(I recently purchased four film noir titles from last week’s Warner Bros. 4 for $44 sale. Riffraff is the first film I watched from that set. I plan on reviewing the others soon, so stay tuned.)
Directed by Ted Tetzlaff
Written by Martin Rackin
Produced by Jack J. Gross, Nat Holt
Cinematography by George E. Diskant
Edited by Philip Martin
Music by Roy Webb
(1:20) Warner DVD (MOD)
Eddie Muller mentioned in a tweet that the first six or seven minutes of Riffraff are absolutely spectacular and he wasn’t kidding. Those early minutes remind us of the opening moments from Touch of Evil for its building of tension, and Rio Bravo for its absence of dialogue, but both of those films came much later (1958 and 1959, respectively). It’s very possible that both Orson Welles and Howard Hawks borrowed elements of their openings from Riffraff. And if they didn’t, who cares? Although not on the level of those two films, Riffraff is a real B-picture gem.
I won’t describe the famous opening, but I will say that you’ve never seen a more ill-advised airplane takeoff, and the simple act of changing a number on a flight manifest has never been more terrifying. Something happens during this flight to Panama that brings one of its passengers, a man named Charles Hasso (Marc Krah), to the office of private investigator Dan Hammer (Pat O’Brien, above center). Hasso hires Hammer to be his bodyguard for a few days while he’s in Panama. No big deal, easy money. Then Hammer is called into the office of oil executive Walter Gredson (Jerome Cowan), who’s willing to pay Hammer big money to bring in Hasso and the map he’s carrying detailing an area of untapped South American oil deposits. Why not play both sides? Ah, but Hammer discovers the cops are also looking for Hasso. And how does sultry nightclub singer Maxine Manning (Anne Jeffreys) fit into all this?
It’s not too much of a spoiler to tell you that Hasso turns up dead, leaving no clue as to the whereabouts of the sought-after map. We know where it is, but Hammer doesn’t. Neither does Gredson. Neither does a sketchy man named Molinar (Walter Slezak, above right) who swears he detests violence, but he and his buddies are determined to find the map, even if they have to make a few people disappear in the process.
Most of the running time of Riffraff doesn’t live up to the artistry of its opening, but it doesn’t really have to. Although it contains hardboiled dialogue and some expert noir cinematography by George Diskant, the film is also loaded with comedic, almost screwball touches: Hammer’s chauffeur Pop (Percy Kilbride, above left), whose jalopy cab takes forever to get started, Hammer’s hopelessly rumpled white suit and fuzzy fedora, and the scruffy “guard” dog who sleeps outside Hammer’s office.
Pat O’Brien was no stranger to lead parts, particularly in the early 1930s, but he was often paired with James Cagney (most famously in 1938’s Angels with Dirty Faces), who reduced everyone to second banana status. O’Brien’s most famous role is undoubtedly the title character in Knute Rockne, All American (1940), which includes the famous “win just one for the Gipper” speech. O’Brien left Warner Bros., spent some time at Columbia Pictures, then signed a contract with RKO, where he spent several years. By the time Riffraff came along, O’Brien was getting thicker in the middle and losing hair, which actually works pretty well for his role as Hammer, although he seems awfully old for Anne Jeffreys as Maxine. (At the time of the film’s release, O’Brien was 48, twice Jefferys’s age.) Although Jeffreys made 34 films between 1942 and 1948, she only appeared in five from 1948 to 2015, but found plenty of work in television and musical theatre.
Riffraff was quite a surprise. Although it will probably never appear on anyone’s Top 25 (or even Top 50) Film Noir Titles of All-Time, Riffraff contains a superb opening, followed by a better-than-average (although familiar) film noir tale with nice comedic touches and good chemistry between O’Brien and Jeffreys. I unreservedly recommend it.
*Although the movie’s poster reads Riff-Raff (and you’ll also see it elsewhere as Riff Raff), the opening credits read Riffraff, which is how I refer to it here.
Photos: DVD Beaver, Noir of the Week, Film Noir Photos, Edward R. Morrow “This I Believe,” IMDb, RareFilm