By Philip Schweier
The Racket (1951) also features Robert Ryan, but this time he’s on the other side of the law, starring as Nick Scanlon, public enemy #1 in an unnamed city where Robert Mitchum, as honest police captain Tom McQuigg, holds the line between decent folk and the forces of evil.
The film opens as the governor convenes a gathering of the special commission on crime. There’s a criminal mastermind about, known only as “The Old Man,” and the governor promises to lead investigator Harry Craig (Les Tremayne, years before he hitched his crime-fighting recreational vehicle to young Michael Gray) to back them all the way.*
Shifting gears, we find ourselves in the company of Nick Scanlon (Ryan), an old-fashioned thug who has risen to the top of the crime ladder. He’d rather settle things with a gun than use the finesse and subterfuge that seems to be the forte’ of The Old Man, whose underlings operate through a front, fixing elections and buying judges.
Meanwhile, McQuigg has been shifted around from one district to another, apparently never allowing him access to Scanlon’s crooked operations, or if he had, he’s never there long enough to accomplish much. Now, however, he has an ally in a young cop named Johnson (William Talman), who is willing to buck the corrupted system and put his life and career on the line.
Aiding the forces of evil are crooked D.A. Mortimer Welsh (Ray Collins) and his lackey, Det. Sgt. Turk (William Conrad). But if Scanlon has weak spot to be exploited, it’s his kid brother Joe (Brett King), who’s smitten with torch singer Irene Hayes (Lizabeth Scott; frankly, I’ve never understood the appeal). Hayes’ is Joe’s weak spot, up to a point. Like most criminal types, he’s not the kind of guy to stick around when she finds herself in a jam, sending her into the arms of Johnson’s reporter friend Dave Ames (Robert Hutton)
Yes, it’s all very incestuous.
It’s made clear almost from the start who is on which side of the law, and the rivalry between Scanlon and McQuigg takes a while to heat up. There’s very little action until Scanlon’s boys come to see Johnson about his life insurance. But the movie as a whole is taut little thriller, a chess game if you will between good and evil.
Ryan, as Scanlon, turns in a very satisfying performance as the thug you love to hate. I have to admit, I’m not one of Ryan’s biggest fans (Ivan’s note: That’s it, Schweier—you’ve written your last review for this blog…), his pompous role as Col. Breed in The Dirty Dozen (1967) having (perhaps unfairly, I’ll admit) colored my view a little.
The Racket was directed by John Cromwell, who (according to IMDB.com; apply grain of salt here), starred as McQuigg when the story was originally a Broadway play in 1927. The movie was co-written by W.R. Burnett, who contributed mightily to many of the classic crime movies such as High Sierra (1941), This Gun For Hire (1942), and The Asphalt Jungle (1950).
*Didja ever see something so clearly that you had to ask yourself, “How could it not be true?” while those around you clearly ignored it altogether. Kind of one those Sherlock Holmes moments, when he’s doped out the solution long before ever leaving the comfort of his London digs? Such is the case in the opening scene, as the governor sits framed in the shadow of the window. Those who have seen Mel Brooks’ High Anxiety (1977) will know what I’m talking about.