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Film / The Racket

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The Racket is a 1928 silent film directed by Lewis Milestone, starring Thomas Meighan and Louis Wolheim, and produced by Howard Hughes.

Wolheim is Nick Scarci, the bootlegging king of an unnamed city that looks a lot like Chicago. Meighan is Captain McQuigg, the cop that's determined to take down Scarci's crime organization. Unfortunately for McQuigg, the city is deeply corrupt and Scarci is best buddies with the mayor. Whenever McQuigg busts Scarci for something, Scarci's friends in City Hall get him sprung and nothing ever comes of it. One day, McQuigg gets a vital break when Scarci's younger brother Joe gets arrested for a hit-and-run accident. McQuigg then decides to seize on this chance to destroy Scarci's organization.

The Racket is one of the Trope Makers for the gangster film genre, predating later, better remembered gangster films like The Public Enemy and Little Caesar. It was believed lost for decades, until one copy was found in Hughes's vaults after his death. It was nominated for Outstanding Production—the award later retroactively determined to be Best Picture—at the first Oscar ceremony, losing to Wings. Wolheim and Milestone later teamed up again for the all-time classic All Quiet on the Western Front. Howard Hughes produced a remake of The Racket in 1951 with Robert Mitchum and Robert Ryan as, respectively, the cop and the gangster.



  • Action Prologue: A man, later revealed to be McQuigg, is walking along a dark city street at night. Another man has a rifle trained on him from a window above. The sniper pulls the trigger—which shatters a window well ahead of McQuigg, causing him to duck into a doorway. Scarci then appears in the doorway warning McQuigg to lay off his organization.
  • Artistic License – Law: While a few things can be waved away as a product of the time like roughing suspects up, McQuigg tearing up a writ freeing Nick likely would have gotten him freed very quickly.
  • Battle in the Rain: Spike, a rival gangster, attempts to ship some liquor into Scarci's territory. It ends with a bloody shootout in the streets in the middle of a rain storm.
  • Between My Legs: An interesting variation on this trope. Spike the rival bootlegger has entered the speakeasy where Nick and company are dining. He and Nick exchange hostile stares. Then a camera shot frames Spike from between the legs of the table, from below, with the legs of Nick and his henchmen on either side. Nick is then shown reaching for his gun.
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  • Bittersweet Ending: DA Welch's henchman shoots Scarci when he tries to get away. A horrified McQuigg realizes that Welch, who is just another tool in the Old Man's machine, will probably get elected Mayor. At the end, McQuigg nearly collapses from stress and fatigue. A cop asks him "What now?" to which he replies:
    McQuigg: Well, I’d like to get some sleep, but after I get through with the Coroner and the other public servants… it’ll be time to go to Mass.
  • …But He Sounds Handsome: Scarci is discussing himself with a cop who is unaware of his identity and makes mention of how that Scarci guy has some great qualities.
  • The Chanteuse: Helen the gold-digging nightclub singer is this. She sings and dances at the speakeasy that the Scarcis patronize.
  • Cardboard Prison: Discussed between Nick and McQuigg how the local prison seems to have a "revolving door".
  • Corrupt Politician: The "Old Man" who runs the local political syndicate that is in bed with Scarci and his crime gang.
  • Did Not Get the Girl: Despite some flirtation, Dave the cub reporter doesn't end up with Helen.
  • Evil Parents Want Good Kids: Nick is Joe's older brother (though the twenty-three age difference between them is great enough that he could be Joe's father), but otherwise the trope fits. He wants Joe to be a "good college kid" and not go into the gangster business.
  • The Faceless / No Name Given: The "Old Man", who is boss of the corrupt city government, is not named and is shown only from behind. It's not even clear whether he's the mayor or some other political officeholder or a political boss.
  • Fourth Date Marriage: Joe and Helen get engaged in an extremely short amount of time. The predictable happens as they break up in prison after Joe leaves her high and dry locked up with the other women.
  • Friendly Enemy: Despite being determined to capture him, McQuigg and Nick are on rather good speaking terms at the beginning of the movie. Nick even invites the cop to the nightclub he owns to have a drink at the party for Joe's birthday.
  • Gold Digger: Joe is sweet on Helen, a nightclub singer. Nick believes her to be a gold digger and in fact baldly accuses her. Helen responds by saying “He called me a gold digger. Well, I’ll dig. I’ll dig deep.”
  • Heel–Face Turn: After Nick gets Joe out of jail but leaves Helen in lockup, she decides to testify against him. She winds up being the key to bringing down his whole organization.
  • He Knows Too Much: The reason that the DA has Nick shot when he realizes that Nick will bring the whole corrupt politician circuit down rather then be imprisoned.
  • He's Dead, Jim…: The cop who gets shot receives about five seconds of medical treatment. Hilariously, no one even bothers to check on Scarci after he gets shot.
  • He-Man Woman Hater: Nick hates women and will have nothing to do with them, calling them "poison" to him. He gets very angry when Joe is flirting with Helen.
  • Homoerotic Subtext: Nick's hatred for women and obvious fondness for McQuigg hints at this.
  • Hypocritical Humor:
    • A plaque on the wall reveals that Scarci the bootlegging kingpin belongs to the Anti-Liquor League.
    • When attending the funeral of a man he killed, Nick gets irritated at some rowdy people outside and says they should have more respect for the dead.
  • Improbable Aiming Skills: Nick plugs Spike with one fatal shot, from across a dance floor, with a gun that he's hiding under a table.
  • Incorruptible Pure Pureness: Dave is so sweet, earnest, and wide-eyed that everyone around him can't help but try to be nice to him. This also helps when he bravely identifies Nick as the one who shot a policeman since he's unable to be intimidated by him.
  • In the Back: After the cop who arrested Joe refuses Nick's bribe, Nick shoots him in the back in the police station.
  • Last-Name Basis: No one calls McQuigg James, not even Scarci.
  • Mob War: The rivalry between Nick's gang and Spike's gang culminates in a shootout in the street and, soon after, Nick murdering Spike.
  • Reassigned to Antarctica: After hassling Nick one too many times, McQuigg is sent to the 28th precinct off in the boonies. This backfires on the Scarcis when Joe Scarci runs down a pedestrian in McQuigg's precinct.
  • Refuge in Audacity: Nick pulls off several crimes that should otherwise get him arrested, including killing Spike in a nightclub surrounded by cops and other eyewitnesses.
  • Screw the Money, I Have Rules!: The policeman who arrested Joe for running down a pedestrian in his car rejects a bribe offer from Nick.
  • Sitting Sexy on a Piano: Helen perches herself atop a piano before singing to the Scarci party at the speakeasy.
  • Those Two Guys: The two newspaper reporters, the Deadpan Snarker and his drunken sidekick, who are covering the Scarci story and are enlisted by McQuigg to provoke Scarci into a mistake.
  • Title Drop: Bootlegging is described as "the racket". Nick is determined that Joe will not enter the racket.

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