Ted Tetzlaff’s Riffraff, which premiered in New York City on June 28, 1947, was Tetzlaff’s first feature film as sole director. (In 1941, he co-directed the John Barrymore comedy World Premiere with the uncredited Otis Garrett and he was the uncredited co-director on Ralph Murphy’s Jackie Cooper comedy Glamour Boy.)
Before he made the leap to directing, Tetzlaff worked as a cinematographer on more than a hundred films. He started working in the silent era, and his last credited film as cinematographer was Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946). Anyone who’s seen Notorious can attest to how beautifully it’s lighted and shot, and Tetzlaff brings his considerable skill to bear on Riffraff, elevating it from the very run-of-the mill detective story it could have been.
The opening sequence in Riffraff is the most talked-about part of the film. It’s five full minutes of dialogue-free bliss. After the credits roll, the film cuts to an unnerving shot of an iguana placidly lying on a log in the pouring rain. The iguana’s cold, reptilian gaze is a harbinger of things soon to come.
It’s 2:25 in the morning at El Caribe airlines in Peru. A meek, bespectacled man (Fred Essler) boards a cargo plane, the rain sheeting down on him. He sits nervously in the cargo hold, dripping wet and hanging onto his briefcase tightly. He’s sharing the space with a bunch of squawking chickens and an oily, mustachioed fat man with an unnerving smile. (He’s played by Marc Krah, and we’ll find out later in the film that his character’s name is Charles Hasso). The man with glasses watches Hasso fearfully as Hasso stares back at him. Then Hasso stands up and plucks an errant chick from the floor and replaces it gently in its box.
There’s an exterior shot of the cargo plane flying through the rain in the night, then an interior shot of the pilots lighting up a couple of smokes. A warning tone sounds in the cockpit. The co-pilot rushes back into the hold, where the door is wide open and rain is pouring into the plane. “I couldn’t stop him! He jumped!” exclaims Hasso.
Sure he did.
The cargo plane lands in Panama, where Hasso is questioned by the head of the secret police, Major Rues (played by an oddly accent-free George Givot). Hasso is evasive when he’s questioned about his fellow passenger’s death and suggests that the man might have killed himself for love.
Sure he did.
Major Rues’s suspicions (as well as the audience’s suspicions, if they’re awake) are confirmed when Hasso goes to see Dan Hammer (Pat O’Brien), president and sole operative of Zenith Services, a detective agency. Hasso hires Hammer as a bodyguard for his two-day sojourn in Panama City, and while Hammer’s back is turned, he takes the map he stole from the man on the plane and tacks it to Hammer’s cluttered bulletin board, where it will remain for most of the film’s running time (there’s no better place to hide something than in plain sight.)
Eventually we find out that the map shows the locations of a number of unregistered oil wells. Hammer is approached by a shady businessman named Walter Gredson (Jerome Cowan), who wants Hammer to find Hasso for him. Hammer talks Gredson and his assistant up to $5,000 to do the job, and of course never tells them that he already knows exactly who Hasso is and where he is staying.
Hammer is a mixture of hero and con man. In fact, nearly everyone in the film is an operator who is looking out for number one. The beautiful girl in the story is named Maxine Manning (Anne Jeffreys) and even her motives are unclear for awhile. (After a scuffle in a bar, she deliberately pours a drink on her dress just so she can get close to Hammer.)
Pat O’Brien is an interesting choice for the protagonist, since he’s a middle-aged character actor with a pear-shaped body. (Although, based on the presence of Marc Krah and Walter Slezak, who plays a vicious killer named Molinar, I suspect Tetzlaff had a fetish for fat guys.)
There’s plenty of violence in Riffraff, and more hard-boiled P.I. clichés than you can shake a stick at, but it’s ultimately not a very dark movie. Aside from all the corpses that pile up, it’s breezy, fast-paced fun in an exotic tropical setting.
Besides the performances, which are all excellent, the film is elevated by Tetzlaff’s direction and the terrific cinematography by George E. Diskant.
It’s too bad there weren’t more Dan Hammer films starring O’Brien. He’s hardly anyone’s picture of a tough-as-nails P.I., but he crafts a great character who I wouldn’t have minded seeing in more pictures. Hammer is the kind of guy who never wears a necktie because someone could choke him out with it, and who says he’s not going to give up on the case not because of any noble conviction, but rather, as he he says, because “I’ve got a lot of time invested in this thing. Plus a good shellacking!”
In case you’re wondering, I looked into it and couldn’t figure out who came first, Dan Hammer or Mike Hammer. (Mickey Spillane’s first novel, I, the Jury, was also published in 1947.) While it’s possible that Spillane took his character’s name from Martin Rackin’s script for Riffraff, or that Rackin cribbed the name from Spillane, it’s equally possible that a P.I. with the last name of “Hammer” was just a good idea whose time had come.