Previously this piece was kindly published by Karen of Shadows and Satin in her Noir newsletter The Dark Pages.
Lizabeth Scott needs no special introduction when it comes to her association with the Noir genre. When one looks over her filmography of titles you’ll find she starred opposite a solid list of the male actors who dominated the shadowy world of gangsters and back alleys. Van Heflin, Bogart, Dick Powell, Duryea, Lancaster and O’Brien. She tackled them all head on. When it comes to her appearance in the 1951 film The Racket she gets the honor of starring opposite not one but what I like to refer to as the two poster boys of the Noir catalogue. Robert Mitchum and Robert Ryan.
The Racket of 1951 is actually a remake of the 1928 film of the same title. Both were produced by Howard Hughes. When it came time to update the plot to the fifties, Hughes enlisted Sam Fuller to do a treatment which then got passed on to W.R. Burnett. Like many of Hughes films, the gestation period seemed to be in the forever category.
It should come as no surprise that Robert Mitchum was enlisted once again for another RKO production that Hughes would toy with. It was assigned to director John Cromwell though others like Nicholas Ray would have a hand in it before Hughes was satisfied enough to release it. Mitchum stars here as a precinct captain who won’t be bought by local politicians or his old childhood pal Robert Ryan. From the outset Ryan is playing the vicious gangster who kills, beats and maims those who stand in his way of control and power. With the underworld leaders changing to a more business like attitude, Ryan is considered a loose cannon.
It’s at the twenty six minute mark when Ryan finds out his younger brother is engaged that we have Liz Scott entering camera range. Ryan has no use for her and slaps his weak minded brother around. It’s a minor scene for our icy blonde but she’ll be back to play the film’s biggest scene opposite Ryan towards the end.
In the interim we’ll get Scott on stage doing a nightclub number in her husky tones where she is employed as a headliner. When Brett King playing Ryan’s younger brother is arrested by William Talman, Scott tags along to the police station where the majority of the film will play itself out.
“Who said I was an honest citizen?”
This to Mitchum as he tries to convince Scott that Ryan and his kind are no good. Her fiance included. She’ll have none of it till she realizes she’s been pegged for a scapegoat by Ryan and the judge in his pocket played by Ray Collins. It’s at this point that she’ll lose her cool and claims she’ll blow the whistle on Ryan and company.
The film shifts back and forth between various characters leaving little actual screen time for Liz. William Talman plays a young officer that Mitchum has a great respect for and one who won’t be corrupted. Then there’s “The Mitch” himself who looks stoic and talks a good game where Ryan is concerned. Ray Collins is wonderful here as the crooked judge in the syndicate’s pocket and he’s terrified of the psychotic Ryan.
A young Robert Hutton hangs around Scott looking for a story and maybe more while William Conrad has the role of an officer we know is crooked but is always on the outside perimeter biding his time and keeping watch over Ryan’s movements with obvious orders from those above Ryan. He’s smooth and slippery and Mitchum knows it.
Scott is admittedly underused in this film and her role as Irene Hayes really could have been assigned to any contract player. Her name on the marquee surely added box office appeal to the proceedings and from our vantage point looking back gives her the added names of Ryan and Mitchum to her co-star resume.
“Cheap little clip joint canary.” So says Robert Ryan to Liz during the final reel of the film when she confronts him for goading Hutton to be careful at what he’ll swear to. Scott turns the tables on Ryan doing the goading herself. She presses him on the fact that he’s not so tough and that his brother is always apologizing for him. Playing off Scott, Ryan is magnificent here as he lets his anger get the best of him, shooting his mouth off into a confession giving Scott the satisfaction of knowing she’s tripped him up. “There’s your confession” she tells Mitchum in the films best scene.
While the film doesn’t quite end there for our two male leads and the men surrounding them it does until the closing seconds for Liz. Though the script doesn’t come out and say as much, it’s obvious that her character isn’t quite virtuous. Sadly the script doesn’t flesh out her role to much and for fans looking for a Mitchum-Scott romance it’s bound to be a disappointment.
“You don’t necessarily get what you want in life.”
On the flip side she’s given a chance at redemption on the arm of Hutton looking for one more opportunity to make something of herself.
Anything with LS in it is good enough for me, as you know.
That’s one thing we have in common among others I am sure when it comes to movie fun.
Do you love her work in a cult/camp way or as a serious actress? I’m in the first category as a fan. Find it very hard to take her seriously.
I think her range was very limited so the studio or by her own design kept her in what seemed to work. I would have to lean towards the camp versus serious.
Limited? Yet she’s very good as, for example, a frantic mom in The Weapon (1956) and as a chanteuse of integrity in Dark City (1950). She was by no means limited to femme fatale roles.
I just think she excelled in one genre or type and not much more.
That could just be a matter of casting. Her filmography’s not that extensive. (I know shamefully little about her stage work, where she may have been afforded more versatility.)
I like her as an actress — I think she could act the socks off some of her rivals.
All this and William Talman, too? Count me in!