Monday, November 10, 2014

Olivia Loves a Thief

TA. J. Raffles (David Niven) is a young man of society - a well-known cricket player and man about town. Though Raffles has no real income, he lives quite well.  He supports himself with his hobby - in his spare time, he is the notorious Amateur Cracksman, a thief who has been bedeviling the local police.  Thus begins the fourth remake of Raffles (1939).

The film had already been made in 1917 (as Raffles, the Amateur Cracksman, with John Barrymore), in 1925 (with House Peters) and in 1930 (with Ronald Colman).  We were lucky enough to see some commentary from Robert Osborne, and he mentioned that this version was an almost scene by scene recreation of the Colman film.  Director Sam Wood (who had just come off Gone With the Wind) was too tired to waste effort on a new version, so he just cribbed from the Colman version.  This TCM article goes into a bit more detail.  We hope, at some later date, to view the 1930 Colman film and compare those two films.

Also fresh from Gone With the Wind was Olivia de Havilland, who was assigned to play Gwen Manders, Raffles love interest.  Ms. de Havilland had little interest in the role - it was mere window dressing to Niven's more rakish part (Cary Grant actually pursued the role of Raffles - he even offered to lower his normal salary).  Her disgust at being forced into roles that she viewed as inferior was the impetus for her eventual suit against the studio system.  For more information on this story - and it should be noted that Ms. de Havilland was a leader at great cost to herself in this protest - see this interview at the Academy of Achievement
So, while Olivia doesn't have a whole lot to do here (except be intelligently gorgeous, which is also quite a skill.  Her Gwen is no dummy, and Ms. de Havilland can show you with just the merest glint in the eye what is going in within Gwen's head), David Niven shines.  He is quite dashing as A.J.  Our group found the film quite reminiscent of To Catch a Thief, and were fascinated by Cary Grant's interest in Raffles.  It seemed to us that, while it took nearly 20 years, Mr. Grant DID finally get to play The Amateur Cracksman. 

Many films from the period portray the police as complete dolts.  Not Raffles.  The police inspector MacKenzie, played by Dudley Digges, is a worthy adversary to Raffles, and someone that Raffles respects.  In fact, it is a mutual admiration society - MacKenzie also admires The Amateur Cracksman's skill and daring.  Nevertheless, MacKenzie is determined to put him behind bars. 

There is an attempt on the part of the screenwriter to make Raffles a more attractive - and admirable - character.  At least twice we see him steal in order to help someone else.  In the first scene, he snatches a piece of art, then secretly presents it to a retired (and hard up) actress, so she can collect the reward. This bit of Robin Hood in the character is surely meant to placate the code - we can't quite condemn him when the only thefts we see are those that help a destitute old lady and his future brother-in-law, Bunny Manders (Douglas Watson).
The screenplay is very well done, and there are some well-crafted scenes.  In one instance, Raffles needs to get down to the first floor of Lady Melrose's (Dame May Whitty) home.  However, he knows Inspector MacKenzie is hovering around his door.  His solution, to pretend to put his shoes outside the room, is done in total silence.  It's an effectively done sequence, and David Niven is quite excellent in his execution.  Also fun was Raffles attempt to stash a stolen bracelet in a humidor. Only he doesn't realize that Inspector MacKenzie is a pipe smoker.   And the Inspector has forgotten his tobacco. Finally, there is a wonderful bit where Raffles realizes another thief is in the house. Niven's relish at getting the best of his competition is delightful. 

All in all, a fun film well worth a viewing. We leave you with a clip from the beginning  of Raffles: