Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Riff-Raff (1947)

*** out of 5

"I don't like the sight of blood, especially my own."

In 1947 two different hard-boiled detectives came into being.  Mike Hammer, you know-  the cartoonishly brutal Mickey Spillane character who entertained fans in books, on radio, and in multiple films, including once being played by Spillane himself.

This movie is about the other Hammer, an affably independent and entrepreneurial detective with connections to everyone in the Panamanian town where he works and resides. It's hard to say which came first, but as payed by Pat O'Brien just as he was closing in on 50, perhaps Dan is the father of Mike.  He certainly seems a bit old to believably be attractive to the girl in the picture, a club singer played by 24-year-old Anne Jeffreys (who is still working today, now in her 80's), but then there's no accounting for tastes...

It's a light, fun film that doesn't take itself overly seriously. How can it, when the MacGuffin of the plot, a map, is left hanging in plain sight for nearly the entire picture somehow with no one noticing it until they're in the middle of the big climactic fight?  That's not to say it doesn't have some excellent moments of tension and suspense-  the opening sequence is a highly effective bit of mostly dialogue-free drama that nicely sets up the plot and the stakes.

Directed by Ted Tetzlaff, this is only his 3rd outing as a director, after 115 credits as a cinematographer. His last film credit as director of photography had actually been just a year before, on Hitchcock's masterpiece, Notorious. His eye for the camera is evident here, though with much more moderate effectiveness without the visionary planning of Hitchcock to guide him.

The script is by Martin Rackin, who also wrote such notable scripts as The Enforcer, Distant Drums, A Dangerous Profession, and O'Brien's next starring role, Fighting Father Dunne, as well as the script for another upcoming film in this #Noirvember series, Race Street. Roy Webb, who wrote the music for this, also worked on the previously mentioned Fighting Father Dunne and Race Street, and Hitchcock's Notorious, and had quite an impressive career as a film composer, with numerous noirs among them.

The cast is similarly filled with notable names, all of whom work well together to create a breezy, entertaining story.  Walter Slezak as the villain of the film, an interesting combination of swagger and weakness; one minute he is gloating over O'Brien, the next he is cowering as O'Brien forces him to clean up the mess that was made when Slezak ransacked his office in search of the map.

Anne Jeffreys has a role that surprisingly differs from the typical type it in initially appears to be.  She begins as a semi- Fatale character, working for Jerome Cowan before being won over by Don Hammer's charm.  She even has the unusual distinction of being scrappy enough to pitch right in during a big fight seen, attacking Walter Slezak's character with an aggressiveness not typically found in female roles of that period, and it's a welcome change of pace to see such an active female lead rather than the more passive, "retiring" types so prevalent in 40's and 50's cinema.

Percy Kilbride also has a featured role as the laid-back taxi driver who spends more time sitting around outside O'Brien's office and driving him around while cracking wise than he does drumming up any actual paying customers.  It may be one of the funnier and more interesting parts I've seen him play.

One of the somewhat amusing aspects of the film is the way O'Brien's character struggles to find clients who won't turn up dead. his first clent, Charles Hasso (played by Mike Krah) has already killed someone else to obtain the map, but knows its value and that he's not the only person willing to kill for it, and hires Dan Hammer for protection.  When Hasso turns up full of water in a bathtub, a businessman who also wants the map (Jerome Cowan) hires O'Brien to find it.
Things only get messier from there, but it's the kind of mess that's a whole lot of fun to watch.

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