Thursday, June 15, 2006

RAFFLES (1939)

The title of this comic crime adventure refers to A.J. Raffles (David Niven), the creation of British writer E.W. Hornung. This was the fourth film based on his exploits and apparently it's a scene-by-scene remake of the 1930 version with Ronald Colman. Raffles is, to all appearances, a charming high society cricket player, but on the side, he is also a jewel thief known to Scotland Yard and the public as the Amateur Cracksman. It is implied that he's something of a Robin Hood when he sends one stolen necklace to an aging actress he admires so she can turn it in for a sizeable reward, but otherwise we don't get much information about his life, other than that he's widely admired for his athletic ability, and only his butler (E.E. Clive) knows about his double life. Niven meets Olivia de Havilland, the sister of his friend Bunny (Douglas Walton), and they hit it off, so much so that he decides to go straight and returns the last batch of jewels he stole (in a clever ruse involving a cute little stray kitten as a decoy). However, when he attends a country house party to be near de Havilland, he also decides to pull off one last job as a way of helping Walton out of a gambling debt. Unbeknownst to him, there is another burglar (Peter Godfrey) in the house who, with some help from the family maid, has an inside track on getting the jewels. A comedy of errors follows in which Godfrey snatches them, then Niven snatches them from Godfrey, and we're never sure who has what because there is also a fake set floating around. In the end, Niven gallantly gives himself up to the Scotland Yard inspector (Dudley Digges) so he'll have a clean slate to start from when he gets out of jail and marries de Havilland. In the pre-Code 1930 version, Raffles gets away scot free, and the Code-imposed ending does hurt the film's fluffy tone, but generally this works well thanks almost completely to the charming Niven, who is a perfect fit for the role. Dame May Whitty is fun in the small role of the woman who throws the house party. Nothing special, but pleasant enough. [TCM]

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