Pat O’Brien is one of those easy to identify, ubiquitous Hollywood actors who could be counted on to turn up as a reporter, priest or cop. He always delivered solid and believable performances from his sophomore outing as Hildy Johnson in the original 1931 screen adaptation of The Front Page, all the way through his appearance alongside buddy and frequent on-screen collaborator James Cagney in 1981’s Ragtime. His rapid fire delivery and everyman good looks assured him constant work in the 30s and early 40s. But by the late 40s, he was not as highly demanded, although he continued working steadily. In 1946 he made the noir Crack-Up which proved once again not only was he a reliable screen presence, but a natural fit into the crime genre. He followed this up with one of his arguably best performances in the underrated gem, Riff-Raff (1947).
At first look, Riff-Raff (not to be confused with the 1936 Jean Harlow/Spencer Tracy film) is a solid entry into the noir catalogue, but this would be a gross misrepresentation. It’s an adventure noir comedy not so easily pidgeon-holed and sinfully overlooked upon initial release. Directed by solid cinematographer Ted Tezlaff ,who made a name for himself as Carole Lombard’s “go to” DP, as well as the behind-the-lens genius of Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946), does beautiful work here with both actors and mis-en-scene. The rich visuals, kicked off with a tensely wrought ten minute opening sans dialogue but abundantly ample atmosphere, follows a courier carrying a highly prized map boarding a cargo plane from Peru to Panama, and falling out somewhere in between. The only other passenger, a mysterious and portly little man named Charles Hasso, arrives in the exotically rendered Panama City (using a combination of authentic location footage and brilliantly staged backlot design) and seeks out detective Dan Hammer to protect him while he’s in town.
O’Brien is Dan Hammer (not Mickey Spillane’s “Mike Hammer”), and he is such a well crafted character, the film could have easily launched a series. He’s tough talking like Marlowe and Sam Spade, but the soft-doughy-ness of his physique makes his hard-boiled dialogue utterly charming. A tired old dog that drapes his office doorway is his only form of security, and a parrot; his answering machine. He knows everybody in Panama City, and throughout the proceedings is approached by everyone from blue-collar workers, to femme fatales asking for various assistance, which he dispatches with little handwritten notes passed to them, with the explanation, “Go see Mac and tell’m I sent you,” or “Tell the Chief of Police I sent you,” with never any more explanation. His personal ride is procured by taxi driver “Pop” (Percy Kildbride of Ma & Pa Kettle fame) who not only drives Hammer wherever he needs to go, but is constantly on hand to offer advice and comebacks.
Within an hour of being hired by Hasso, Hammer is approached by the local chief of police (Jason Robards Sr.) as well as well-heeled oilmen to find the map stolen by Hasso. Hammer arrives at Hasso’s hotel to find his client drowned in the bathtub. Little does Hammer know that before expiring, Hasso had hidden the map (in very plain sight) at Hammer’s office. With his lackadaisical charm and easygoing manner, Hammer hooks up with nightclub singer Maxine Manners (an easy-on-the-eyes Anne Jeffreys), fends off the always slimy Walter Slezak as map hungry Eric Molinar, and gets in and out of jams, including one extremely well shot and choreographed fight scene, with a refreshing assist by Jeffreys. And it’s Jeffreys who discovers the map, not O’Brien. One of many nice turnarounds.
I’m short-selling this film by a long-shot. It’s so cleverly crafted in every department, that it can only be truly appreciated by viewing. Luckily Warner Archive Collection has released a beautifully struck print. As usual, the DVD is short on extras, but with such an enjoyable ride, stands on its own. It’s a legitimate testament to the immortal talents of its underappreciated late-in-life leading man, O’Brien.