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From its innovative, dialogue-free opening--a tracking shot that moves
from a closeup of an iguana atop a boulder, into an aeroplane hanger,
and up into the sky--"Riffraff" pulls the viewer in for an enormously
enjoyable ride. This is the kind of movie some say is "they don't make
anymore": a pure entertainment thriller.
Pat O'Brian may not be everyone's idea of an action hero, but his acting skills make him perfectly acceptable here. The rarely seen Anne Jeffreys is excellent as nightclub singer who becomes O'Brian's investigative partner. And Walter Slezak lends his trademark combination of intelligence and danger.
It isn't quite true that films of this type are not made--Spielberg's "Indiana Jones" series comes to mind--but there was less need, in 1947, for special effects and cruel violence to make plot points. Tetzlaff--the director who also had a career as a cinematographer--relies on characterization and a dynamic visual style to make "Riffraff" a distinctive and exciting experience.
For the sake of restraint I shy away from awarding 'tens'. But Riff Raff is so well made and keeps with the beat, that it is a perfect piece of cinematic work. I was on the telephone with my girlfriend (we were arguing about something) and had the television on mute and was impressed enough with the camera work (not the argument) that I just had to record the movie on the next go-around. This is the movie that would go in a time capsule so well that it captures the genre of movie it represents. This film is the one that made me a Walter Slezak fan. If he is in it, I'll watch it (you mean he actually has a fan base?). It was actors like Slezak [and John Qualen, Peter Lorre, Thomas Gomez, Mervyn Johns, his daughter Glynnis Johns, Percy Herbert, and many more] that made movies like this so effective. It is not a good VHS copy, but until I get a better one, this will do just fine. By the way, the telephone girl and I will celebrate our thirteenth anniversary next week.
One of the many felicities of Ted Tetzlaff's top-notch Riffraff, the
cinematography of George Diskant can be best seen, unencumbered by dialogue,
in the first few dazzling minutes. Torrential storms darken an airfield in
Peru, where in the dead of night a cargo plane bearing two passengers
departs for Panama; only one of them arrives. The opening previews
Tetzlaff's pure-cinema approach; he lets the story unfold through images
(and occasionally sounds) with a casual adroitness that remains striking
more than half a century later.
At the center of the story is Pat O'Brien, a Canal Zone operative-for-hire. The surviving passenger engages him for protection, but doesn't survive for long. Then an oil company hires him to find a map, supposedly with the vanished man, of unclaimed oil fields in Peru. Walter Slezak wants it, too, but through strong-arm tactics. O'Brien, with the help of his driver Percy Kilbride and nightclub singer Anne Jeffreys, sets out in pursuit of the elusive document (which we know from almost the get-go hangs pinned to a screen in his room).
In retrospectives of film noir, Riffraff usually gets overlooked. While its genre is international intrigue and its touch on the light side, its conventions and, especially, its look, bring it to the fringes of the noir cycle. (And it's a better movie than two noirs released the same year which mine similar veins: Calcutta and Singapore.)
Bigger stars like Humphrey Bogart and Alan Ladd monopolized this tough-guy-in-ports-of-call genre, but O'Brien acquits himself honorably. Unfortunately, he was nearing 50 at the time, and his early-middle-age looks probably weren't what post-war audiences were looking for (Bogart, however, was exactly the same age). No matter: the real heroes of Riffraff are Tetzlaff and Diskant, who collaborated to make what Judith Crist used to call a `movie movie.'
Riffraff finds Pat O'Brien as Dan Hammer, hardboiled private eye,
operating in the Canal Zone which when the USA was operating the Panama
Canal had a kind of hybrid sovereignty between America and Panama. Of
course other than an aerial shot at the beginning of the film, no one
got closer to Panama than the backlot of RKO Studios.
I'm not sure if Mickey Spillane had already created his character of Mike Hammer, but O'Brien's portrayal sure could have been the model for it.
O'Brien is hired by someone to locate a missing map of some undiscovered South American oil fields. His client is later murdered and that starts the ball rolling.
A lot of the plot elements of Riffraff are found in that other private eye classic Murder, My Sweet and though Riffraff is entertaining, it doesn't hold a candle to that classic noir.
Anne Jeffreys does well as the singer/moll who actually proves to be quite a bit of help to him in that last encounter with the bad guys. Walter Slezak is as always one charming, but dangerous villain. Jerome Cowan does well as the feckless and luckless oil executive and the best performance in the supporting cast is that of Percy Kilbride as a laconic cabdriver.
In fact Percy's the one who gets the best of Slezak. You should see Riffraff just to see how he does it.
I thought I'd seen just about all of the great, dark thrillers made in the late 40s - this little gem was a great surprise! It is well scripted, well acted, fast paced and commands the viewers attention. Walter Slezak is wonderful in his role as villain: fat, sweaty and greedy - what worked for Sidney Greenstreet works equally as well for Slezak. Slezak, who usually played villains and cads, had the knack of winning an audience's affection. Pat O'Brien is excellent in the role, if a little long-in-the-tooth to be courting a 23 year old Anne Jeffrys. Percy Kilbride, of Pa Kettle fame, is fun in his role as a placid yet cunning taxi driver, whose taxi would have been considered ancient, even in 1947. Definitely worth watching if you are a fan of this genre. As an aside, it's great to see that Anne Jeffreys is still very active in acting, and still very beautiful - nearly 60 years after this film was made.
I was never taken much by Pat O'Brien, even though he appeared in many
good movies since 1930. This is another good one, but not because of
This was the first time I saw Anne Jeffreys, and for her alone it's worth seeing this film: without doubt, Jeffreys is a head-turner and heart-stopper. In reviewing her acting career, it's now clear to me why I have missed seeing her: soon after the early 1950s, she moved into TV for most of her career. And, as I have mostly avoided TV, well, there you go...
Anyway, to the movie...
I guess I'd call this type of story an adventure, a treasure hunt for black gold in the form of a missing map of oil wells in Peru, and a map that various nasty people are all trying to find. The reason for that lost map is finely drawn on a dark and stormy night (okay, there are a few clichés along the way in this narrative) - with an exquisitely done sequence at the start, as the camera pulls back from a lizard at the edge of airfield in deepest Peru to reveal a waiting DC-3 and a small group of people trying to hear themselves think while the rain pours down on the tin roof of the terminal. Not a word is spoken, natch. Eventually, a passenger arrives to board the plane with another who'd been waiting. The plane leaves, clawing its way into the storm with the passengers sitting with the cargo. During the voyage, however, one of the passengers either jumps or is pushed from the plane but the other passenger, Hasso (Mark Krah), now has the map...
From that point, you know there's more dirty dealings coming and, after telling his story to the cops, Hasso hires PI Dan Hammer (Pat O'Brien) to act as a bodyguard. Leaving Hasso at the hotel, Hammer visits Gredson (Jerome Cowan) who hires Hammer to find the map that Hasso now has, unbeknown to both. Hasso, being devious, hides the map in plain sight a delightful ironic touch that's used to good effect throughout the movie, but would have been better, in my opinion, if the viewer had been kept in the dark also.
However...the plot thickens when Molinar (Walter Slezak), another treasure seeker, starts putting the squeeze on Hammer to get the map, and who roughs up Maxine (Anne Jeffreys) while trying to find it in Hammer's office where Maxine had been waiting. Maxine, you see, had wormed her way into Hammer's sight at the club where she sings not only for herself as a singer, but as a spy for Gredson with whom she is romantically involved. Or is she? That's for Hammer to find out, along the way. Got the picture?
The denouement, of course, is fairly predictable but enlivened by Percy Kilbride as Pop, the taxi driver who shows how easy it is to run circles around unwary and over-confident crooks on the run. The whole movie is further enhanced by the dark/light cinematography that captures the Panama City scene so well (even though it's a Hollywood back-lot); indeed, the highly inventive chase at night between Hammer, on foot, and Molinar in the taxi with Pop, almost leaves you...well, breathless; and wondering whether Carol Reed chose to use the same techniques of dark shadows, narrow streets and running footsteps in The Third Man (1949) when Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) chases Harry Lime (Orson Welles) in post-war Vienna. The similarity is quite distinctive, even down to some of the skewed close-ups and sharp camera angles.
And, finally, the dialog throughout is just right: sharp, full of innuendo, devious, and witty - and every bit as good as others you've heard in great thrillers and intrigues.
Pat O'Brien does a credible job as always but his attempt as a hard-boiled PI and fixer doesn't quite match Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past (1947) or the great Bogie in any one of his fine works from the 1940s or 1950s. However, I was looking at Anne Jeffreys most of the time anyway...
If you get the chance, see this one, for an enjoyable eighty minutes. Recommended for all.
Pat O'Brien, Anne Jeffries and Walter Slezak star in "Riffraff," a 1947
noir from RKO. The film has some excellent qualities, one of which is
the dazzling cinematography by George Diskant. This is shown to
greatest effect in the very beginning of the film, which shows a cargo
plane flying into Peru during a big storm.
There are two passengers on the plane, but only one, Hasso (Marc Krah) lands with the plane. Hasso finds an operative in the Canal Zone, Dan Hammer (O'Brien) and hires him for protection. Then Hammer is hired by an oil company to find a map which apparently his other client has. Hasso winds up dead fairly quickly, and a sinister man (Walter Slezak) shows up looking for the map. And he doesn't care how he gets it. Hammer, his driver (Percy Kilbride) and a singer (Anne Jeffreys) all try to find the map. The audience has always known where it is.
Very well directed by Ted Tetzlaff, Riffraff has a great atmosphere despite being filmed on RKO's back lot. The performances for the most part are excellent, except that for me, Pat O'Brien has never really been a leading man. Here he's tough but tired, and miscast. Anne Jeffreys is stunning (as she remains today), and Walter Slezak is vicious.
The end of the film is very effective. Some good touches here, worth seeing.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
On occasion I head on over to TCM to see what's on and I walk right
into great film that I haven't seen before. This time, I came across
Riffraff a little film noir gem that I had never even heard of. The
plot of Riffraff is pretty simple. Two men get on a plane headed for
Panama. One of the men has a map to some oil locations in Peru. When
the plane lands one of the men is missing along with the map. All kinds
of seedy characters want the map. So they all seek out the help of Dan
Hammer, (could there be a more perfect name for a noir anti-hero?) the
local private eye/man about town. Apparently this movie is pretty well
known for its opening sequence that involves 6 minutes with dialogue
but what sets this film apart is that it has some great acting and some
dialogue that you just won't see in movies today. Pat O'Brien is great
in lead role. He doesn't really look like the classic tough guy but his
performance is definitely a highlight.
Walter Slezak does a decent job trying to imitate Sydney Greenstreet and Percy Kilbride is great as the comic relief/older buddy. I was unfamiliar with Anne Jefferys who plays the femme fatale in this one but she really impressed me. My only complaint is that the missing map is hidden in a location that is painfully obvious and it requires a little bit of a suspension of disbelief in order to accept that the characters don't see the map when it is right in front of their faces. Riffraff is definitely not one of the bigger budget noir's of its time but it's a great little B movie and well worth the a watch. Unfortunately, after I watched this I did a little digging around and I couldn't find a DVD release for the movie. I found it on VHS on Amazon but I don't know a single person that still has a VCR. Hopefully someone will release this on DVD soon.
In Panama, a private detective is hired to find a missing oil well map.
I expect this little gem got lost in the 1947 crowd. Too bad, because the opening scene is a wordless tour-de-force. Catch that ominous looking lizard in the first shot, indicating the sinister events to follow. Then there's the rainstorm that sounds like the sky is exploding around the airfield. And finally, scope out the open cargo hatch at 20,000 feet, where you see three people but no parachutes. It's a tough act to follow, and truth be told, the story then settles into an entertaining, if unremarkable, private-eye adventure.
Nonetheless, there are so many nice touches lifting the narrativethe lazy guard dog, the down-and-outers needing help, Pop's belching old cab. But most of all, there's the stylish visuals, courtesy director Tetzlaff and cameraman Diskant. The compositions are especially impressive since they're artistic without being showy. And, of course, there's the great RKO team of D'Agostino and Silvera collaborating on the noirish sets.
I also like O'Brien in the lead. He sure doesn't look like the standard Hollywood dick. He's about 20-years too old, 20-pounds too heavy, and more than a little balding. Still and all, he can fire off the tough-guy banter with the best and make you believe it. Of course, having the lovely Maxine (Jeffries) fall headlong for him remains something of a stretch, but that's just Hollywood being Hollywood.
Talk about hiding in plain sight-- the map trick has stayed with me over the years. Speaking of the unusual, catch that brawl at movie's end. One thing for sure, I want Jeffries in my corner from now on. She doesn't just stand around while the hero gets bashed, even when a tricky bookcase bounces back at her.
Anyhow, it's a really good little RKO programmer and a good reason to keep prospecting these unheralded oldies for their hidden gold.
Surprisingly entertaining dirty white suit movie with the lumbering Pat O'Brien keeping up for the most part with its fast pacing. O'Brien plays Dan Hammer, a sort of Mr. Fixit for anyone who needs something done within his code of ethics which ends short of murder, but a crisp bill buys his help on most other things. Mysterious strangers drop into his life, all competing for a mysterious map and all willing to pay. Anne Jeffreys is the blonde who may be after the map herself or maybe just wants to sing songs like "Money is the Root of all Evil" in a standard RKO tropical nightclub. Percy Kilbride is Hammer's driver and aide in a comedy cab. Walter Slezak is an excellent villain and rather fine artist who doodles while his henchmen pound the daylights out of O'Brien. Its all a lot of fun with some snappy dialogue and a noirish treatment from the director with many nice touches. Is Jerome Cowan in it too? You bet.
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