Imagine a Hollywood film identified today as film noir but more precisely defined as a throwback gangster picture. Unlike noir, good and evil are clearly defined, even if some characters have to make an extra effort to take the risks involved in truly being on the good side. The central conflict of the picture involves a violent criminal with delusions of grandeur and whose old-school methods are out of sync with the post-war era in which and about which the film was made. Imagine an honest, upstanding war veteran whose surname begins with “Mc” as the gangster’s nemesis, representing and physically displaying a bravery that brings down the villain by the end of the movie. Along the way, a misguided nightclub singer is maligned, an innocent is tossed into the middle of the violence, and a good cop gets killed. Now quick: what film am I talking about?
After watching The Racket (1951) earlier this week, I was impressed by Robert Ryan’s sadistic performance and puzzled by the identification of the film as noir, despite its police procedural/gangster focus and lack of noir cinematographic style. I thought about Richard Conte’s similarly evil performance a few years later in The Big Combo (1955) — a film much more clearly linked with noir style — and then I thought back to Edward G. Robinson in Key Largo (1948). Despite just how different the films are in tone, setting, style, and performance, I couldn’t miss the similarities between The Racket and Key Largo. And then I had to create a blog post showdown to decide which film I ultimately liked more and why. I’m a bigger fan of Bacall and Trevor than Scott, but I like Mitchum more than Bogart. And Robert Ryan is really growing on me (so is William Talman), though I’ve always adored Edward G. But this is a Noir Face-off, so below I break down some key elements and compare them as I see them…
Villain: Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson) v Nick Scanlon (Robert Ryan)
Rocco is classic gangster, self-absorbed and arrogant, ruthless and willing to use violence to get the deed done. And as the storm in Key Largo rises, he becomes more insecure and emotionally unstable. Scanlon is unstable from the opening, struggling to hold onto his power with a new style and the “Old Man” above him. Rocco faces no real threats other than recapture after having returned from deportation. Scanlon is far more physical than Rocco, with Ryan doing a fabulous sociopathic smile and showing every bit of his ruthless ambition. Both characters use and abuse their sidekick hitmen, though Scanlon is willing to beat them regularly to keep them in line, including his own (otherwise pampered) brother. In the end, I think Scanlon is better written than Rocco, more of the film is his, and Ryan puts all he has into it. By contrast, Robinson is fabulous, but more resting on his laurels than making the character truly new. (Of course, he could have been directed this way to give the film more fully to Bogart and Bacall.)
Winner: Robert Ryan’s Nick Scanlon
Our Hero: Frank McCloud (Humphrey Bogart) v Captain Thomas McQuigg (Robert Mitchum)
As noted above, I favor Mitchum over Bogart in most general terms. That said, McCloud is a more complex and interesting character than McQuigg, and this tempers my favoritism significantly. McQuigg is straightforward and heroic from the moment he enters the film, with no character development to speak of…and really not much to do other than square off against his nemesis and preach his #BlueLivesMatter discourse. By contrast, McCloud is a disillusioned veteran who needs to find his love of his nation through opposition to personified fascistic evil in the person of Johnny Rocco. He also finds love, which McQuigg already has.
Winner: Humphrey Bogart’s Frank McCloud
Mistreated Nightclub Performer/Floozy: Gaye Dawn (Claire Trevor) v Irene Hayes (Lizabeth Scott)
I honestly can’t say much about Irene because neither can the film. She is far more a caricature than a character, the stock type of the woman with low self-esteem and high independence who falls for all that glitters and eventually regrets it. I don’t care about Irene, and her romance at the film’s conclusion feels tacked on in dreadful Hollywood fashion. If we compare her to others of her type, like Gloria Grahame’s Debby Marsh in The Big Heat (1953), she falls flat. And, thanks again to Hollywood norms, she is dubbed when she sings, showing an ability as a crooner that she disparages but we hear as far more beautiful than her hoarse voice should produce. By contrast, Gaye Dawn is far better written as a character, one with regret and even dynamic as she tries to drink herself into accepting her poor choices and unhappy life but ultimately comes out swinging. An extra treat is letting Trevor sing — sans accompaniment — in her own voice. There’s just not much to compare here, really.
Winner: Claire Trevor’s Gaye Dawn
Young Innocent Trapped by Circumstance: Nora Temple (Lauren Bacall) v David Ames (Robert Hutton)
I like the inclusion of the David Ames character in The Racket, the idealistic young journalist who sees his cop friend die along with his illusions that the world is a fair and safe place by the end of the film. His attraction to Irene is formulaic, too, and less than convincing because its given no development. Of course, he hasn’t a chance against Nora in Key Largo, given Bacall’s utterly endearing and desirable presence. She isn’t given as much to do as she might either, but we like her spunk and protectiveness of others, and anyone who can look away while she’s on screen is a more determined viewer than I.
Winner: Lauren Bacall’s Nora Temple
Secondary Upright Character of Interest: James Temple (Lionel Barrymore) v Officer Bob Johnson (William Talman)
Barrymore is wonderful as James Temple, wheelchair-bound but full of love and fire. His prayer for the storm to kill them all so long as it takes down Johnny Rocco is riveting. A bit corny, but who wouldn’t want this caring fella for their father-in-law? That said, William Talman was quietly superb in The Racket. Knowing him best from The Hitch-hiker (1953), in which his villainous Emmett Myers dominates the film, I truly enjoyed seeing him play a character on the entirely opposite end of the spectrum and was moved by his death, even if I knew it had to be him or his friend the reporter who died to bring about the film’s climax.
Director: John Huston v John Cromwell (with uncredited tinkering/additions by Nicholas Ray, Mel Ferrer, and Tay Garnett at the demand of Howard Hughes)
As my comments about characterization and subtlety of plot/theme reveal, this isn’t much of a contest. I know this is partly about the script/setting the directors were given and Howard Hughes’s incessant meddling, but I gotta call it by the final product if I’m going to cast a vote.
Winner: John Huston
Cinematography: Karl Freund v George E. Diskant
I hate to be a name-dropper, but Freund boasts Metropolis (1927) and Dracula (1931) in his credits, while Diskant did a lot of TV. Neither film is an expressionistic masterpiece, but I will remember the images of Key Largo, and I think mostly of static sets/settings in The Racket.
Winner: Karl Freund
Finally, both films do some serious flag waving, and The Racket has an especially heavy-handed #BlueLivesMatter ending. Key Largo is no less sentimentally patriotic as well as pro-military, but the film is more subtle, with Bogart’s Frank McCourt relearning the selflessness of his WWII days and what he was fighting for. And though they’re more symbols than characters, there is at least an attempt to represent/honor non-white people (the Seminole).
Winner: Key Largo
In writing this face-off, I voted as I went along, thinking I’d be more balanced in my conclusions, knowing I liked Key Largo more for its richness of character, theme, and setting than the more static and superficial The Racket. I did have to upvote Robert Ryan and I gained more respect for William Talman as an actor, but all the rest still goes to the winner of this face-off: Key Largo.
So, how did you vote?