The Monday Intertitle: Keep It Under Your Hat


A cynical intertitle from a cynical journalist in Howard Hughes’ cynical production THE RACKET, directed by Lewis Milestone.

Milestone regular Louis Wolheim, he of the imploded bulldog face, is Nick Scarsi, top mobster locked in a deadly battle with honest cop Thomas Meighan. Hardboiled night club entertainer Marie Prevost is a pawn in the game. The source is a play, and the bulk of the action unfolds in a nightclub and a police station, with some token opening-out. But Milestone’s versatile coverage removes any hint of the stagebound.


The women’s cell — a beautiful composition made mainly of legs.

Milestone, while not yet up to the visual pyrotechnics of his early talkies (he doesn’t even move the camera for the first half hour, though he pans dynamically and the editing is fast and expressive) does try some interesting stuff. At a rival gang leader’s funeral, Wolheim glances around and his knowledge of the set-up imparts x-ray vision — the rows of derbies held in the laps of his hired goons seem to melt, wither and resolve into a dew, revealing the clenched shooters beneath.



Politically, the film is incoherent in a very Hollywood way — the good cop gets so hacked off at the corruption around him that he tears up a writ of habeas corpus and has the lawyer who brought it arrested on false charges. Surprisingly fascistic for Milestone, but not for Hughes. What’s startling is that the corrupt political system, exposed and explored in the film’s narrative, gets threatened with destruction but the system takes steps, the threat is neutralized, and the city is just as rotten at the end of the movie as it was at the start. A bad guy gets his just desserts, but the game goes on. Milestone the social critic and Hughes the outsider could agree on the probability of that.

Hughes remade the movie in 1951, by which time he needed five directors to get a result that satisfied him. I don’t know if the ending of that one packs a similar sting.

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