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Raffles (1939)

Raffles (1939)

Produced by Samuel Goldwyn and directed by Sam Wood (Goodbye Mr. Chips (1939)) with a screenplay by Sidney Howard (Gone With the Wind (1939)) and John Van Druten (among others) that was based on The Amateur Cracksman by E.W. Hornung this comedy adventure drama features David Niven in the title role of A.J. Raffles a star cricket player who (it’s learned) is also a charming high society thief! Ronald Colman had played the role in a 1930 early talkie also produced by Goldwyn that was a remake of (among others) the 1917 silent featuring John Barrymore. This one also features Olivia de Havilland Dame May Whitty Dudley Digges Douglas Walton and E.E. Clive (among others) who plays Raffles’s trusty longtime butler Barraclough. I haven’t seen any of these other versions nor the subsequent 1975 TV remake so I can’t comment on how this one compares. However I do like Niven’s easy charm on-screen persona and did enjoy this 72 minute film.

A valuable painting is stolen from a museum and all that is left is a calling card from “the Amateur Cracksman” stating that he has “a better use for it”! Before Scotland Yard can even begin working on the crime Maud Holden (Margaret Seddon) walks into their offices with the painting she’d received by post (through the mail). Informed by Barraclough that he needs funds for some bill Raffles tells his manservant that he’ll be taking care of it that evening. Shortly thereafter a cat is caught setting off the alarm inside a jewelry store. After the bobbies are satisfied there’s been no crime and leave a dark figure dressed in a tuxedo cracks the safe and removes a diamond-encrusted bracelet. Arriving on the scene just outside is Inspector MacKenzie (Digges) who insists that they re-investigate the scene after reasoning that the cat couldn’t have gotten inside on its own. But the Amateur Cracksman has already escaped with his booty and left another identifying calling card.

Raffles who’s a well known cricket player arrives at a society party where his college classmate Bunny Mathers (Walton) introduces him to his sister Gwen (de Havilland). A romance begins as they dance together though they’re frequently interrupted by a friend of Gwen’s Lady Kitty Melrose (Whitty). Raffles is also introduced to Lord Melrose (Lionel Pape) who invites them to be guests at his country home for the weekend. But when Lord Melrose writes his home’s telephone number on a piece of paper for Bunny he inadvertently presses it onto Raffles’s Hilton brand cigarette pack. Raffles takes Gwen home in a handsome cab and both declare their love for one another. Later ostensibly because of this relationship with Gwen Raffles decides to return the bracelet he’d stolen in that same cigarette pack to Scotland Yard. Again MacKenzie is curious about this Amateur Cracksman and his calling card’s promise that this was his “farewell performance”. His forensics expert soon discovers the telephone number on the cigarette box and they soon learn that it’s assigned to Lord Melrose’s country home. Bunny visits Raffles admits to a 1000 pound gambling debt and asks his friend for help. Raffles thinks for a moment and then promises his friend that he’ll take care of it that weekend.

At the Melrose country home a party is underway that includes all the principals and more and will soon include the Inspector as well. Earlier at a cricket match a burglar named Crawshay (Peter Godfrey) had discussed the home’s layout with the Melrose’s maid Wilson (Hilda Plowright). She plans to further help him by disabling the alarm system so that he can steal Lady Melrose’s bejeweled (emerald) necklace. Inside the estate while Lord Melrose falls asleep during a piano recital Raffles sees Bunny stressing over his debt and then eyes Lady Melrose’s emerald necklace himself. Inspector MacKenzie arrives to see Lord Melrose and after informing him that the Amateur Cracksman has likely planned to rob the estate is invited to stay incognito as Mr. Cameron; Bunny and Raffles are in the know but Lady Melrose is kept in the dark because of her nervous nature hence the Inspector’s cover. Through conversations with Bunny and Raffles during which he learns of various intricate dangling clues and coincidences the Inspector begins to suspect that Raffles is his man and Raffles knows it.

Raffles ends up talking Lady Melrose into keeping her jewels where she always does in her bedroom versus in the same and her husband suggests. But she does go through the motions for him in front of Mr. Cameron of having them placed in the safe. By now Raffles has spilled the beans to Lady Melrose as to Cameron’s real identity. Later that evening when everyone else has gone to bed the two play a game of cat and mouse until Raffles notices that a window is open and learns that a burglar assisted by the maid is after the same jewelry. He interrupts the crime and obtains the necklace for himself but the burglar notices Raffles’s watch. Meanwhile the Inspector had noticed that the alarm was off and he turns it on just it time for Crawshay familiar to Scotland Yard to be caught. The Inspector asks Raffles where he’d been and he replies that he’d been reading in his bedroom as previously planned but Gwen knows this to be false and though she starts to piece everything together herself she says nothing. Needing to pawn the goods Raffles paints his hand with fingernail polish to make it look as if he’d hurt himself. Concerned about the cricket players next match Lord Melrose who’s offered a 1000 pound reward for the return of the necklace insists that Raffles go into London to have a doctor look at it. The Inspector allows Raffles to leave without searching him or his luggage because of something that Crawshay had said when caught – he plans to allow one thief to catch the other.

Back in London at Raffles apartment the Inspector has surrounded the premises; he and his men watch as Crawshay who’d been allowed to escape moves in on the unsuspecting cricket player. Somehow undetected Gwen arrives and tells Raffles that she knows he’s a thief. He doesn’t have time to explain though because now someone is knocking at his door; Barraclough had left to get tickets to Amsterdam where the necklace could be pawned. Raffles hides the necklace in a can of tobacco and Gwen in another bedroom before answering the door to find the Inspector. He does a little bit of searching before he finds Gwen and nearly the necklace before Lord Melrose arrives with Bunny. After Raffles confirms that the reward is still being offered he tells Bunny where the necklace is so that he can collect the reward to pay his debts. Lord Melrose insists that he doesn’t want to file any charges but Raffles and Crawshay who’d entered the flat earlier both escape (Raffles by impersonating the Inspector) though the Amateur Cracksman had left a calling card telling the Inspector to expect him outside at a specific time later that evening (e.g. to give himself up). Before he does Raffles returns to give Gwen one last kiss before saying “farewell”.

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