Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Racket (1928)

If I could point to one scene in The Racket that sums up the whole thing, it would be the first gun fight. Two rival gangs of mobsters, shooting it out in a bustling urban square—using, as their cover, several large trucks. On the sides of those trucks: the names of politicians. There’s an election coming up, you see.

Those trucks are rolling ads for men of high ideals. But inside them are men of violence. Wherever a politician goes, you can be sure there’s a crook along for the ride.

The film’s director, Lewis Milestone, clearly had this theme on his mind. He would go on to make All Quiet On the Western Front (1930), which considered institutionalized moral decay in its most lethal form. But it is another Milestone picture: The Front Page (1931), that most closely recalls The Racket. The Front Page was about a surly group of journalists covering an execution. Not a single character in it, with the exception, possibly, of the anarchist facing the rope, had anything like a moral code. And like The Racket, The Front Page was really a comedy.

Here’s the bitter joke of it: in the face of an illegal liquor trade, murder in the streets, and corruption climbing to the highest level—even to the office of the DA—what The Racket is really about is a pissing contest between two guys. On one side we have Nick Scarsi (Louis Wolheim): a squat bruiser of a mob boss with deep pockets and dirt on everybody. On the other side is McQuigg (Thomas Meighan): a police captain, straight as they come. These men do not hate each other—an early scene establishes that. Their rivalry is the result of positions into which each man has been irrevocably placed. They oppose one another because they must—as though they were two combatants sculpted from the same piece of stone.

I use that image because I think the appearance of these two men mattered a great deal to Milestone. Several times he photographed them standing nose-to-nose. On the surface these are simple shots, expressing the basic tone of their conflict. But such was the physicality of the two actors that the images come to mean more.

Meighan was a handsome man, in that late-Silent Era, kind of bland, Hollywood way. You can imagine a casting director putting out a call for a certain profile, then hiring him on the spot. Wolheim, meanwhile, had a massive head and practically no neck—and a nose pressed flat, as though he’d been run face-first into the base of an iron. To put these men in the same shot, close up, was to mark two extremes of male beauty. There was no middle ground they could share.

Nick and McQuigg are not the whole film—there are several other characters whose lives are very much entwined with theirs. There’s Nick’s younger brother, Joe (George E. Stone): a college boy who loves the nightlife, much to Nick’s displeasure. There are other police officers, and press men and lawyers. And then there’s Helen (Marie Provost): a world-weary gangster’s moll who captures the spirit of the film better than anyone else.

But none of these people change the order of things. None of them can so much as budge Nick and McQuigg—and even when they do motivate the mobster or the lawman, the result is always a continuance of the greater feud.

McQuigg promises to drive Nick out of business. Nick responds by having him driven right out of town—using his connections to get the cop transferred to a precinct in the sticks. Later, Joe’s foibles land him in McQuigg’s custody, resulting in tragic outcomes for both men. But still McQuigg maneuvers—considering ways that he can turn Nick’s situation against the whole criminal organization. Significantly, the closing sequence involves McQuigg trapping Nick in a confined space. This all boils down to territory, after all.

You expect fine cinematography from a Milestone film and indeed it is here. There is no angle from which the mobsters are not shot (literally); among the best examples being an early scene in which Nick’s party is crashed by members of an opposing gang, who slowly begin occupying the empty seats in the room, surrounding him in a way that is both casual and menacing. It is never entirely clear where they are in relation to Nick—save one, who is clearly in a line of sight, and therefore has a clear shot—and so one feels they are everywhere. I also liked a shot taken over Wolheim’s shoulder: his broad back consuming most of the frame, and in front of him an underling, dipping in and out of view as he squirms in his chair.

The Racket was nominated for Best Picture in the Academy’s first period of eligibility (the category was then called “Outstanding Picture”). It went up against Wings and Seventh Heaven—establishing an apples-to-oranges precedent that the Oscars have held to ever since. But the films do have one thing in common: each of them portrays a world that is overwhelmingly bad, and questions what it takes for a person to survive. In Wings they fly as high as they can; in Seventh Heaven, they go down, down deep within themselves. Only in The Racket do the world and the men become one.

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