Directed by Lewis Milestone
Produced by Caddo Company, Distributed by Paramount Pictures
Premiered June 30, 1928
Cast: Thomas Meighan (Captain McQuigg), Louis Wolheim (Nick Scarsi), Marie Prevost (Helen Hayes), Pat Collins (Johnson), Henry Sedley (Spike), George Stone (Joe Scarsi), Sam De Grasse (Welch, the DA), Richard "Skeets" Gallagher (Miller), Lee Moran (Pratt), John Darrow (Ames), Lucien Prival (Chick), Dan Wolheim (Sergeant Turck)

Unfortunate, but fortunate

It is unfortunate that "The Racket" is not available on DVD and can only be seen on Turner Classic Movies (TCM). But, then again, it IS fortunate that we can see it on TCM rather than not at all.

And it was likely silent films may never have seen this film since it was only discovered in recent years within Howard Hughes' estate (he produced it) along with a couple of other excellent films we have seen on TCM - "Two Arabian Knights" (1927) with William Boyd and Louis Wolheim and "The Mating Call" (1928) with Thomas Meighan and Renee Adoree. The University of Nevada acquired the films which were then handed off to Jeffery Masino at Flicker Alley for restoration with music scores in 2004.

It is also unfortunate that this film remained "lost" for so many decades since it was one of three films nominated for the first "Best Picture" (called "Outstanding Picture" at that time) Academy Award. Bet you've heard of the other two, though: "Seventh Heaven" (1927) and "Wings" (1927) - with "Wings," as we all know, coming out the winner.

So, for those who have not seen it, that distinction should be enough impetus to make any film fan (silent or sound) want to see this. To the best of our knowledge, at the time of this writing, it was last shown on TCM in 2012. Hopefully, three years off the screen is long enough, and it will be shown again soon - or, better yet, some miracle will bring it to DVD.

And it goes like this . . .

But let's look at the film. Nick Scarsi (Wolheim) is a successful bootlegger in Chicago, and Capt. McQuigg (Meighan) is determined to get him. However, McQuigg is constantly frustrated in his efforts because Scarsi has city hall in his back pocket. It must be added, too, that Scarsi is not above murder - even shooting policeman in the back - so he portrays a character that is despicable enough for the viewer to cheer at his comeuppance in the final reel.

One of the appealing aspects that sets this film apart from most crime dramas, though, is the cat and mouse game that Scarsi and McQuigg play. To say Scarsi is cocky is putting it mildly. He loves maintaining his relationship with McQuigg - to tease and taunt McQuigg that he is beyond his grasp. And that is the case for so much of the film. For example, the film opens with McQuigg walking down a dark, lonely street. A gunman is in an upstairs window. Scarsi is across the street in an upstairs window giving the gunman signals. Just as we think McQuigg is going to be murdered (and he could have very easily), the gunman shoots out a window near McQuigg instead. McQuigg pulls his gun and ducks in a doorway. Very casually and lighting a cigarette, Scarsi comes out of the door behind him. Scarsi has made his point - he can get McQuigg anytime he wants.

We continue to see Scarsi's cockiness justified when he invites McQuigg to a birthday party he's giving for his "kid" brother, Joe, at a local speakeasy. McQuigg - probably to impress his lack of intimidation by Scarsi -- goes and sits at the table with Scarsi and some of his gang. McQuigg notices a place card for Scarsi's right hand man, Chick, but Chick was arrested earlier in the evening in a shootout with a rival gang. McQuigg takes great delight in letting Scarsi know that Chick won't be joining them for the party. No sooner has he said this than Chick shows up with a smug grin on his face. Scarsi's lawyer has done his job once again.

It appears the evening may bring about McQuigg's wish, though, as he steps away for awhile and in comes Scarsi's rival, Spike, with his gang members. The tension in this scene is high as Spike and his gang position themselves strategically around Scarsi's table - Spike alone at a table facing directly at Scarsi. It is obvious both men have guns under the table, and all of the gang members have hands in pockets also holding weapons. Scarsi and his men appear to be surrounded. McQuigg calls headquarters and has a detachment of men sent down. Rather than being upset, Scarsi has a smug, self-confident look on his face when he sees the plainsclothes policemen place themselves behind Spike's gang waiting for someone to make the first move. Surprisingly, with all of the cops in the room, Scarsi shoots Spike. When all hell breaks loose, the cops bring things under control.

It seems McQuigg has Scarsi dead to rights now, but, where's his weapon? No one can actually say it was Scarsi who fired the shot. Although Scarsi is arrested, he is undaunted by it all - and, he has good reason. As soon as he gets to the station, his lawyer is there with a "writ of habeas corpus" signed by the judge for Scarsi's release. This clearly establishes the extent of Scarsi's influence as each time there's an arrest for him or anyone else connected with him, the release is waiting for him before he can be locked up.

Also at the speakeasy that night we are introduced to another important character - Helen Hayes (Prevost), a singer in the club. If Scarsi has one redeeming quality, it's that he wants his younger brother to have no part of this business - AND to stay away from questionable women ("women are poison," he says). So, when Helen flirts with Joe, Scarsi shoves her away. After having words with Scarsi, Helen determines she's going to defy the gangster by going out with Joe. Hold that thought because Helen's dislike of Scarsi plays an important part later in the film.

Totally immersed in an intriguing yarn

The viewer won't have any trouble being totally immersed in this intriguing yarn for its entire 83 minutes because the tension between the two main characters only increases as the story develops - along with the viewer's frustration that Scarsi seems to constantly "one up" McQuigg. What appears to be the last straw is when McQuigg is assigned to a precinct outside the city - what appears to be a sleepy burg with little or no crime to concern it. Scarsi has obviously arranged the convenient transfer through his city hall connections.

So how does McQuigg get to Scarsi when he's out in the "sticks?" Well, Scarsi comes to him through a couple of coincidental events. The first comes about when two Chicago reporters (Gallagher and Moran) come out to get McQuigg's comments on his transfer. McQuigg refuses until one reporter taunts him with, "What's the matter - afraid of Scarsi?" McQuigg turns angrily to the reporters and tells them, "I'm here because Nick's afraid of me! Find him - tell him - tell him I told you. That ought to bring him out here to start something. If it does - you'll have your story." When Scarsi hears this, he determines to send McQuigg "his calling card," but the next event provides Scarsi a much greater incentive to visit McQuigg.

This takes place when Helen and Joe are out for a ride one evening in McQuigg's territory. They have words, and Helen gets out of the car to walk. A policeman happens by, and when he goes to question Joe, Joe flees hitting a woman with his car in the escape. Joe is arrested, and word of the arrest, of course, gets back to Scarsi.

Needless to say, Scarsi shows up (and kills a cop), the lawyer shows up with a writ to release Joe, the crooked DA shows up with his assistant - and the tension is heightened exponentially!! Can McQuigg nail Scarsi this time? It's not giving away anything to say Scarsi gets his just desserts in the end, but exactly how this happens is a pretty snappy twist. Oh, and we said to hang on because Helen was going to be significant to the story line later on - yep, she figures in to that "snappy twist."

Neatly packaged, true-to-life

And having said that, that's one of the great things about this movie. It's a pretty complicated mess for McQuigg because he's not only fighting Scarsi, he's up again a crooked DA, a crooked judge and someone who's referred to as "the old man," obviously the mayor. But when it all comes to an end, everything ends up in a neat package with a pretty bow on it. Nothing is left hanging. No questions go unanswered. It's all very believable, and you won't hear anyone say, "Aw, that's stretching it a little too much!"

Director Lewis Milestone has done a superb job of crafting this movie - not only a tight story line, but a look and feel of the periodand what true-to-life gangster-ism was like - and that is the icing on the cake for this viewing experience. As noted, this film was up for an Academy Award and lost to "Wings," but Milestone wasn't to go without having made a "Best Picture." Just two years later, his "All Quiet on the Western Front" (1930) took top honors at the Oscars. (He has also won the Oscar for best director for "Two Arabian Knights" in the first awards ceremony and for "All Quiet on the Western Front" in 1930.)

Prefect casting

Not enough can be said about the casting in this movie. Few times can we say that each and every character was cast to perfection.

Meighan sometimes gets criticized for his staid and stolid performance, but, as with most of his films, that's just what's called for in the part - and especially so in "The Racket." Much of the "one-upmanship" banter between McQuigg and Scarsi takes place in close-ups with the faces of the two men only inches apart. Actually, when McQuigg responds to Scarsi's veiled threats, he usually moves in a little closer - with a mild smirk on his face - to show Scarsi he's not intimidated. And in the final reel, we feel as we are cheering for the home team as McQuigg leads a pretty tough group of cops - some in uniform and some in plain clothes - in this small burg to which he's been banished. He's in total control even when all seems hopeless and doesn't let down his self assurance in the eyes of his men, the reporters or Scarsi. The New York Times reviewer observed, "Mr. Meighan is a trifle young for the hard-boiled police captain it is his lot to follow . . ." (1) - but we beg to differ on this. At only one or two years shy of 50 years old when this picture was made, he's perfect for the part. In fact, it's hard to imagine another major star of that time being more suited for the role. If the New York Times reviewer felt the gruff, weathered, gray-haired type would have been better casting - well, nah! Meighan plays it tough and cool, and we like it that way.

Photoplay said, "Louis Wolheim, as a bootlegging gunman, gives an interpretation that stands as a masterpiece" (2) - and we couldn't agree more. Watch "Two Arabian Knights," and you'll see Wolheim doing a superb job in the comedy department. Watch "The Racket" and you'll agree he can do it all - and do it well! The cockiness to which we referred earlier is handled to perfection by Wolheim - standing toe to toe with Meighan, that smashed nose profile adding to his toughness, smirking as he taunts the Captain and essentially daring him to find a way to keep him in jail. As a bootlegger, we would have not been as understanding of McQuigg's doggedness to get this criminal off the street - but Scarsi is ruthless, not thinking twice about killing a rival gangster or a cop. We must agree with Kevin Brownlow who said Wolheim was "a brilliant actor." (3)

Marie Prevost is a blonde in this one, and she plays the sassy, flirty, sexy singer in the speakeasy. Prevost was excellent at "sashaying" across the room with hands on hips, giving a sexy smile through pursed lips, and batting her eyes while placing her face within an inch of her "prey." One of the three reporters in the story is a very young cub reporter played by John Darrow - and excellently we might add. He falls for Helen when they encounter at the police station in McQuigg's remote burg (although he said he had seen her sing at the club). She strings him along, and both she and the reporter figure heavily into Scarsi's eventual downfall. Prevost's flirtations with the reporter and Darrow's "gaga" looks are perfect and never over the top.

Second team is great, too!

We certainly praise these lead performers for the excellent work, but there are some minor actors here - in addition to Darrow -- that are just so perfect for their parts it's amazing. George Stone as Joe has somewhat of a Peter Lorre look about him. We know Helen is going out with Joe to spite Scarsi - certainly not for his looks. And Stone portrays a sneaky, mousy - but also cocky - little guy that makes us dislike him just as much as his older brother. Stone is especially effective in McQuigg's police station when he is arrested for hit and run - refusing to give his name -- instead responding to the cop's request for his name with, "Wait'll I tell you, you big balloon, you'll burst!"

We already mentioned Darrow's good work as a cub reporter, but Skeets Gallagher and Lee Moran are a great addition to the film as two experienced, seasoned reporters - especially Gallagher. Of course, he plays the cynical and hard drinking reporter who throws out one-liners with precision just as he did in sound films. Both actors were consistently praised in reviews and deservedly so. They give some mild, very appropriate and not out of place humor to the story. Milestone never lets the film step too far away from its gritty realism.

Lucien Prival who plays Scarsi's right-hand man, Chick, is cast to perfection, as well. He's nattily dressed and nearly as cocky and self-assured as Scarsi. His slim body with round head accentuated by large ears and a large, wide grin, fit neatly into the smart-aleck who gloats in the club that evening when he struts in front of McQuigg after being released from his arrest.

Real racketeers weren't happy

Kevin Brownlow's four pages on the film in his crime chapter in "Behind the Mask of Innocence: Sex, Violence, Prejudice, Crime: Films of Social Conscience in the Silent Era" is a must-read for anyone interested in this film (and you must be if you made it this far in our commentary!) Brownlow notes that the story's author Bartlett Cormack, was a society reporter on the Chicago Daily News. It was a bold move by producer Howard Hughes, as well star Thomas Meighan, who brought the story to Hughes' attention, because, as Brownlow put it, "at long last a film dealt head-on with the link between gangsters, police, and politicans . . ." The resemblance between Scarsi and Al Capone, who had orchestrated the return of crooked Chicago Big Bill Thompson to the mayor's seat in 1927 after a four-year absence, Brownlow notes, was obvious.

To add to the authenticity, Hughes sought out and found "eight genuine Chicago racketeers" who were "on the lam" in the Los Angeles area and leading a "straight" life. These reformed crooks, however, did not realize how true to life this film was going to be, and Meighan, Milestone and Hughes, among others, received death threats. Brownlow observes, though, that it would not have been to the advantage of Chicago racketeers or others to bring unnecessary attention to the film with a murder, so, instead, it would make more sense to work through the political powers and have it banned. Chicago (obviously), Portland and Dallas are three major cities in which the film was not shown. Brownlow noted that the New York censors did not ban the film since it was set in Chicago, but, instead, "They merely slashed it to ribbons." (4)

It's a hit!

In spite of the bans, the film was a hit nationwide. Photoplay said, "It is a crook classic," adding, "Every character in the picture is superb. Marie Prevost is marvelously hard-boiled, as per scenario requirements. The reporters are splendid. And a gold medal should be given Lewis Milestone for his effective direction. No one can afford to miss this." (5)
Variety also had high praise for the movie. "A good story, plus good direction, plus a great cast and minus dumb supervision is responsible for another great underworld film," going to far as to say it was " . . . as near perfect a slice of screen entertainment as has run the gauntlet in months." The reviewer also heaped praise on the cast. "Thomas Meighan has his best role in years. . . Louis Wolheim . . . adds to a screen rep that has already labeled him the best character heavy . . . The cast was one hundred percent," adding finally, '"The Racket," like all great pictures, started with a great yarn and a director alive to its possibilities. It grips your interest from the first shot to the last, and never drags for a second." (6)

And Harrison's Reports illustrated just how popular the film was with audiences at its New York premiere. "Last Sunday afternoon, there were lines three deep formed in front of the Paramount Theatre box office reaching about the block on a day that was the hottest of the year, and when other theatres, excepting the Strand, where "Lights of New York" is playing, were starving to death." (7)

As noted earlier, the film was restored by Flicker Alley in 2004, at which time we seem to remember some talk of a DVD release. However, Josh Morrison of Flicker Alley said the original agreement with the University of Las Vegas was only for broadcast. At this time (April 2015), he said, there are no plans to bring it to DVD or Blu-Ray.

Without a doubt, "The Racket" is a must-see film and stands shoulder to shoulder with any of the best crime films of the silent or sound era. Also adding to the enjoyment of the film is a stunningly apropos score by Robert Israel -- one of his best!

1. "The Racket" review. The New York Times. July 9, 1928.
2. "The Racket" review. Photoplay. August 1928.
3. Brownlow, Kevin. Behind the Mask of Innocence. Sex, Violence, Prejudice, Crime: Films of Social Consicence in the Silent Era. University of California Press. 1990.
4. Ibid.
5. Photoplay.
6. "The Racket" review. Variety. July 11, 1928.
7. "The Racket" review. Harrison's Reports. July 14, 1928.

Copyright 2015 by Tim Lussier. All rights reserved

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