Cromwell, Lizabeth Scott and Robert Mitchum
As I wrote, “the traumatized figure of Robert Ryan as old-school rough and tough gangster Nick Scanlon towers over the wreckage of John Cromwell’s The Racket (1951), although the film has so many “punch up” scenes inserted after the completion of principal photography by director Nicholas Ray that it almost qualifies as a co-direction job. In addition, the actor/director Mel Ferrer, the film’s editor Sherman Todd, the film’s producer Edmund Grainger, and even director Tay Garnett (of The Postman Always Rings Twice) also took a hand in the proceedings, all under the overzealous and one might say hyper-controlling supervision of Howard Hughes, who at this point owned RKO Radio, the studio where this film was made, having acquired controlling interest in the company in 1948.
Hughes could never leave a project alone after it was finished shooting, in some cases scrapping whole elements of a film’s plot after principal photography. William Cameron Menzies’ delirious noir The Whip Hand comes immediately to mind; the film originally was about a plot devised by Adolf Hitler (Bobby Watson) to fatally poison America’s water supply, but after the film wrapped, Hughes decided that the villains should be Communists, who were suddenly much more trendy, and large segments of the film were reshot, at considerable added expense.
In the case of The Racket, the film was based on a silent film from 1928, also produced by Howard Hughes, and directed by a youthful Lewis Milestone, which was based in turn on a Broadway play by Bartlett Cormack, and starred Thomas Meighan, Louis Wolheim and Marie Prevost. Interestingly, the Broadway play version starred Edward G. Robinson, and, as an actor, a young John Cromwell, the director of the 1951 version, and the stage production subsequently toured throughout the country, winding up in Los Angeles, where Robinson was discovered by Warner Bros. and thrust into a series of gangster films that made him a star.
For many years, the 1928 version of The Racket was considered a “lost film,” but a print was finally located by Dr. Hart Wegner of the University of Nevada Las Vegas Film Department, and restored by Jeffrey Masino, with a new music track by Robert Israel. In 2004, the film was screened on Turner Classic Movies for the first time, but has yet to make it on to DVD; the 1928 version is certainly more coherent than the 1951 version, but the later version also has its merits – in a bizarre sort of way.
Chief among the pluses for the 1951 version are Robert Ryan, at his psychotic, raging best as outmoded gangster Nick Scanlon; Robert Mitchum somnolently strolling through his role as Captain Thomas McQuigg, an honest police captain in a city that has gone completely corrupt; the always dependable Lizabeth Scott as Irene Hayes, a nightclub singer who is predictably mixed up in the rackets; William Talman, surprisingly cast against type – he usually played murderers, thugs, and psychotic killers – as eager-beaver Officer Bob Johnson; Ray Collins as the exquisitely corrupt District Attorney Mortimer X. Welch; and last but far from least, William Conrad as Detective Sergeant Turk, another corrupt cop, who says almost nothing throughout the entire film but always seems to be hanging around the edges of the frame, chewing gum, and effectively stealing scenes from anyone who tries to upstage him.
Nor is this all; a gallery of pug-uglies, stoolies and other assorted noir characters round out the dramatis personae, from Walter Sande as a reliable sidekick cop to Mitchum’s Captain McQuigg, Les Tremayne as Harry Craig, head of the Crime Commission, the smooth heavy Don Porter as R.G. Connolly, front man for the never-seen “Old Man” who runs the entire corrupt enterprise, and noir regulars Harry Lauter, Don Dillaway, Howland Chamberlain, Tito Vuolo, Herb Vigran, Richard Reeves, Iris Adrian, Don Beddoe and others too numerous to mention. RKO had a heavy pool of talent to draw from in 1950s Hollywood, and even if these actors weren’t stars, they were solid professionals who could be counted on to show up on time, know their lines, and get through their scenes efficiently and with absolute conviction, even if the film’s script sometimes crumbled beneath them.”