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Year: 1932

Director: John Cromwell

Cast: Miriam Hopkins, George Bancroft, Alan Mowbray

What’s with the weird title given the subject matter? I guess this was a rushed second choice to the original (Red Harvest) because they didn’t want any confusion with Daishell Hammett’s popular novel by the same name which had been published just three years prior. To be honest, if this wasn’t Hopkins in a steamy Pre-Code film, I probably wouldn’t have watched it after reading the synopsis. MH plays a Tsarist aristocrat on the lam with some of her contemporaries. The setting is during the 1919 Russian Revolution and the Red Brigade is looking to execute any of the monied classes of the current regime. They manage to narrowly escape via a train car to a safer city behind the skirmish line. Once settled, the privileged waste no time resuming their nonstop lifestyle characterized by black-tie dinners and the consumption of copious amounts of expensive wine and fine foods.

Kylenko (George Bancroft) is the leader of the Resistance and he and his minions descend on all this decadence with other ideas in mind. They crash the glamorous upper class setting and vulgarly grab the food right off people’s plates and brazenly mock the entitled. There is mayhem with frightened diners running everywhere. Except for Maria (Miriam Hopkins). She defiantly stays at her table and stubbornly orders the ruffians out of the establishment. The mob find her insolence under the circumstances humorous and Bancroft’s imposing soldier takes an immediate interest in the sexy aristocrat. He learns later that Maria was not born into wealth but managed to maneuver the class waters between the wage-earner and privileged sectors of Russian society. The Brigade takes its prisoners on a ship set to sail for a Revolutionary stronghold, where their captives will face trial for their lives.

Hopkins’ character and her friends realize that they must somehow get the ship turned around and headed to a friendly port along the Crimean coastline. They devise a plan to fool the navigator by messing with the ship’s compass so that it will display the opposite direction that the vessel is actually traveling. There’s just one problem: they need a diversion and her name is Maria. She pretends to have come to her senses and confesses to Kylenko that she knows her place is alongside her people. To prove her newfound loyalty, Maria makes it clear that she will sleep with him as a gesture of earnestness. The viewer witnesses some pretty intense Pre-Code moments when the elegant Ms. Yaskaya looks doomed to service this sweaty cad.

I was quite surprised when I saw the quality of this picture. The performances of the headliners are excellent and this happy outcome is in no small matter due to Cromwell’s deft handling of two tremendous egos. Bancroft’s temper was legendary and we’ve already covered Hopkins’ endless demand for retakes. The double entendres used by Hopkins are exquisite in their Pre-Code sumptuousness. There is another great scene where she continues to play the piano as if she hasn’t a care in the world while everything around her is in chaos.

By James White

Year: 1951

Director: John Cromwell

Cast: Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, Elizabeth Scott

In The Racket, RRobert Mitchum plays it straight and against type as an honest cop who’s out to get the mob. This was an unusual role for Mitchum who generally played guys on the other side of the law, or if he is a cop, is not on the straight and narrow like he is here as Captain Thomas McQuigg. Actually, it seems like almost everyone in this story is corrupt except for McQuigg. McQuigg, who was exiled because he was too honest in a corrupt world, is called back in to “clean up” a city now being over run by a new breed of gangster, mob men who run their corrupt business like a corporation, no longer killing each other off, like old style hood Nick Scanlon (Robert Ryan). Scanlon, a graduate of the Al Capone School of Mobsters, still believing in the doing things the old fashion way. The new organization believes in infiltrating the ranks, and filling the pockets, of dishonest politicians as a more progressive and profitable way of doing business. As a result Scanlon is getting pushed from both ends. The police led by McQuigg on one side and the new mob organization on the other. But Nick Scanlon is the kind of guy who when pushed, pushes back.

Robert Mitchum, who in real life as well as in reel life is the essence of cool and well known for his laid back almost non-acting style of acting seems uncomfortable as the straight laced McQuigg and is overshadowed in the film by Robert Ryan as the old style hoodlum Nick Scanlon. This is similar to the last time these two were matched up against each other a few years earlier in the superior film Crossfire. Over the years Ryan has made a career out of convincingly portraying evil cold blooded men. Also in the cast are Elizabeth Scott, who is pretty much wasted, Don Porter, William Talman and William Conrad.

While John Cromwell is given credit for directing the film there were four other directors who came and went thanks to Howard Hughes idiosyncratic style of running RKO Studios which he owned at the time. Mel Ferrer, Nick Ray, Tay Garrett and Sherman Todd all had a hand in this at one time or another. Like a soup with too many hands in the mix The Racket will keep you interested but is not a great crime thriller.

An interesting side note is that Howard Hughes originally commissioned Sam Fuller to write the screenplay, the source of which was a 1921 play. Fuller produced a script where the honest cop and the crime boss were not so black and white. Hughes nixed the script and hired W.R. Burnett (Little Caesar and The Asphalt Jungle) and William Wister Haines who received co-credit for the final script.

The film has also been labeled many times as film noir and has even been released on DVD in the continuing series of Film Noir Classics Collections, (Box Set number 3). I question whether this is really a noir film. It does not have the look or any elements of a true noir. No femme fatale, no dark shadowy lighting, no snappy dialogue or wet streets. Just look at this film and then look, at say, Preminger’s Where the Sidewalk Ends or the previously mentioned Crossfire and you will see the different between a true noir style and The Racket.

By John Greco

Today is the wonderful, charming, and completely lovable James Stewart’s 100th Birthday!

Sure, we’ve all seen the big James Stewart classics. It’s a Wonderful Life, Vertigo, Rear Window, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and so on. But Stewart also made a lot of really great movies that don’t get a lot of love nowadays. So, with this place being all about obscure classics, here are some of my favorite James Stewart movies that deserve more love.

The Mortal Storm (Frank Borzage, 1940)

One of the best films from the master Frank Borzage. The Mortal Storm is a really fantastic movie about pre-war Germany and the rise of Nazism. Sure, Stewart, Robert Young, and Margaret Sullavan might be a little hard to believe as Germans, but they all put in very strong performances (especially Young, in a role that really breaks type) in this heartbreaking film. Definitely a brave movie for 1940.

Come Live With Me (George Cukor, 1941)

Come Live With Me is a really simple, subtle love story. That subtlety really makes the film a beautiful romance. Stewart had great chemistry with Hedy Lamarr. I’m not entirely sure what it is about this movie that I adore so much, but it just feels genuine. It feels very real.

Vivacious Lady (George Stevens, 1938)

Ginger Rogers and James Stewart were a fantastic pairing. I wish they had made more films together. The story is very cute, but Rogers and Stewart together make is a truly great romance.

Made For Each Other (John Cromwell, 1939)

Stewart and Carole Lombard had an excellent chemistry, and I wish they had the chance to make a comedy together before Lombard’s death. Made for Each Other is a very strong romance about the struggles of marriage which comes across as very realistic and honest. One of the best films from the golden year of 1939.