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Riffraff

Posted by martinteller on July 21, 2013

Panama detective Dan Hammer (Pat O’Brien) has a new case: recent arrival Charles Hasso (Marc Krah) wants his protection for the next two days.  A few minutes later, Hammer gets another case: oil magnate Walter Gredson (Jerome Cowan) hires him to find Hasso… and the valuable map he carries.  Should be easy, except when Hammer checks in at the hotel, Hasso has been murdered, with no sign of the map.  Then the intimidating Molinar (Walter Slezak) shows up, also wanting the map.  With a fat paycheck — and possibly his life — on the line, Hammer tries to find the missing document.  On his side are his trusty cab driver Pop (Percy Kilbride) and the ravishing new nightclub singer Maxine (Anne Jeffreys).

This is a very entertaining detective story.  It’s got a number of interesting elements.  First is the wordless 6 1/2 minute opening scene, featuring a dastardly murder on an airplane in a thunderstorm.  It’s a sequence that’s beautifully put together and shows off the superb camerawork of cinematographer George Diskant (terrific résumé, including They Live By Night and Kansas City Confidential).  Then there’s the MacGuffin, which (no spoiler) the audience knows is right under Hammer’s nose the whole time.  Some may find this frustrating, but I love how director Ted Tetzlaff keeps teasing us with it.

And there’s the clever script, which employs a number of repeat gags and callbacks, like the necktie and Pop’s backfiring taxi.  The dialogue sparkles with wit and snappy one-liners.  O’Brien and Kilbride have some priceless banter.  The film moves economically and manages to avoid being too twisty and confusing.  It’s a tight movie that maintains your interest… not easy to do when the viewer already knows the answer to the mystery that the protagonist is trying to solve.

Slezak and Kilbride are the most memorable of the cast.  Jeffreys does okay as the sidekick/eye candy/potential femme fatale… she’s no Stanwyck or Grahame, but she passes just fine.  The weak spot is probably the casting of O’Brien.  Oh, he’s terrific at delivering those sardonic zingers, but he’s got no edge to him, no roughness.  This makes for an offbeat detective (think Elliot Gould in The Long Goodbye) but there needs to be some bite to this guy.  He’s too much the goofy uncle, the Thomas Mitchell type.  He also makes an implausible romantic interest for Jeffreys, 23 years his junior.

It’s far from disastrous casting, though, as O’Brien is still an enjoyable screen presence.  This is a very worthwhile overlooked noir.  Rating: Very Good (86)

IMDb
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