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.
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|
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…
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|
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|
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 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.