Originally released in 1928 and produced by Howard Hughes, The Racket was one of the first films to ever be nominated for an Oscar. It was also one of the first films to miss out on its chance to claim Oscar glory as the first statuette for Best Picture was given to the producers of Wings.
Like many films that were made in during the silent era, The Racket subsequently sunk into obscurity and, for several decades, it was considered to be a lost film. After the death of Howard Hughes, the last remaining copy of The Racket was discovered hidden away in his vast film collection. This print has been preserved at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. After several years of restoration, the film made its first appearance on TCM in 2004 and it has since been frequently broadcast on that network. That’s how I first saw it way back in 2012.
Based on a play by Bartlett Cormack, The Racket is a gangster film. Nick Scarsi (played by Louis Wolheim) is a powerful and politcally-connected bootlegger. He’s pursued by one of the few honest cops in town, Captain McQuigg (Thomas Meighan). When McQuigg proves to be incorruptible, Scarsi uses his political influence to get McQuigg transferred to a precinct in the suburbs. However, when Scarsi’s younger brother is arrested for a hit-and-run in McQuigg’s new precinct, the captain uses the incident to launch a complex plan to bring down both Scarsi and the corrupt public officials that allow him to run the city.
Seen today, The Racket is an almost quaintly traditional gangster film. According to the film’s title cards, everyone in the film speaks in hard-boiled slang and the characters — from the honest cop to the cynical reporters to the nightclub singer played by Marie Prevost — will all seem very familiar to anyone who has ever seen a classic Warner Bros. crime film. That said, The Racket is still a lot of fun to watch and director Lewis Milestone keeps the story moving at a good pace. At the very least, it’s interesting to see a gangster film that was actually made during the gangster era. Nick Scarsi was based on Al Capone and, perhaps not surprisingly, the film was banned in Chicago when it was originally released.
The film shows up frequently on TCM and it’s also available on YouTube. And it can be watched below!