Monday, 7 May 2018

Southbank shootout... The Racket (1928) with Stephen Horne, BFI

“A good story, plus good direction… a great cast… minus dumb supervision, is responsible for another great underworld film.” Variety, 1928

Two old friends from the toughest part of town, once choses the line of the law and the other takes his chances outside of it. Neither understands the other: time to get out of your racket says Louis, the gangster, “I happen to like my racket” says McQuigg a captain in the police force.

The Racket was amongst the first of many and for that reason and many others it feels ahead of its time; you can almost hear Thomas Meighan’s Irish drawl and Louis Wolheim’s guttural threats. It’s a template that grew and grew but essentially remained the same from the early 30’s to the films of Scorsese and HBO serials such as Boardwalk Empire. Modern-day Westerns? That point of emerging capitalism at which organisation is first brought by opportunism before regulations level the field…

It’s a world of nostalgic curiosity for an ultra-violent underground we never experienced and a visceral take on defined moral choices we are sure we’d be on the right side of. 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.

Louis Wolheim and Thomas Meighan
I’ve seen The Racket before but this was the first time on screen and with expert live accompaniment provided by one of the hottest guns in town, Stephen Horne who, whilst he didn’t bring any violent cases… sorry, violin cases, brought his gangster game and delivered some controlled violence of his own on the NFT1's unsuspecting piano. As ever, accompaniment brings out the most meaning in silent films and today Mr Horne brought a jazz-age swagger to a jaunty piano score that matched the toughness of the majority of the central characters, including a marvellously spunky Marie Prevost.

It was a bar-room brawl of a score and made total sense in light of the film’s mix of gallows humour with a more serious side. We even had the debut (possibly…) of Stephen whistling, this time along with a couple of daredevil reporters trying to get a story at a gangster funeral: there is something comic about gangsters but they’re deadly serious.

Accordingly, The Racket 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 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…

Marie Prevost
It features 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.

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…

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…

The delicate flower that is Louis Wolheim
First we see the newly curled blonde mop of Helen (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.

Then, events are interrupted by the arrival of Spike and his boys intent on some instant ledded-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.

Out in these sticks, there's not much to do with Mr Scarsi’s business until his foolish brother drives up 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.

No one's taking Helen for a ride... not even Nick Scarsi
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. 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?!

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…

The dodgy DA tries to persuade Mac...
The Racket was only found in Hughes’ archive after his death and was restored by TCM in the noughties and presented with a forceful new score from Robert Israel which has plenty of good moments but does threaten to smother the action with intent: I enjoyed Stephen Horne’s music today far more… if ever a player could tip the end of their nose and wink at the audience then here he was, honky-tonk Horne, with nuanced gangster-wrapping for this sublte and surprising film.

The Racket was one of the first films to be nominate as Outstanding Picture in the 1929 Academy Awards – the winner being the mighty Wings - whilst Marie P surely deserved a Best Supporting Actress nomination for she steals every scene she’s in!

Great to see it “live” in BFT1 and, despite the weather, so well attended too! Here's lookin' at you...

Heart. Of. Gold.

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