For Reel

Raffles (1939)
July 7, 2016, 3:47 pm
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: Sam Wood
3 Stars
RafflesA frequently revisited character in the first decades of film, Raffles is the preeminent gentleman thief, whose intelligence and vulnerability make him both impossibly debonair and surprisingly human—it’s no wonder that such actors as John Barrymore, Ronald Colman, and David Niven were cast in the part, each exuding a suave energy but also among the most simply likable of stars. Niven’s turn comes in this 1939 Sam Wood adaptation, which modernizes the plot and streamlines the narrative. The influence of the earlier films is clear—in its best moments, it uses silence and insists on closeups of the actors as a means of producing suspense. When company is gathering to hear a performance, the way the situation unfolds is almost entirely through reactions, suggestion the influence of the Barrymore version. Niven, this being among his earliest leading roles, shows visible signs of uncertainty that would vanish only years later (there is a world between the stilted performance here to the effortlessly brilliant opening scene of A Matter of Life and Death). Similarly, Olivia De Havilland tends to leave the biggest impression when cast alongside actors who were decidedly more eccentric than Niven (such as Bette Davis), and if they look good together on screen their chemistry doesn’t play beyond the superficial. Regardless, Raffles is a respectable, if entirely forgettable adaptation of the material—clearly lacking a needed edge due to the limits of the Production Code, with Niven’s interpretation playing as similarly serviceable and nothing more.