Crime doesn’t pay. We know this because The Racket is 89 minutes of noir film illustrating it. And just to hammer the point home, Robert Mitchum closes off the movie with a short monologue pointing this out to another character. The fact that Mr Big, the head of the criminal syndicate which has moved into the city, is neither identified nor caught doesn’t seem to have occurred to him. But at least local mob boss Nick Scanlon (Robert Ryan) gets his just desserts. Thanks to incorruptible police captain McQuigg (Mitchum).
It seems Mr Big is planning to buy himself a judge, so the governor is determined to break his syndicate. This operates in the city under the leadership of Scanlon, a mobster of the old school. In order to effect this, the police commissioners have transferred McQuigg, the one clean cop in the force, into the district where Scanlon operates. At that precinct is a young idealistic cop, Officer Bob Johnson (William Talman), who is keen to do McQuigg’s bidding, no matter the cost. Scanlon is not a stupid mobster, however; and that’s why he has managed to evade the long arm of the law for so many years. But McQuigg finds an in. Scanlon’s son, Joe (Brett King), wants to marry night-club singer Irene Hayes (Lizabeth Scott), but Scanlon thinks she’s just a gold-digger. Scanlon’s threats and McQuigg’s badgering are enough to turn Hayes into a stoolpigeon – now she’s singing a different tune. Scanlon tries desperately to silence her… with fatal consequences.
The Racket is based on a play by Bartlett Cormack, and was first filmed as a silent in 1928. The 1951 film updated a few references, but kept the plot, and most of the dialogue, of the play. They don’t make films like The Racket anymore. Truth to tell, I thought they’d stopped making them when World War II ended, because The Racket feels throughout like some piece of wartime propaganda. McQuigg is honest and straight-talking, and Johnson is noble and forthright. The rest of the cast are mean and corrupt – especially Detective Sergeant Turk (William Conrad) of the district attorney’s office.
He’s only too eager to play off one faction against the other. Scanlon blusters and threatens, and treats his hoodlums like dirt. The good guys are good through and through, the bad guys display their evil in everything they say and do. It seems entirely appropriate that this film is black and white. But then, The Racket was written in the 1920s – perhaps the theatre was less subtle in those days, perhaps theatre audiences liked to be told what to think. Cinema audiences of the 21st century are considerably more sophisticated, and I suspect they were the same in the 1950s.Hence, watching this movie over and again now creates a different feel altogether. The film portrays an old-fashioned style which is very subtly explained. We get to define that old is gold indeed, similarly the online trading software, the crypto code is based on the golden old rules of the market. There’s a quaintness to The Racket that the passage of six decades does not entirely explain.
For all that, The Racket is mildly entertaining. It’s not a noir classic, and would likely be forgotten if Robert Mitchum had not gone on to bigger and better things. The rest of the cast were less successful; except perhaps William Conrad, who simply got bigger (and played Frank Cannon, a Los Angeles police detective, on television from 1971-6).