Dan Hammer (Riffraff)

Created by Martin Rackin

1947 saw the introduction of two private eyes named Hammer.

This is the other one.

DAN HAMMER made his debut in Riffraff, a little slice of B-filmery that still manages to hit the spot, and displaying some surprisingly stylish pizazz while doing it. Like it didn’t know it was supposed to be a B.

Set in Panama, it opens with a great, dialogue-free six or so minutes of foreshadowing and prologue, and there are some nicely framed shots and dabs of local colour throughout the film (although it was almost certainly filmed on some Hollywood backlot). There are also a lot of white suits, ceiling fans and a fair share of suspicious foreigners, swarthy and otherwise, while Pat O’Brien, even with a few extra pounds, gives a surprisingly effective performance as an aging, layabout ex-pat P.I., go-between and  “fixer,” cooling his heels in steamy Panama city, where he seems to know everyone. He calls his company Zenith Services, and they do “a little bit of everything”–if the price is right.

No great lost classic, maybe, but it’s a popcorn-worthy piece of hokum, that kicks off with storm-filled skies and a cargo plane due in from Peru that lands minus a passenger (and the valuable map pinpointing the hidden location of twenty-five unregistered Peruvian wild cat oil wells that he was supposedly carrying). Dan is hired by Charles Hasso, the surviving passenger, to be his bodyguard. Major Rues of the Panamanian secret police (which is exactly how he introduces himself, so how “secret” are those police?) is sniffing around, unconvinced that Hasso’s fellow passenger deliberately jumped out of the plane.

Is Hasso paranoid? Or is someone really out to get him?

Soon enough, Dan is also hired by a powerful oil company executive to locate the missing map, while later that evening sultry nightclub singer Maxine Manning apparently falls for Dan’s rakish charms and American brashness… or does she?

The usual B-film antics all pop up, as everybody hunts for the treasure map–Dan gets the snot beat out of him a few times, secrets are exposed, people are betrayed, villains are sleazy, “Pops” the cabbie wisecracks, and a few acts of killery are committed, but through it all our man Dan perseveres. 

Sure, you could argue he was miscast (he’s probably a little dumpy for a hero, and certainly a little too old for Maxine), but O’Brien handles the role pretty well, credibly tough when he has to be, but keeping it light, reminiscent at times of Dick Powell in any of a number of his films, or Lloyd Nolan in the Mike Shayne flicks. 

And the script keeps things moving along, with a few running gags (like his dog, Napoleon, sleeping in front of his office door, his on-going “marriage proposal” with Pops and a groaner plot twist) to keep it bouncing.

All in all, a fun and clever little film that tried a bit harder than most. There are worse crimes.

THE EVIDENCE

  • Dan: Where are you from?
    Maxine: Oh, here, there and everywhere.
    Pops: That’s a beautiful country, that everywhere.
  • Even the obligatory musical number is smarter than it has to be–Maxine serenades the cash-hungry with a little ditty called “Money is the Root of All Evil.”

UNDER OATH

  • “…someone took pains to make it hang together pretty well”.
    — The Los Angeles Times
  • “… only emerges a notch above the run-of-the-murder adventure despite a thoroughly engrossing beginning and some crisp dialogue.”
    — The New York Times
  • “… one of those unsung little films which may not be a classic yet packs quite a bit of entertainment value into 80 minutes. I had a good time watching it.”
    — Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings

FILMS

  • RIFFRAFF Buy the DVD Watch it now!
    (aka “Riff-Raff,” Riff Raff”)
    (1947, RKO)
    Black & white
    80 minutes
    Tagline: “Baby, this is a matter of love and death!”
    Based on a story by Martin Rackin
    Screenplay by Martin Rackin
    Directed by Ted Tetzlaff
    Music composed by Roy Webb and Joan Whitney
    Starring Pat O’Brien as DAN HAMMER
    Also starring Anne Jeffreys, Walter Slezak, Percy Kilbride, Marc Krah, Jerome Cowan, George Givot, Jason Robards

THE DICK OF THE DAY

  • July 18, 2021
    THE BOTTOM LINE: Pat O’Brien is a slacker ex-pat Yank in Panama, working as a P.I. and “fixer,” in RIFFRAFF, a sharp, fun little B-flick with A-film ambitions.
Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.

2 thoughts on “Dan Hammer (Riffraff)

  1. “how “secret” are those police?”

    The US Secret Service has a uniform and a public relations department.

Leave a Reply to Rawdon Crawley Cancel reply