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The Rat Race

The Rat Race (1960)

New York City has served as the background and, in some cases, the main star in dozens of films from King Kong (1933) to The Naked City (1948) to Manhattan (1979), and usually it is depicted as a vibrant melting pot of humanity where opportunity and chance encounters can change the course of one's life. It can also be a place of desperation, danger and soul-crushing despair and The Rat Race (1960), based on Garson Kanin's play and adapted by him for the screen, falls into this category. Along with such films as The Out of Towners (1970), Death Wish (1974) and Taxi Driver (1976), this tale of two innocents being beaten down by the realities of big city life comes across like a hate letter to the Big Apple, whether that was Kanin's intentions or not.

The Rat Race opens with Peter Hammond, Jr. (Tony Curtis) saying goodbye to his father and boarding a bus bound for New York City where he dreams of becoming a successful and famous saxophone player in a jazz band. As he journeys from Milwaukee toward his destination over the opening credits of the film, we are treated to a montage of evocative roadside Americana circa 1960 set to a stirring jazz score by Elmer Bernstein. When Pete arrives in New York, we catch glimpses of the Greyhound Bus terminal, Dempsey's Restaurant (it closed in 1974) and the Dixie Hotel (now called Hotel Carter Manhattan and once ranked as the dirtiest hotel in America) before the film transitions into the Paramount studio sets that reveal the movie's stage origins.

Most of the story unfolds in a cramped one room apartment that Pete offers to share with a down-on-her-luck taxi dancer named Peggy (Debbie Reynolds). The arrangement is strictly non-romantic and decisive at first with Pete and Peggy being slowly drawn together by the bad luck and hard knocks they both endure in their daily struggle to survive in this hostile urban environment. Pete is ripped off by street vendors and later a gang of thieves posing as jazz musicians – they invite him to a "fake" audition where he is set up – while Peggy sinks deeper and deeper into debt by borrowing money from her sleazy nightclub boss Nellie (Don Rickles) who, sooner or later, will come to collect the loan in full or else.

For Debbie Reynolds, The Rat Race offered a refreshing change of pace from the young ingénue roles she had been typecast in such as Tammy and the Bachelor (1957) and The Mating Game (1959). In her biography Debbie: My Life, the actress wrote, "The Rat Race was going to be a departure for me. I had to play a young girl who has been in New York for five years trying to break into show business. To keep from starving, she models at whatever she can get daytimes, and at night works in a dance hall. I decided I'd do some research on that kind of life before I started the picture. One night some publicity people from Paramount took me to a dance joint on West Forty-Sixth Street in Manhattan. It was a seedy rundown place with a group of very voluptuous girls and a few dozen guys, mainly older men – a deadbeat-looking crew. They were polite but standoffish. I couldn't get to know them under the circumstances."

Reynolds decided to approach the taxi dancers on her own later after dressing in a strapless dress and blond wig she bought in a cheap Times Square shop. The working girls were only too happy to give Reynolds pointers on how to dress and "play" their male customers for extra tips without resorting to sexual favors. Reynolds recalled, "The most important thing was to keep a guy dancing, because if a man became interested in one girl, he was apt to spend fifteen or twenty dollars on her in one night. The only man I seemed to shock into showing interest was a little Italian deli owner named Joe. Joe and I started dancing. He reeked of Parmesan and pepperoni. The top of his head came up to my nose. Almost instantly he was kissing my shoulder and saying "I go for you baby." It broke me up. Joe was not pleased but I couldn't help it. When he left me on the side of the dance floor, Veronica [one of the taxi dancers] sidled over and said, "That ain't it, kid."

Reynolds' after-hours research proved to be valuable training because she gives a convincing performance as a hard-bitten but resilient character who hasn't completely given in to total cynicism and despair, even though she is one step away from prostitution. Tony Curtis, on the other hand, was at the peak of his stardom when he made The Rat Race and his portrayal of the guileless Pete, while believable, lacks the dramatic impact of his earlier work in Sweet Smell of Success (1957) and The Defiant Ones (1958). Another problem is that Curtis was 35 years old when he made this film, but his naïve character suggests he is barely past the age of a college graduate. Even in his own autobiography, the film had little resonance for him as his recollections proved faulty when describing his role as "a jazz musician trying to make it in a sleazy club run by Don Rickles." Reynolds is the one in the film working for Rickles and Curtis never even visits the club. Curtis did note, however, that he "had to learn how to play the saxophone for The Rat Race and that he enjoyed working with director Robert Mulligan and co-star Debbie Reynolds. "When we wrapped the film," Curtis wrote, "she [Reynolds] gave me a fine set of art supplies, and I gave her one of my paintings. Mulligan's pictures always had a lot of atmosphere. He tried to deal with real people and situations."

Although Curtis and Reynolds garnered plenty of publicity for their roles in The Rat Race, the film was not a success with their fans who didn't want to see them in such a relentlessly downbeat drama that offered very little romance but plenty of urban angst. Even by today's standards, the film is unusually bleak, allowing for very few breaks in the claustrophobic atmosphere due to its theatrical origins. Yet, the film is still well worth seeing for Elmer Bernstein's pulsating score and cameo appearances by jazz musicians Gerry Mulligan and Sam Butera. The color cinematography of Robert Burks also perfectly captures the milieu of Curtis and Reynolds' apartment life in the same manner as Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954), which Burks also filmed.

Best of all is Don Rickles as the loathsome Nellie who sweats profusely throughout the entire film while radiating malice and contempt for everyone. His big scene where he berates Reynolds after she has come to him for yet another loan is an early indication of his future as the king of the insult comics. In his tirade, he says "You know what I think you're trouble is, nervous. You know how I can tell? Cause what I call nervous is someone who makes other people nervous and you make me. You're here, you're there. You've got a Mexican jumping bean mind!"

When The Rat Race opened at theatres, the reviews were generally positive with only some minor reservations. The New York Times deemed it "Brisk, believable and entertaining....a clear-eyed, pungently atmospheric view of two youngsters caught in the savage, frenetic business of storming our town's slightly tarnished artistic and commercial towers....As a result, The Rat Race maintains a sort of wonderama approach to the sordid." The New York Herald Tribune proclaimed it "a generally jazzy, smart, sometimes violent movie...Although it does have strokes of humor, it generally stays grim, although it is a somewhat lush Technicolor grimness." And the Variety review noted that "The film is sturdier in its parts than as a whole, but when it's good it's very good, thanks mostly to Kanin's witty, adult dialog and Robert Mulligan's perceptive direction." One of the few dissenters was the Time magazine reviewer who wrote "The Rat Race is something for the rubbernecks who think New York is a great place to visit but would hate to live there – and never get tired of saying so....The villain of the piece is the great big city, a sort of cold-water Sodom populated by pimps, prostitutes, land pirates, tourist trappers, gay young switchblades, soft-hearted bartenders and hardnosed landlords."

After The Rat Race, Debbie Reynolds would return to the romantic comedy genre with The Pleasure of His Company and The Second Time Around (both 1961) and Tony Curtis would go on to another career highpoint, opposite Kirk Douglas, in Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus (1960).

Producers: William Perlberg, George Seaton
Director: Robert Mulligan
Screenplay: John Michael Hayes (uncredited); Garson Kanin (play)
Cinematography: Robert Burks
Art Direction: Tambi Larsen, Hal Pereira
Music: Elmer Bernstein
Film Editing: Alma Macrorie
Cast: Tony Curtis (Pete Hammond, Jr.), Debbie Reynolds (Peggy Brown), Jack Oakie (Mac), Kay Medford (Mrs. 'Soda' Gallo), Don Rickles (Nellie), Marjorie Bennett (Mrs. Edie Kerry), Hal K. Dawson (Bo Kerry), Norman Fell (Telephone Repairman), Lisa Drake (Toni)
C-105m. Letterboxed.

by Jeff Stafford

Sources:
Filmfacts
Debbie: My Life by Debbie Reynolds
Tony Curtis, the Autobiography by Tony Curtis & Barry Paris
afi.com
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