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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Race Street (Warner Archive Collection)
Race Street (Warner Archive Collection)
Warner Archive // Unrated // April 16, 2014
List Price: $21.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Paul Mavis | posted May 14, 2014 | E-mail the Author
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More like Half-Trot Lane. Warner Bros.' Archive Collection line of hard-to-find library and cult titles has released (under their Film Noir banner) Race Street, the 1948 crime meller from RKO Radio Pictures, directed by Edwin L. Marin, and starring George Raft, William Bendix, Marilyn Maxwell, Frank Faylen, Harry Morgan, and Gale Robbins. The least of Marin's and Raft's noir collaborations, Race Street's de facto display of recognizable genre conventions will make it at any rate watchable for noir fans (just like a B oater will minimally satisfy a Western fan if it at least has a horse and six guns in it). However...top-notch noir it certainly ain't. No extras for this nice fullscreen black and white transfer.

'Frisco. 1948. Smooth, confident book maker Dan Gannin (George Raft) has it made...so he's getting out of the rackets. He's got plenty of dough--more than enough to buy a nightclub (The Turf Club), where he'll hire his pretty sister, Elaine (Gale Robbins), as the opening act. He's also got some babe in war widow Robbie Lawrence (Marilyn Maxwell), a brunette bombshell who likes the ponies as much as Dan. So, it's a good thing Dan's quitting, because he's getting unsettling reports about a syndicate out of Oakland moving into the 'Frisco numbers, first from childhood friend and bookie associate, Hal Towers (Harry Morgan), who's already getting muscled, and then Barney Runson (William Bendix), another life-long friend from the old neighborhood...only he's a detective on the SFPD. Runson tries to warn Gannin not to take matters into his own hands, but Dan honors the code of the gangster, and keeps mum on what he intends to do about it. Too bad Dan didn't listen to his cop buddy, because his other friend, Hal, takes a high dive off a metal staircase when he refuses (for the last time) to join the protection racket. Now it's Dan's turn to track down the murderers and avenge his friend...if Barney can keep him alive long enough to do so.

Minor in all regards, Race Street leaves upon the noir fan precious little impact. Written by Martin Rackin (The Enforcer, The Stooge, The Horse Soldiers, North to Alaska), from a story by Maurice Davis, Race Street seems to have all the surface requirements needed for a spiffy little noir. Certainly RKO was the right studio--at least in terms of affinity--for that particular genre, before constant boardroom strife finally started affecting their product (Race Street was lucky to be produced just a few months prior to Howard Hughes' chaotic take-over of the studio in the spring of 1948). And director and star were simpatico with each other and the type of movie they were making here (Marin had helmed two of Raft's stronger post-war vehicles, a few years after the star's peak: 1945's popular hit, Johnny Angel, and 1946's critical success, Nocturne). Tech credits were strong, with Roy Webb's forceful score, Sam E. Beetley's crisp editing, Albert S. D'Agostino's and Walter E. Keller's smart production design, and particularly J. Roy Hunt's (Crossfire, The Devil Thumbs a Ride) evocative cinematography.

So...what went wrong? Well, nothing--on the surface. You can check out mentally and watch Race Street simply as undemanding crime meller entertainment; it works well enough on that low-bar, crime magazine level. Discounting the repetitious, seemingly endless scenes of Bendix trying to break through Raft's code of silence, where he time and again unsuccessfully encourages Raft to seek his help, Race Street moves decently enough, with a modicum of snappy lines and violent scenes to keep you marginally involved until the predictable outcome. When bookie Raft leaves his swank, professional-looking office (his door reads, amusingly: "Daniel Gannin: Investments"), he warns off his secretary with a grin and, "Don't bet on the horses, Lucille--it's a sucker's bet." When he picks up Maxwell for a date at the track, she enthuses, "I have a feeling I'm going to win today," to which Raft cynically--in a nice way--kids, "That's the kind of feeling that keeps me in business." Marin keeps everything pretty simple and straightforward for most of the movie, but reserves some interesting set-ups for key scenes. Morgan's death on the outside ladder is nicely handled (the murderers slap his hand, prior to the rub-out, snapping at him as he tries to reach for a gun, "Act like a gentleman! "), as is the suspense when Raft is later led up those same stairs (he's beaten to a pulp at the top, with the thugs offering a sick, "Sleep tight!" as they leave). And it may be padding--although her song title, I'm in a Jam with Baby is a telling little noir detail--but Marin's rather startling shot of singer Gail Robbins seemingly floating over her audience as she rides the unseen camera crane, offers a vertiginous thrill that's quite unexpected.

Unfortunately, that shot--fun as it is--is indicative of Race Street's central problem: it doesn't mean anything. Frustratingly, there are one or two fairly interesting kernels of subtext that a screenwriter or director with more time and resources (or perhaps plain, simple interest?) might have drawn out from Race Street's scenario--chief among them: the conflict of Raft's non-violent, gentlemanly form of vice being squeezed out by the new, efficient, anonymous--and deadly--modern syndicate. Nothing, however, is done with this potentially rewarding theme, because Rackin and Marin stay resolutely literal and matter-of-fact, keeping the characters two-dimensional, and the predictable storyline pat and facile (one of Race Street's biggest problems is its villain, Frank Faylen, who's excellent...but who's only on screen a couple of times in the movie: not nearly enough to establish a credible threat to the confident Raft). Examined a little more closely, it's difficult to even see how Raft's character fits within the noir framework. If his character is predicated on being a non-violent bookie who's far too trusting for his own good (as Bendix tells him at the end), then SPOILER ALERT! Raft's death should play out as a tragic twist of fate he brought about by his own denial. That would be "noir."

However, as his character is written, and particularly as Gannin is played by too-slick-for-his-own-good Raft, he seems too savvy to not know what the score is (Raft's beady little eyes are always shifting around, anyway, giving the impression he's suspicious even when the character isn't supposed to be). That is...if Raft the performer even cared about what his characters conveyed to the audiences. Perhaps that's Race Street's biggest drawback: George Raft. When writers discuss him (when and if they do), they often focus on the many movie roles he turned down that subsequently became classics, extrapolating that had he only played them, he would have been as big and iconic as Bogey and Cagney and Robinson are now in our collective movie memories. Of course that's a big jump, because who knows if say, High Sierra, would have been the same picture, or as good, with Raft at the helm as originally planned? Indeed, I've always found Raft to be a largely dispassionate performer who walked through roles with the same curious mix of overly-slick confidence and an undisguised air of disinterest--exactly as he does here in Race Street--something that could be never said of the three giants mentioned above. True, Raft has almost nothing to work with here in terms of character development in Rackin's script...but he also doesn't try to convey any of the kinds of noir sensibilities--foreshadowed, doomed tragedy over the sure knowledge of his own inevitable demise, gut-wrenching emotional betrayal when he discovers he's been lied to by the woman he loves, or enraged fury and a thirst for bloody vengeance when his best friend is murdered--that might have brought some meaning to Gannin, or to the story. In Raft's blase hands, Gannin is too cool and laid-back to care about anything. But then again...neither did Race Street's writer or director.

The Video:
The fullscreen, 1.37:1 black and white transfer for Race Street looks pretty good: decent-enough blacks and a pretty consistent contrast level, a sharpish picture, and the expected level of screen imperfections (not too bad).

The Audio:
The Dolby Digital English mono audio track has some hiss, but nothing you're not used to. No subtitles or closed-captions.

The Extras:
No extras for Race Street.

Final Thoughts:
Comic book noir. Race Street has all the makings for a trim, interesting little noir...except its script is overly-familiar and superficial, its direction is mostly perfunctory, and George Raft's lead performance is unimpressive, as usual. You can watch it strictly for noir convention satisfaction...but there's nothing of interest behind them. A rental for noir and crime meller completists is best for Race Street

Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.

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