Racket Busters, 1938. 6/10

In one of his early roles, Humphrey Bogart is John ‘Czar’ Martin, trucking racketeer. Fighting gangsters both inside and outside the unions are buddies Denny and ‘Skeets’ (George Brent and Allen Jenkins). Trucker movies are great because the guys are tough wise-crackers, and there’s usually plenty of highway mayhem.

The supporting cast includes Gloria Dickson as Nora, Denny’s wife; Penny Singleton as Gladys, Skeets’s girlfriend; Walter Abel as special prosecutor Hugh Allison; Henry O’Neill as the Governor; Oscar O’Shea as Skeets’ dad, Pop Wilson, and Joe Downing, as, believe it or not, Joe.

We first see headlines that proclaim “Racket Rule To Continue;” that’s thanks to favorable election results for Martin. While the hoods celebrate, there’s a different tone across town with special prosecutor Allison and the Governor. Hugh doesn’t want to jump into the ring with the gangsters just yet, but his wife pressures him.

He agrees. Martin and his cronies read the headlines stating that news, but Martin doesn’t much care; business as usual. They go to the producer market; “seven million people [New York City’s population] depending on us.” He figures the way in to this gold mine is to “organize” the truck drivers.

Hugh addresses a group of agents in his office: subpoenas fly out to various businesses preyed on by protection rackets–particularly unions. A know-nothing union man–who has shunned the rackets–nonetheless is unwilling to testify. The next guy was shown to have bought off Martin, but he won’t go on record either.

A poster in the market announces a union meeting; goons filter around wherever truckers gather to push them into attending the meeting. Denny and Skeets figure they can do what they want anyway. Gladys chews out Skeets in front of the guys; it’s sort of played as just nagging, but with a ring of truth when she says “instead of hearts you got motors!”

At Joe’s Garage, Nora pops in to say hi to Denny (he’s especially concerned because she’s pregnant). The goons show up with their union meeting posters. Pop tells them off, he’s slugged, which sets off a general brawl. Out on the road, Denny and Skeets talk about the future. At a diner, he sees Charlie.

The radio mentions a truck wreck. A jerk goon slides in to indirectly scare Denny by asking about his wife’s health. I suspect the guy outside was tampering with his truck. Yep, it’s now got no brakes. Skeets does a good job of avoiding a major wreck, but the truck’s disabled. More victim interviews at the prosecutor’s; that’s is, Denny and Skeets. Denny is sticking to the know-nothing line.

Hugh knows all about the fight at Joe’s, as well as the vandalization of their truck. Denny doesn’t want to be a “stool pigeon.” Still, seeing how Charlie was messed with, Denny says ok, we’ll play along. Some goons are fingered and picked up; that doesn’t prevent another attack on Charlie.

Then Denny’s truck is blown up. The union meeting is boisterous–the so-called is in effect set up as a protection racket (the dues are astronomical). Denny, Pops, and others basically shout down the mugs, and the meeting breaks up. More goon action: they come to threaten Nora. Meanwhile, Skeets, who has gone off on his own by wholesaling tomatoes, is down in the dumps.

Denny looks in; he’s broke, they both are. Later Denny finds out that Nora has gone to the hospital; he plans to send her to the country. Where’s the dough coming from? The goons, of course. Kind of Robin Hood justice. Strangely, the hospital administrator doesn’t want to move her. Well, looks like he’ll come around.

When he comes home, Martin and assorted goons are waiting–actually Martin’s impressed with tough guy Denny. Just like that, they have a deal. He keeps the money, gets a new truck–and joins the goon union. Not only does this tick off the other truckers, but Hugh is more than a bit miffed at Denny’s going turncoat.

Denny figures…what’s the use playing ball when the good guys aren’t around at the right time (the violence hadn’t abated, Charlie may as well be dead). He goes back to the “everyman for himself” mantra; basically meaning not that he’s neutral, but that anything goes. Seems like the honest truckers need a new spokesperson.

In court, the prosecutor tells the judge that it’s impossible to convict the racketeers; they need to cite the witnesses/victims for contempt if they don’t talk. That just means that the goons go about the busting up the guys who won’t play ball with them. A no-win situation, the victims talk and get nailed, or get nailed anyway (by having their produce destroyed).

“Poison Food Perils City!” Run the headlines now. Meanwhile, since a blizzard has ruined the rest of the crop, Skeets’s about the only one with good stuff. But then the goons show up–he’s ruined too. In a police line-up, Pop is willing to point out some hoods.

Somewhere upstate, Denny looks in on Nora. Hey, there’s a baby! Ok, back to goon city–that is, Pops is pushed in front of a speeding subway train. Back at police HQ, Gladys talks to Allison, despite Skeets’s protests. Nora talks to Denny–he wants to turn over a new leaf–but Nora tells him off. She’s right. He just goes any way the wind blows.

Well, he’s arrested as a sort of accessory to Pop’s death (he’s refused to incriminate Martin’s boys, of course). Even Martin can’t spring any of the guys. But he’s got a cunning hand to play–since he controls the truckers, he calls a strike. Instant food shortage. Skeets accurately tells the wholesalers that the truckers hold the key to the problem.

He takes to the stump to try and convince the drivers to get the trucks moving. “You can bust those guerillas wide open with their own hands.” The cops let Denny go, presumably so he can help Skeets. Martin, looking on, gives orders to stop the trucks. In the ensuing melee, Skeets is shot dead.

Just then Denny arrives: the trucks start rolling. One plows into Martin’s office building. The denouement is a Martin v. Denny fistfight; Denny wins, the cops take Martin away. There’s an anti-climactic court scene, with the requisite speech from the judge. Last thing is a cutesy Nora and Denny kiss. All’s well, the end.

Well, I was disappointed. It is based on true events, which explains the rather heavy-handed sermonizing. That’s not such a big deal. The main problems were that the pacing let the air out of the plot early on. A very talky movie, when I was expecting just the opposite. The best couple of scenes involve Denny looting the crooked union, and Martin looking the other way in return for Denny’s ‘loyalty.’ That’s tough-guy respect.

Admittedly, trucking per se isn’t the topic as much as racketeering in general. Nonetheless, there really wasn’t much interaction between the truckers and the wholesalers, even though one couldn’t profitably exist without the other, except locally. The effect was to take the focus away from the hands-on action.

I’m reminded of a similar movie from the same era (also staring Bogart) that was set in California. It was much more effective, as it showed the wholesalers and truckers battle with the mobsters and their goons. No preaching or politics, just decent guys intimidated until they square accounts with the mob.

Bogart gave the best performance here by far, followed by Dickson and O’Shea’s. Neither Brent nor Jenkins really showed much personality; in particular, Brent is rather wooden. It’s not his fault that the script crosses him up him what we might call an aggressively passive role, but he just comes off as angry.

Singleton is even worse in that she overacts her role. As mentioned, she’s cast as a sort of stereotypical ditzy woman; making her eventual tell-all to the cops seem less than believable. Dickson does a much better job–to the extent that we wonder what such a decent person is doing with the likes of the weak guy Brent portrays. Her pregnancy is strictly a device to elicit sympathy for her, and exert a sort of guilty tug on Denny. Had she been more than a decorative asset of Denny’s , this aspect of the plot would’ve fit in better.

This is certainly watchable, but seems overly long for its 71 minutes. 6/10.

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