RIFFRAFF, which bears no relation to the 1936 Spencer Tracy-Jean Harlow film, is a creatively staged movie from RKO. Eddie Muller and Alan Rode of the Film Noir Foundation refer to RKO as "the House of Noir," and this film is another good example of RKO's strong track record in the genre.
The movie starts off with a long, wordless sequence which does a great job setting the stage and building suspense; two men board a plane during a downpour in Peru, but only one of the passengers gets off when the plane lands in Panama.
Returning to the hotel, Hammer discovers his new client is no longer among the living, and soon there's a free-for-all looking for a map the man was carrying, with the interested parties including gorgeous blonde nightclub singer Maxine (Anne Jeffreys), nasty Eric Molinar (Walter Slezak), and local law enforcement (George Givot).
To be sure, there are some dark and violent moments, starkly filmed by George Diskant, who would later do such a great job with ON DANGEROUS GROUND (1951). But there are also some delightful comic touches, such as Hammer giving his mangy old "guard dog" dinner and admonishing him, as he walks out the door, "Don't eat it till 6:00."
Percy Kilbride is amusing as a laconic cab driver with a broken-down car who also takes care of Hammer's laundry and serves as his righthand man, playing a key role in catching the killer. There's also some nice interplay at the end with the police inspector.
There's a running gag with local folks constantly approaching Hammer for help with varied problems, which he invariably solves by scrawling an introduction to someone on a card, saying "Send me a check"; he even sets up the police inspector to get a new gun! The only thing that would have made it even better would have been if there was some sort of payoff at the end with all the people he'd helped bailing Dan out of a jam.
Anne Jeffreys is lovely in this, and she has the chance to sing one song, "Money is the Root of All Evil," which also ties in nicely to the story. She and O'Brien have an appealing chemistry, and the film does a good job developing their relationship "between the lines" -- someone making a pot of coffee has never had more significance, as there's a fade out and then a fade in much later in the day.
At the same time, the film avoids any overly obvious love scenes, which might have been slightly awkward given the leads' 23-year age difference; however, the choice to portray the relationship more subtly actually ended up adding positively to the movie's style.
I was curious about George Givot, as I didn't recognize him but he sounded like he had a "voice for radio," very similar to Jeff Chandler. I was thus amused to look him up and learn that Givot was indeed a radio actor, and he also memorably voiced Tony, the chef at the Italian restaurant in LADY AND THE TRAMP (1955).
Ted Tetzlaff (THE WINDOW). It was written by Martin Rackin.
RIFFRAFF is one of those unsung little films which may not be a classic yet packs quite a bit of entertainment value into 80 minutes. I had a good time watching it. Thanks to the Warner Archive for making it available in a great-looking print.
The DVD has no extras.
Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this DVD. Warner Archive releases are MOD (manufactured on demand) and may be ordered from the Warner Archive Collection at the WBShop.