Thursday 29 March 2007

The Racket (1928) Lewis Milestone

Apparently this is notable for being a Howard Hughes production, but it caught my attention more because it's directed by Lewis Milestone. He initially seemed to me like a one hit wonder because he made All Quiet on the Western Front but seemingly nothing else of consequence. However the more I catch up on his work, the more he seems like an unjustly neglected talent. This is my sixth Milestone and so far only Rain disappointed me, being a notably lesser though still fascinating film. Milestone also made Ocean's Eleven, way later than these films and the wonderful Two Arabian Knights.

Like Two Arabian Knights, this is another opportunity to see Louis Wolheim appear for Milestone before they worked so well together on All Quiet on the Western Front. Wolheim's battered face is perfect for a gangster role and he eats up the part, scowling every time the camera points his way. He plays Nicholas Scarsi, a fully recognised member of the Anti-Liquor League of America, but of course a dangerous gangster behind a respectable front. His arch enemy is James McQuigg, police captain, who Thomas Meighan plays just like someone like Pat O'Brien would a decade later.

There's a wonderfully crafted scene early on that sees Scarsi shoot dead rival Spike Corcoran in a crowded restaurant full of police and gangsters. He gets away with it too, with his ugly mug grinning the way only Louis Wolheim's can. Of course after being on the scene and not just failing to stop the murder but also to catch the killer, McQuigg is quickly reassigned to the remote and unimportant 28th Precinct. However somehow the action catches up to him, however remote and unimportant his new precinct happens to be.

Meighan is technically the star but it's Wolheim's show all the way. He's just too dynamically expressive not to steal any scene he's in. His baby brother Joe, carefully kept away from the rackets, is dynamic too, as he's played by George E Stone, well known much later as the Runt in the Boston Blackie series. The other link between Scarsi and his brother is gold digger Helen Hayes, played by Marie Prevost who is far more famous for starving herself to death and having a Nick Lowe song written about her. She was apparently one of the casualties of the advent of sound, which is a shame because she's someone worth watching otherwise.

As for the film itself, it has a few moments of excellence like the party murder scene but otherwise just sits there as a solid entertaining film that doesn't sparkle as it really ought to given that it was nominated for the first Best Picture Oscar of them all, way back when it all began.

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