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Racket Busters

Racket Busters(1938)

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teaser Racket Busters (1938)

Crusading lawyer Hugh Allison (Walter Abel), a lawyer with a reputation for putting gangsters in jail, is asked by the city to break up the trucking rackets. In response to his appointment, the racketeers, led by John Martin (Humphrey Bogart), crack down on the truckers, using brutal attacks to force them to join their organization; these intimidation tactics work on anyone cooperating with the law or resisting Martin's influence. Denny Jordan (George Brent) is a holdout against the Martin organization, and is soon the target of attacks. After his pregnant wife Nora (Gloria Dickson) is threatened, Denny sends her to the country for her safety. Because his business has been ruined by the gangsters, Denny steals money from the trucking association to pay for her lodging. That night when he returns home, he finds Martin's men waiting for him. They tell him he can keep the money but he must join their organization, and he finally gives in to their demands. But when Nora tells Denny that he has lost her respect for not standing up to Martin, he decides to take action.

Directed by Warner Bros. stalwart Lloyd Bacon, Racket Busters (1938) is a fast-paced, street-smart melodrama, the kind in which Warners excelled. Co-written by Robert Rossen, who would eventually become a director himself, making films such as All the King's Men (1949) and The Hustler (1961), the film is actually a glorified B-movie programmer, but it never takes itself too seriously and doesn't forget that it's telling a simple story of a decent man struggling to do the right thing.

This was the third time Bogart and director Lloyd Bacon worked together; they made a total of seven pictures together including this one and Marked Woman (1937), San Quentin (1937), The Oklahoma Kid (1939), Invisible Stripes (1939), Brother Orchid (1940), and Action in the North Atlantic (1943). Bogie, no doubt chaffing under the assembly-line parts assigned him by Jack Warner, appears to accentuate his famously stiff lip even more here, perhaps in reaction to the clich-ridden dialogue. While Bogart confided to friend and biographer Richard Gehman in the book Bogart that the cast of Racket Busters was better than the usual for the pictures he made during this period, he still lambasted the effort by saying that, "I made so many pictures like that, I used to get the titles mixed up. People would ask me what I was working in, and I'd have to think about what it was called." Regardless of the film's humble goals, the top-billed Bogart makes the most of the part. He walks into a market with a cocky swagger that suggests he already owns the joint. It's fun to watch him. In contrast, the good guys, as embodied by Walter Abel (of whom the industry trade paper Variety noted the similarities with real-life racket buster Thomas E. Dewey), are stolid and authoritarian. The message seems to be crime never pays, but it's a lot more fun than being good.

Variety reviewed the film as "just another gangster picture...but one which attempts a note of authenticity by assuring audiences through a foreword that it is based on court records and other data in connection with the trucking racket in New York City." Film Weekly noted the story "is told tersely and forcefully" with "a strong element of suspense all through...If you're not completely tired of gangster stuff, you'll enjoy this film. It has pace, realism and vigor."

Producer: Samuel Bischoff, Hal B. Wallis, Jack L. Warner
Director: Lloyd Bacon
Screenplay: Leonardo Bercovici (story), Warren Duff, Robert Rossen
Cinematography: Arthur Edeson
Film Editing: James Gibbon
Art Direction: Esdras Hartley
Music: Adolph Deutsch
Cast: Humphrey Bogart (John Martin), George Brent (Denny Jordan), Gloria Dickson (Nora Jordan), Allen Jenkins ('Skeets' Wilson), Walter Abel (Hugh Allison), Henry O'Neill (Governor).
BW-72m. Closed captioning.

by Scott McGee

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