Sunday, June 21, 2009

Tonight's Movie: Raffles (1939)

RAFFLES (David Niven) is an elegant man about London who has it all, including fame as a cricket star and love with the beautiful Gwen (Olivia deHavilland). Raffles also has a unique hobby...he's a jewel thief who must stay one step ahead of a detective from Scotland Yard (Dudley Digges).

RAFFLES is a stylistic forerunner of TO CATCH A THIEF and THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR (I'm thinking of the Pierce Brosnan version), in which the thief is so charming and unthreatening that the viewer roots for the thief rather than the police. Niven is perfection in the title role, as he slyly trades barbs with cunning Inspector McKenzie. One can certainly understand why Gwen feels such attraction to A.J., even after she realizes that he is "The Amateur Cracksman," a notoriously clever thief being sought by the police.

The movie runs a quick 72 minutes and actually could have stood being a little longer -- a touch more character motivation and romance plus a less abrupt ending would have made a better film. The movie is quite enjoyable but one wishes that it had been even better, given the intriguing story and the talents in front of and behind the camera.

A side note -- having just been to London, I loved the opening 1930s establishing shots of Parliament Bridge, the National Gallery, and St. Martin-in-the-Fields.

The movie was directed by Sam Wood. According to the Turner Classic Movies site, Wood was exhausted from his uncredited work on GONE WITH THE WIND, so in turn William Wyler did some uncredited work filling in for Wood on RAFFLES.

The supporting cast includes Dame May Whitty, E.E. Clive, Douglas Walton, Hilda Plowright, and Lionel Pape. The production values are Class A all the way, with black and white cinematography by Gregg Toland, music by Victor Young, and costumes by Travis Banton.

The RAFFLES story has been filmed many times over the years, including in 1930 starring Ronald Colman and Kay Francis.

RAFFLES isn't out on DVD or VHS, but it can be seen as part of the library at Turner Classic Movies.

Update: RAFFLES is now available on DVD from the Warner Archive. It's part of a two-film set with the 1930 version starring Ronald Colman.


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