One thing that can be said about the silent films made at the end of the 1920s is that, all too often, they play like talkies without sound. We can look at the earliest silents, even those that were little more than photographed scenes from stage plays, and still feel a certain excitement over the placement of props and actors within the frame. Even by the time directors like Griffith, Dawley, Boggs, and Apfel were working in their prime, film grammar had developed to a point where silent filmmaking was a recognizable artistic style in its own right. By the 1920s, it had reached a level of artistic excellence that some feel the sound film has yet to reach. So why, after the films of Griffith, DeMille, Stroheim, Chaplin, Ingram, Tourneur, and Vidor (just to name a few working in Hollywood), did so many of the later silent films seem less like silents, and more like talkies without sound?
"The Racket", unfortunately, suffers from this. The film is one of the titles, produced by Howard Hughes, that has recently been restored and shown on TCM. For that, film historians can be very grateful. The disappointment comes in the fact that, ultimately, it's a very average picture. "The Racket" is by no means a bad film, but it lacks the kind of gripping characters or grand themes that we associate with the best silent films. The characters in a Griffith film, for instance, are always more interesting than the story itself. The themes of love and romance in "Sunrise" are the focus, over it's characters, who are more like stylized "types". But in "The Racket", we have the tough cop, McQuigg (Thomas Meighan), who is both a not-too-sympathetic figure, nor a terribly interesting one. The film's most interesting character is probably the heavy, Nick Scarsi (played quite well by Louis Wolheim), a racketeer with political aspirations that McQuigg is determined to bring to a halt. Relocated to another precinct as a result of their feud, McQuigg becomes determined to bring down Scarsi at any cost. After Scarsi's younger brother is brought in on hit-and-run charges, McQuigg refuses to release him, and all hell breaks loose as Scarsi and McQuigg fight it out. Unfortunately, neither character garners much sympathy from the audience, and the conclusion is somewhat less satisfying as a result.
The problem, of course, is for the viewer-watching this film today-to put themselves in the place of a 1928 moviegoer, who had yet to hear the snarling of Edward G. Robinson or the tough wise-cracking of James Cagney. It proves that gangster pictures were becoming popular before "Little Caesar" in 1930. (Robinson had starred in the stage version, however). There is, too, a certain excitement in watching a real, honest-to-goodness film from the period being depicted. We've become so used to the 20s Chicago scene being depicted through nostalgiac re-creations that it's thrilling to think that this film really was made in 1928. There are some good shots of nightclubs and a street riot between the two rival gangs, but much of the action in the second half takes place in the small police station McQuigg has been re-assigned to.
The film's major technical flaw is that it's shot and edited very much like a talkie (complete with shot/reverse shot editing during all the dialogue scenes). Nearly every point is conveyed entirely through dialogue intertitles, and the plot would be very difficult to follow without them. The reliance on dialogue no doubt stems from it's theatrical origins, being adapted from a play by Barlett Cormack. This is a problem that plagues many of the later silent films I have seen, such as the William Haines films, and even King Vidor's "The Patsy", also from 1928 (it's signficant that he would also make "The Crowd", one of the most cinematic and inventive silents, the same year). This points the way, perhaps, for why audiences were really willing to embrace sound film, even though it meant taking an artistic step backward. Watching the film, one also has the distinct feeling that every scene would play perfectly naturally with synchronized sound. It's hard to imagine what "sound" might accompany some of the more delirious montage sequences in "Sunrise", or the Expressionist camera moves in "The Crowd", but here, we can easily imagine the chatter and clickity-clack of typewriters in the newsroom scenes, the wisecracks of the always-ready reporters, and the sounds of speeding cars and guns.
The direction here is by Lewis Milestone, at the beginning of a very long and varied career. Milestone had first come to attention with "Two Arabian Knights" in 1927, for which he won an Academy Award for "Best Comedy Direction". By the early 30s, he had become best known for his brilliant and moving anti-war drama, "All Quiet on the Western Front", but after that, worked in nearly every style and genre imaginable, directing such films as "Of Mice and Men", "The Red Pony", and "Ocean's Eleven", while still managing to make two more powerful war pictures, "A Walk in the Sun" and "Pork Chop Hill". Here, Milestone's cinematic technique is strangely static; ironic, considering that he's often recognized as one of the primary filmmakers responsible for "moving the camera" again in early talkies. There are just a couple of inventive shots, but the rest of it is shot very conventionally. Milestone would do much better, and in any case, it's quite possible he was working under a tight leash with Hughes at the helm.
As it is, the film is almost more interesting as the prototype for the gangster film as it exploded onscreen in the 1930s, and also as an example of why audiences were willing to accept sound film at the time.
"The Racket" has been restored and re-released by Flicker Alley, with a score by Robert Israel. His score here is up to his usual high standards, capturing well the jazzy late-20s musical styles, and heightening the mood of several tense sequences. The print is crystal clear except for a few sections which contain scratches. The film is not currently available on DVD but has been shown on Turner Classic Movies.