Sunday night, Turner Classic Movies aired The Racket, one of the very last best picture nominees I have not been able to find. As the film was being introduced, it confirmed more of what I had heard. For decades the film had been lost, feared to have no surviving prints. After Howard Hughes, who produced the film, died, a copy was found in his film collection. The film was then restored and preserved at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas film department. There was no audio for the film, so the music had to be recorded again. It’s a longshot miracle that this film has been found, preserved and aired on television, so if you get a chance, make sure to catch The Racket next time it is aired on TCM.
Directed by Lewis Milestone The Racket is a silent crime film set in Chicago during the era of prohibition. Good guy police officer James ‘Mac’ McQuigg (Thomas Meighan), walks the straight and narrow trying to stop bootleggers. His main offender is Nick Scarsi (Louis Wolheim), a mafia leader. Catching Scarsi red handed is the easy part for Mac. Scarsi is protected by crooked politicians and a judge that gets him out of jail before he’s hardly in the station. It’s all very frustrating for Mac.
After trying too long to scare Mac off, Scarsi pulls some strings and has Mac transferred out of the city and into the quiet suburbs. But when Scarsi’s little brother slips up in Mac’s new town, a cast of newsmen, officers and a gold digging flapper girl come together in a big attempt to bring Scarsi down.
As tired as I was while seeing The Racket (TCM aired it around midnight), I found it surprisingly thrilling. Many scenes have a great suspenseful build and the chaos of crime can be very exciting at times. One of my favorite scenes was when Mac goes into Scarsi’s nightclub and witnesses a murder. The dialogue slows, all we get is building music and many people giving menacing looks across the room, yet the tension becomes very thick very quickly.
One thing I noticed about the music it that it has a different tone than most films from the late twenties. This is not a complaint, and since the music was written at the time of the film’s production, I believe this comes from its modern recording. In fact, it sounds wonderful. The music has a big, warm sound, rather than an a very brassy, wavering sound like many older recordings. It gives the whole film a revitalized sound.
An early film trick that worked wonderfully in The Racket was a superimposed moment. In a funeral scene, Scarsi looks at two lines of men, seated across from each other, each with a hand under a bowler on their laps. The moment fades the hats to reveal each man pointing a gun underneath their hat. I love how Scarsi seems to smile at the quiet tension and loyalties to him.
The Racket is a gem for any classic film fan to find. The story of crime and corruption is thrilling and fun. And of course, Meigham and Wolheim are amazing to watch as perfect enemies.
“-Take a tip, Mac… change your racket. ”