Saturday, 2 January 2016

Assault on Precinct 28… The Racket (1928)

This film shows some quite surprising shades of grey and Marie Prevost’s character is not alone in wondering what it is the separates the good guys from the bad. Based on Bartlett Cormack’s 1927 play – which featured a star turn from one Edward G. Robinson – The Racket does feel like a theatrical conversion being very much dialogue-driven and mostly based in the same convincingly-drab set of a police station on the edge of town and almost outside the law…

It features a super turn from Thomas Meighan as police Captain James McQuigg who gives a most convincing Irish-American turn full of swagger and sneer as he faces up to Nick Scarsi (Louis Wolheim) the Teflon crime boss from the same neighbourhood. The men are almost friends and perhaps once they were but now they’re involved in an escalating conflict that can only end one way.

Marie Prevost
Powerful as the men are they are pretty much upstaged by a dynamic performance from a blonde Marie Prevost whose nightclub singer Helen, is a girl with a heart of gold and an eye for the digging of same.  Tougher than the boys she drives the story on and balances her books in the devastating style – unscathed by compromise unlike the police, the press and the professional criminals…

The story is another you might expect from the early talkies and the gangster boom that followed and shows almost every character to be on the make – involved in some kind of racket. Nick tells his “pal” to give up his racket and, presumably take up his own but McQuigg responds by saying he likes his racket: the business of honest policing.

Spike and the boys
Things kick off as Nick’s bootlegging distribution drifts into the territory of his rival Spike Corcoran (Henry Sedley) and there’s trouble… Nick attempts to warn off McQuigg but he turns up with his colleagues to spoil the show and arrest as many as possible.

Nick invites McQuigg to a party at Weibergs for his little brother Joe… it’s not clear if he’s trying to work him or that there’s genuine respect. Either way things don’t turn out that well…

Louis Wolheim
First we see the newly curled blonde mop of Marie as she works the nightclub room in her own way homing in on Nick’s rat-like brother before being pushed away by Nick who clearly has issues with women. But Helen’s made of stern stuff and comes back at him.

Events are interrupted by the arrival of Spike and his boys intent on instant karma… they circle around with intent only to be outflanked by McQuigg’s men. It’s not enough though and in a short melee Spike buys the farm and no one saw who sold it. The gloves are off but as McQuigg targets Nick, the long arm of the outlaw reaches into the pockets of the senior officers and the earnest captain finds himself transferred out of harm’s way up in the furthest reaches of Precinct 28.

Helen's not getting taken for a ride
Not much to do with Mr Scarsi’s business up in those parts until his foolish brother arrives with Helen. After rebuffing his clumsy attempt at seduction, Helen leaves the car and Joe speeds off causing a pile up and the death of a young woman. He is taken into custody by the young Patrolman Johnson (G. Pat Collins) who saw it all.

The gentlemen of the press - Welch (Sam De Grasse) and Miller (Skeets Gallagher) are already gathered to get the gen on McQuigg’s relocation and sense there’s more to this story whilst a greenhorn, Ames (John Darrow) has a good heart but no sense.

John Darrow and Marie Prevost
Helen arrives and immediately attracts Ames attention. She’s not letting on with regards to the identity of the hit and run driver and gets sent to the – rather packed – ladies quarters for the night. Sweetly Ames arrives with a nightdress and overnight bag.

Joe’s secret is soon out and the pressure from dodgy judiciary and Nick himself is soon applied. Nick tries to bribe Johnson only to have his money flung back. Having found an honest cop he simply shoots him in the back… is this film ever going to show that cheats don’t prosper?!

McQuigg stands firm
It’s a convoluted and very “wordy” denouement (see above on “stage origins”…) yet which is well acted by the three main leads. Wolheim and Meighan are irresistible forces bouncing off each other and the corruption of their organisations.

It takes Prevost’s Helen to puncture this masculine standoff and to show who it is who has the truest racket of all…

Produced by Howard Hughes, The Racket is well directed by Lewis Milestone who makes the most of the cramped interiors and limited mobility to create an uncomfortable intimacy that bristles throughout. From the opening moments when a window opens onto a night-time street scene to the final shocking shots, the film is noir in the literal sense.

The Racket was only found in Hughes’ archive after his death and was restored by TCM in the noughties and presented with a determined new score from Robert Israel which has plenty of good moments but does occasionally threaten to smother the action with intent.

Mean streets
The film is available to stream on TCM. It was one of the first films to be nominate as Outstanding Picture in the 1929 Academy Awards – the winner being the truly mighty Wings - whilst Marie P surely deserved a Best Supporting Actress nomination for she steals every scene she’s  in!

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