Friday, March 15, 2024

Oscar Film Journal: The Racket (1928)

The Oscars may be over for this year, but that doesn't mean the Oscar Film Journal has to stop....

Today I'm once again headed back to the inaugural slate of Best Picture nominees to review the third and final one, Lewis Milestone's The Racket, starring Thomas Meighan and Louis Wolheim.  Produced by Howard Hughes and based on a stage play of the same name, The Racket is a silent gangster film taking place in Prohibition Era Chicago, pitting an idealistic but seasoned police officer against a hardened mob boss.  Backed by the city's corrupt political machine, the gangster Nick Scarsi seems to enjoy complete immunity from legal action, even when his crimes are flagrant and out in the open.  Police Captain James McQuigg is nonetheless determined to bring him down, and in his desperation is even willing to resort to extralegal means to fight fire with fire.  
Meighan is the classic square-jawed good guy who, even after the mob has him reassigned to the suburbs, will stop at nothing to get his man.  Wolheim may have been blessed with the greatest-ever face to portray a thug, with his bent, flattened nose and cinderblock head; he looked like he was born to play these types of characters, and in fact enjoyed a lucrative career being typecast before his untimely death at 50.  

The story here is pretty standard cops vs. mob fare, complete with a flapper to provide the careful gangster's one weakness (or two I suppose - once his younger brother gets nabbed for a hit-and-run all bets are off).  Its stage roots come through in the scene blocking and pacing, as the film is very dialogue-driven and plays like a parlor drama.  Most of the cinematography is covered in flat angles that simply show us what's happening, rather than evoking a mood.  In that respect it's one of the less visually engaging silent films I've seen.  

The most memorable thing about The Racket is really its villain; Wolheim fully embodies the ruthless criminal no one wants to cross, until he lets his personal attachments cloud his judgment and becomes a liability for his superiors (Interestingly the role was originated on stage by Edward G. Robinson).  Aside from his portrayal The Racket is fairly pedestrian stuff and probably the weakest of that first field of nominees.

I give the film **1/2 out of ****.

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