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The Racket

The Racket(1951)

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teaser The Racket (1951)

Robert Mitchum was one of the few Hollywood stars who gained popularity by steadfastly refusing to give a damn about the movie business. Those heavy eyelids may have set thousands of hearts aflutter, but they also signified a sort of existential boredom in the actor. When he worked for Howard Hughes at RKO, Hughes made the most of Mitchum's deadpan intensity. In The Racket (1951), a pretty nifty cop picture co-starring Mitchum and Robert Ryan, Mitchum forever looks like he needs a big cup of black coffee. But he casually burns a hole in the screen.

Mitchum, in a change of pace, plays an honest metropolitan cop whose criminal nemesis (Robert Ryan) is trying to gain control of the city government. A district attorney (Ray Collins) and a police inspector (William Conrad) have already been corrupted by Ryan, and they don't take kindly to Mitchum's sense of honor. Ryan's character is a certifiable loose cannon, so a lot of excitement arises out of watching him freak out over the increasingly tense situation. To be honest, the conventions of the crime genre aren't exactly tested by the rather flat narrative, but that doesn't lessen the lead actors' charisma. Ryan and Mitchum bounce moments off of each other like old pros; some viewers might even feel that Ryan walks away with the picture.

Directed (for the most part) by John Cromwell, The Racket was a remake of a film that Hughes produced in 1929. It, in turn, was an adaptation of a stage play that starred Edward G. Robinson and...John Cromwell! Cromwell may have been exceptionally familiar with the material, but Hughes wasn't pleased with his cut of the film. After Cromwell (who Ryan described as "very old and sick") left Hollywood in disgust, Hughes called in Nicholas Ray to shoot a few more scenes. Sherman Todd and Tay Garnett also filmed some short sequences and inserts. It's amazing the picture holds together as well as it does.

By this point, Mitchum had already done a brief stint on a chain gang for possession of marijuana (possession laws were much stricter in those days), but the pursuit of pot still seemed to take up an inordinate amount of his time. Mitchum would go to great lengths to get his hands on a joint, and Hughes - who Mitchum referred to as "The Phantom" - was usually on the lookout for any illicit activity from his star. Mitchum was even convinced that his dressing room was bugged, and would stop in the middle of private conversations to chide Hughes for listening in.

Even though Mitchum's lifestyle made Hughes nervous, he still seemed enthralled with the actor's devil-may-care demeanor. He had a habit of updating Mitchum's telephone number whenever it changed, just in case he wanted to get together with him. This didn't happen very often, but Hughes once called Mitchum in the middle of the night and drove him to see his famous, gargantuan airplane, The Spruce Goose. He had heard that Mitchum used to work in a Lockheed plant, so he thought they could have a nice conversation concerning the technical aspects of flight. But, much to the billionaire's chagrin, Mitchum wasn't the least bit interested in the plane.

Actor Jim Backus, who socialized with both Hughes and Mitchum, thought he understood their relationship. "Howard was an attractive man," Backus once said. "He was a rich man. He wielded a lot of power, but I think he secretly would have liked to have been Bob Mitchum. Because of who he was, Howard's conquests were unquestionably staggering. But Bob Mitchum could have gone right on being a bum, and beautiful women would have still fallen all over him. And I think Howard was canny enough to realize that."

Reportedly, Hughes even offered to let Mitchum run RKO at one point, but Mitchum told the billionaire that he'd be far better off giving the job to Dick Powell. This may have been the only time that anyone in Hollywood ever suggested that Dick Powell could fill in for Robert Mitchum, and it was Mitchum who did it!

Director: John Cromwell, Nicholas Ray
Producer: Edmund Grainger
Screenplay: William Wister Haines, W.R. Burnett (based on the play by Bartlett Cormack)
Cinematographer: George E. Diskant
Editing: Sherman Todd
Music: Paul Sawtell, Roy Webb
Art Direction: Albert S. D'Agostino, Jack Okey
Costumes: Michael Woulfe
Principal Cast: Robert Mitchum (Capt. McQuigg), Lizabeth Scott (Irene), Robert Ryan (Scanlon), William Talman (Johnson), Ray Collins (Welsh), Joyce Mackenzie (Mary McQuigg), Robert Hutton (Ames), Virginia Huston (Lucy Johnson), William Conrad (Turk), Walter Sande (Delaney), Les Tremayne (Chief Craig), Don Porter (Connolly), Walter Baldwin (Sullivan), Brett King (Joe Scanlon).
B&W-89m. Closed captioning.

by Paul Tatara

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