In a world of gritty landscapes and dark shadows it’s often easy to forget the exotic locations many film noirs are located in. Riffraff is one such exotic adventure noir, although outside of an obligatory mention of its Panamanian setting it’s all mostly rear projection and interiors. However, it is this otherworldly, foreign experience that enhances Riffraff above most B-level noirs With a strong cast that includes Pat O’Brien and Anne Jeffreys, Riffraff is a sprightly tale of mystery lying in plain sight.
A plane takes off in Peru with a handful of passengers. When one of the men jumps from the plane, the rest of the crew are troubled because the man carried a map containing valuable oil-locations. Said man ends up in Panama and seeks the protection of private eye/bodyguard, Dan Hammer (O’Brien). Without his knowledge, the map is left in Hammer’s home, making him the target of several baddies (led by Walter Slezak) willing to do whatever possible to get it back.
This was director Ted Tetzlaff’s first foray into noir, and he’d perfect the formula in works like The Window (1947) and A Dangerous Profession (1949). Where this differs from most gritty noirs is how ungritty is all is. The film starts on a dark and stormy night, literally as we start with a small passenger plane flying through a violent storm. (Watching this after Warner’s recent release of Five Came Back….suffice it to say my plane phobia has increased tenfold!) It’s a scene encapsulated by five minutes of near silence, with no dialogue spoken, strengthening the suspense through silent secrecy.
It takes nearly twelve minutes to truly understand who the characters are and even what the heck they’re looking for. This may play like cheap screenwriting, but really the entire plot is a MacGuffin. I mean, the map is left in plain sight in Hammer’s room, leaving the audience to act like Dora the Explorer, pointing at it and saying “There!” as Hammer gets the snot beaten out of him.
The map is the key, leading to several comparisons to The Maltese Falcon (1941). And when I say “several,” I’d say there’s enough similarities for this to be a near remake of that film. Hammer, our reluctant detective, has the same surly demeanor as Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade, but O’Brien’s paternal characteristics prevent him from being as cynical and hardboiled as Bogart. The map contains information, albeit by the conclusion it’s irrelevant. There’s even a Sidney Greenstreet figure in the Slezak’s Eric Molinar. If you’re gonna borrow, borrow from the best! Where Riffraff sets itself apart is in the lackadaisical environment of it all. Hammer goes places when he feels like it, has a community of friends around him, and still has time to go out to the nightclubs and watch his girl perform.
Speaking of the girl, this is the first time I’ve seen Anne Jeffreys and she’s great as the alliteratively named Maxine Manning. Jeffreys, best known as playing a moll in Dillinger (1945), combines Mary Astor’s possible duplicity with Doris Day’s girl next door demeanor. That is to say you’re left questioning Maxine’s motives, but her sweetness keeps you, and Hammer, from getting over on her before it turns the other way around. Because Maxine is a singer we are treated to a few musical interludes that are very on-the-nose. One of her songs has the chorus “Money is the root of all evil.” Hmm, wonder what subtle meaning that has in the grand scheme of things? Okay, so no one would call Riffraff complex, but if that was the case it’s name wouldn’t be Riffraff, would it?
The near comic highs of Riffraff are probably the most divergent from the noirs we’ve come to know. When Sam Spade or Phillip Marlow make a joke, it’s certainly not something you’ll be guffawing over. Here, we get the snarky one-liners, but O’Brien’s exhausted way of saying them leaves you smiling. “I don’t like the sight of blood, especially my own” is a line that comes right as O’Brien’s been beaten severely, and it segues into a knock-down, drag-out brawl that I can’t recall seeing in a movie. We’ve had fights, but either this was staged very well or the director allowed them to do whatever because it feels loose and unrehearsed, especially as we watch Jeffreys jump on a man’s back and skewer his hand with a high heel! I doubt Mary Astor would have allowed her hair to get mussed.
Economical in its design – despite being set in Panama we only ever see the city in aerial shots – Riffraff makes up for it with good acting, sassy dialogue, and a plot that hearkens back to a classic. Anne Jeffreys and Pat O’Brien make the most with their characters, and those who enjoy The Maltese Falcon will enjoy its loose interpretation.
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