Forget the lack of A-list stars or filmmakers above the title, as Riffraff is a film noir jewel that’s worth a look. Director Ted Tatzlaff, best known for The Window and his cinematography work on Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious, is in full element with this Panama set story about a white suit wearing private dick named Dan Hammer (Some Like It Hot’s Pat O’Brien).
Before we get into Dan Hammer and his constant need for getting his white suits pressed (I’m assuming the hot Panama sun is a reason for his wardrobe changes), let’s start from the beginning, as the first six minutes of the film has absolutely no dialogue!!
Instead, we start the narrative on a stormy night in an airfield, as Tetzlaff introduces us to characters who won’t even get past the film’s first chapter! But there’s a method to this madness, as the ominous tone to the film, as well as the pic’s visually arresting aesthetic, has been firmly established.
The plane’s headed to Panama, but more importantly a map that contains the location of South American oil fields is part of its cargo. Where there’s oil, there’s money, and when money’s involved the prospect of murder is just around the corner.
Dan Hammer has all the angles to Panama figured out, and when he’s offered a ton of money to find the map by an oil company exec, Hammer thinks he’s absolutely in the pink. But in walks Maxine (Anne Jeffreys of Topper fame) a drop dead stunner of a nightclub singer who catches Hammer’s eye. Throw in a slimy crook named Molinar (Walter Slezak) and his bunch of cronies, stir it up with a slight double-cross, and Hammer may have finally met his match!
Though O’Brien doesn’t have the film noir pedigree of such luminaries as Robert Mitchum or Robert Ryan, he’s a natural as the hard-living (and occasionally womanizing) private eye. Jeffreys is also a revelation as whipsmart lady who stops Hammer dead in his tracks, and it’s their innate chemistry (along with Tetzlaff’s inspired direction) which propels Riffraff into rarefied film noir territory.
The true shame behind Riffraff is it’s a film that may be ignored by many diehard movie buffs. And even with the DVD cover, Jeffreys and O’Brien are seemingly made to look like pale imitations of Barbara Stanwyck and Alan Ladd (that’s the conspiracy theorist in me talking).
Rest assured, however, as Riffraff is a movie that thankfully stands on its own. Though it was as elusive to find as the map Hammer is desperately searching for, Warner Archive now has the film available as a Manufactured on Demand title.
For more info on Riffraff, please go to WBShop.com.
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