RIFF-RAFF. RKO, 1947. Pat O’Brien, Walter Slezak, Anne Jeffreys, Percy Kilbride and Jerome Cowan. Written by Martin Rackin. Directed by Ted Tetzlaff.

   I resisted watching this for weeks because I find Pat O’Brien pretty easy to resist, but when I got around to it I found myself bowled over by a film of dark beauty and considerable wit.

   Riff-Raff opens with more than six minutes of no dialogue: just fluid, suspenseful camerawork as a man with a mysterious briefcase boards a cargo plane from Peru to Panama. He doesn’t finish the trip, but his briefcase does, in possession of his killer, who soon seeks the protection of Dan Hammer (Pat O’Brien of course), Panama’s resident hard-boiled fixer. The guy with the briefcase meets a predictable fate, triggering a search for its contents, and setting the story proper in pleasing if predictable motion.

   Someone spent some time fleshing out O’Brien’s character, and it pays off. Hammer’s office is a seedy affair in a run-down building, guarded by a sleeping dog. He knows every chiseler and cop in town, and everyone in between, all this conveyed with sharp dialogue and a parade of evocative bit players doing their bits.

   Plot-wise, it’s a standard riff on The Maltese Falcon, with Walter Slezak’s effeminate fat man and his hired gunsels looking for the missing whosis, Anne Jeffreys as a beauty who isn’t all she seems , and even Falcon‘s Jerome Cowan as a double-dealer in on the game. The wonder is that Riff-Raff is done with so much style and wit, the discerning viewer won’t give a damn – just sit back and be dazzled.

   I should give a special mention to Percy Kilbride as Hammer’s side-kick, a part written & played to laid-back perfection, and one that got a few laughs out of me. There, I’ve mentioned it. And now a word about our Hero:

   For most of this film, Pat O‘Brien is just fine, in a jaded, salty way, as the kind of American who gets stuck in a seedy/exotic milieu like Panama. Think of Rick in Casablanca and you’ll get the idea, but O’Brien seems a little sweatier, sloppier, and more true to life… or as true as you can get in a movie like this.

   It’s only when the young and lovely Anne Jeffreys falls for him that the whole thing don’t work no more. More than twenty years her senior, fat and balding, he just couldn’t carry the romantic parts for me – much as I’d like to think that lovely young ladies are drawn to old bald guys like moths to the gaudy neon sign above a cheap barroom.

   No, it just doesn’t click. But it’s the only weakness of a film I enjoyed a lot, and you should too.