Sunday, November 15, 2009

Riffraff (1947)

There's an intimidating number of books written about classic film noir. One of the most underrated is Death on the Cheap: The Lost B Movies of Film Noir. Arthur Lyons lists only B-movies - skipping over major-studio classics like Double Indemnity, The Maltese Falcon and others. He concentrates on mostly forgotten, low-budget films. Over the past few years I have managed to dig up copies of most of the movies written about in the book. Many of these cheapies are probably best forgotten by all but the most serious noir completest. Others are absolute gems. One of Lyon's picks in the book stood out. Riffraff.

"… This all-around entertaining film has … exceptional cinematography. In the first five minutes of the movie, one of filmdom's absolute classic beginnings, not a word of dialogue is spoken!"

After reading about it I impatiently tracked down a copy of the movie. (it's been released on Laser Disc and VHS in the past) I was blown away by the intense opening dialogue-free 6-and-a-half minutes. Riffraff starts during a middle-of-the-night rainstorm at a small airport. The storm makes Slattery's Hurricane look like a summer day. As the rain drowns out all other sounds, men wait in quiet anticipation for the second of two passengers to arrive. He finally does - clutching a briefcase he's clearly protecting. The drenched pilots board, start the engines, and muscle the prop plane - carrying supplies including live chickens as well as the two men - through thundering clouds heading toward Panama. A man is killed in the most dramatic way possible on a plane slicing through a 3am rain storm. Eddie Muller calls the open “as good as any in noir” and I agree.

After the rainy night opening, director Ted Tetzlaff down-shifts gears. The movie becomes a very familiar detective story. Every 40s-private-detective clich矇 is used in a story involving a missing map showing the locations of rich oil deposits in South America. A rogues gallery of familiar RKO faces are after the map that was taken off the plane the night of the storm. Private detective Dan Hammer (Pat O'Brien) - donned in a wrinkled white suit, fuzzy panama hat and matching white shoes- is hired by Charles Hasso (Marc Krah) as a body guard. Hammer doesn't know anything about the valuable map and certainly doesn't know Hasso killed a man to steal the document. When Hasso first met Hammer he hides the map in plain sight in Hammer's unlocked dump of an office when Hammer isn't looking. (Lyons' book points out that this is “the old Purloined Letter gag”) Hammer drops Hasso at a local hotel. Only hours later the detective is hired by a second man -shady oil businessman Gredson (Jerome Cowan)- to find Hasso and the map. Before the thrifty Hammer - now playing both sides for the biggest pay out- can return and cash in on his client, Hasso is tracked down by hired killer Eric Molinar (played with spice by Walter Slezak). Hasso is killed and his corpse is found by Hammer in the hotel bath tub. Gredson - not trusting Hammer with the priceless map -- orders his girlfriend Maxine Manning (Anne Jeffreys) to get close to Hammer. The nightclub singer gets too close and the two start up a romance. Molinar- who turns out to be also hired by Gredson who was clearly covering all his bases -sees the value of the map ends up killing his employer and beating Hammer to a pulp. Eventually Hammer comes out on top thanks to the fact that everyone in Panama City knows him and owes the detective favors.

Hammer is helped along the way by his scruffy dog and a loyal taxi driver Pop (Percy Kilbride). These characters and several other light touches makes Riffraff a breezy film noir. One running gag about private dicks wearing ties has a satisfying payoff too. The snappy dialogue - especially when delivered by O'Brien - and some amazing visuals makes Riffraff one fun film.

Pat O'Brien made a name for himself in the 1930s when Warner Bros. were churning out fantastic gangster films. O'Brien was usually second banana to guys like Bogart and John Garfield - and most often and successfully with James Cagney. O'Brien and Cagney appeared in many films together including Angels With Dirty Faces and Cagney's swan song Ragtime in 1981. In the 30s O'Brien was usually seen in movies playing cops, priests, newspaper editors and wardens. O'Brien brought a strong sense of morality and strength to his characters. In the hands of lesser actors his WB characters would probably come across as horribly pious. O'Brien could always be relied on to deliver when playing beneficent men. In 1947 O'Brien was past his prime and certainly an unlikely leading man. O'Brien - balding a looking much older and heavier than Bogart who was born the same year - is charming in Riffraff. He delivers his lines with just a hint of the Irish brogue - which is no doubt part of his charm. It's also surprising to see O'Brien play a bit of a con man so convincingly.

His chemistry with co-star (and almost 25 years his junior) Anne Jeffreys is fun to watch. Alan Rode recently talked to Jeffreys about her role in Riffraff:

“The climatic fight in Pat O'Brien's office took three days to film. Anne Jeffreys told me that she had fun jumping on top of Walter Slezak although that bookcase falling down almost got both of them. She also recalled a wrap party at O'Brien's house where he jumped into the swimming pool and capsized everyone who was riding on a pool raft. She enjoyed making the film and it shows.”

Jeffreys was the long-time wife of veteran actor Robert Sterling. They were probably best know together playing a pair of debonair ghosts in the 1950s sitcom Topper.

Riffraff was Ted Tetzlaff's second picture as director. His first feature -a comedy filmed before WWII - was apparently a stinker. Just a year before making Riffraff Tetzlaff was cameraman for Alfred Hitchcock's classic Notorious. Clearly some of Hitch's style rubbed off on Tetzlaff. Going into Riffraff Tetzlaff had a reputation as a good technician but it was not known if he could make the transition to being a creative and competent movie director. Riffraff proved that he was a capable film helmsman. His background as an exceptional cameraman is apparent too. There are some beautiful black-and-white visual images including some playful shots of Venetian blinds transitioning from one location to another. The drip of bath water leaking from a floor above onto a dead man's signature on an open hotel registry is also clever. The first image in the film is of a brave Texas horny toad perched on a rock just outside a rainy airstrip. Some credit for the unique visuals should probably also go to veteran lensman George E. Diskant who was no stranger to shadowy film noir (Port of New York, Desperate, They Live by Night, The Narrow Margin and so on).

Tetzlaff's best film as director (and best noir) is The Window -filmed the same year as Riffraff's release but held for release for two years by RKO chief Howard Hughes. Tetzlaff gets a decent performance out of wide-eyed child star Bobby Driscoll. However besting all is Tetzlaff's use of Paul Stewart as the creepy villain. The Window- about a boy with an overactive imagination who witnesses a murder but no one believes him - is a wholly original film. Not long after its release Hitchcock made Rear Window similar in plot to The Window. Both films were based on stories by Cornell Woolrich. Was Hitchcock inspired by his former cameraman's film?

Riffraff is a good candidate for the Warner Bros DVD archive. It's a great film noir but it doesn't have any major stars or known talent behind the cameras making it a nearly forgotten film. If you see Riffraff playing at a film festival or on late night TV do yourself a favor and catch it.

Note: Noir fans probably wonder if Dan Hammer has any connection to the eerily similar Mickey Spillane detective Mike Hammer. Riffraff was released in the summer of '47, the same year the first Mike Hammer book I, The Jury was published.

Also, the movie posters for the film calls the movie
Riff-Raff... but it's one word in the movie's opening credits.

Written by Steve-O



  1. I may be wrong about The Window being made after Riffraff. From Eddie Muller:

    "To clarify one point: I believe that THE WINDOW was actually made almost two years before RIFF RAFF. That's what Barbara Hale told me when we showed the latter film a few years back at the Egyptian Theater. She said they shot it in the winter of 1947 in NY (about the same time Dassin was making NAKED CITY) and that it was really hard for the cast to pretend it was a broiling summer when it was about to start snowing. THE WINDOW's release was delayed because Howard Hughes, who'd just taken over RKO, couldn't understand why anyone would want to see a movie about a little kid. Of course, he finally released it when the studio was in bad need of a hit, but he expected it to do no business. It was huge, and helped save RKO for a time."

  2. I was lucky enough to see Riffraff on late night television many years ago. Thanks for drawing attention to a highly entertaining and fondly remembered film.

  3. Strange coincidence...
    I just watched this movie Sunday morning and I couldn't agree more.

    The cinematography was surprisingly top notch. The dialoge could be hard boiled at times and then almost screw-ball at others. I think I laughed the hardest during the scenes between Dan Hammer and Pop.

    My DVD was a fairly good TV rip from a Canadian movie channel, so for now it's a keeper until something better comes along. I also own a copy of Lyon's informative book on B-Noir and have sought out a number of the films he covers as well.

    I agree that some of these minor films could put anyone but the most die hard, noir completist in to a deep sleep. But I have also been quite pleasantly surprised by some very watchable and enjoyable flicks (The Hunted, Inner Sanctum, I Wouldn't Be In Your Shoes, They Made Me a Killer, Blonde Ice, The Hoodlum) and some real gems (Decoy, Spit-Second, Riff-Raff).

    Sounds like I'll have to add The Window to my Must Watch list, since you were so right about The Reckless Moment...

  4. BTW - Steve O...
    I greatly enjoy the high-res. images of original posters and stills on your site. I have a small but growing collection of original posters myself.
    While I'd love to get my hands on that 1-sheet above, I have to admit that the promotional artwork for this film doesn't do the beautiful Anne Jefferys any justice. I mean in reality she looked like she could be Barbara Payton's sister in that b&w still!

  5. BRETT: I agree. The posters doesn't do her justice. She's much prettier in the movie.


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