Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Raffles (1939)

Raffles, the gentleman-thief created by E. W. Hornung in the late 1890s, made the transition to movies as early as 1905. The popular 1930 movie version starring Ronald Colman was in fact the tenth film adaptation of the Raffles stories. Raffles’ career on the screen was far from over - he featured in two more movies during the 1930s and finally in a 1977 television series. Of the movies the best remembered may well be the 1939 Raffles with David Niven in the starring role.

Making an American Raffles movie in 1939 presented certain challenges. The Production Code was quite explicit in forbidding the glamourising of criminals and there’s no getting away from the fact that Raffles is a thief. The movie solves the problem about as well as can be expected in the circumstances.

One unfortunate decision made in regard to the 1939 film was to give it a contemporary setting. This works reasonably enough but it would have been more fun in an authentic Victorian setting.

The movie opens with the most daring exploit to date of the mysterious burglar known as the Amateur Cracksman. A priceless Renaissance painting has been stolen. The fate of the painting is much more surprising - a retired actress receives it in the post. What on earth can the Amateur Cracksman be up to now?

Of course we soon find out. The Amateur Cracksman is none other than the famous cricketer A. J. Raffles, the finest spin bowler of his generation. Raffles’ ability to bamboozle batsmen is matched only by his ability to baffle Scotland Yard. 

Raffles however now has a bit of a problem. He has fallen in love. And now he is suffering pangs of conscience. He decides to turn over a new leaf but his timing is rather unfortunate - his friend Bunny Manders (Douglas Walton) is in desperate financial straits and faces bankruptcy, social and professional ruin and prison. He appeals to Raffles for help but Raffles only knows one way to obtain money - by stealing.

Another minor difficulty is that Scotland Yard have had a lucky break in their hitherto fruitless investigation into the activities of the Amateur Cracksman and Inspector MacKenzie (Dudley Digges) is hot on his trail.

Somehow Raffles will have to contrive to save Bunny Manders, escape the clutches of Inspector MacKenzie and prove himself worthy of the love of Gwen (Olivia de Havilland). And he will have to do all this without breaching the Production Code and without betraying the spirit of Hornung’s celebrated anti-hero. Screenwriters John Van Druten and Sidney Howard will face as much of a challenge as Raffles himself. Ultimately they fail but in the circumstances they did their best.

David Niven gives his usual effortless and effervescent performance. The fascinating social nuances that are among the most interesting elements of the original stories (such as those included in The Amateur Cracksman in 1899) are completely absent here. The complexities in the friendship between Raffles and Bunny Manders are also ignored. This is slightly unfortunate since those elements (which are fully developed in the superb 1977 Raffles TV series) would have given Niven a lot more scope and he was a sufficiently capable actor to have given a more interesting performance. Still, an actor can only work with what the script gives him and within those limitations Niven does a splendid job.

I’ve always found Olivia de Havilland to be a bit on the bland side. She’s harmless here, although she hardly sets the screen alight. Dudley Digges was one of those fine old character actors who could always be relied upon to be entertaining and he’s in good form here. Dame May Whitty appears as an elderly aristocratic lady whose jewels are of considerable interest to Raffles, and to others.

Sam Wood directs in competent fashion. There’s at least one scene that echoes one of the  best scenes in the 1930 film. It’s not as good but it is an interesting homage.

The Warner Archive made-on-demand DVD includes both this version and the 1930 Ronald Colman version (which is excellent) so this two-movie disc is excellent value.

Raffles could defeat any safe ever built and any security system ever devised. The one thing he could not defeat was the Production Code. The result is a movie with some very good moments but in the final analysis it just doesn’t quite make it. Worth a look for keen David Niven fans.

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