The Gentleman Jewel Thief: David Niven in Raffles (’39)

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To view Raffles click here.

Currently on Filmstruck, several of director Sam Wood’s films are spotlighted as part of the streaming service’s “Directed by Sam Wood” theme. Of those featured films, the most well-known are Kitty Foyle (1940), starring Ginger Rogers, and 1942’s The Pride of the Yankees with Gary Cooper and Teresa Wright (which I wrote about here), but all of them are worth a watch, particularly the romantic crime caper Raffles (1939). Based on the character A.J. Raffles, originally introduced in author E.W. Hornung’s collection of short stories The Amateur Cracksman, Raffles is a sort of remake of the 1930 film of the same title, which starred Ronald Colman and Kay Francis. In this 1939 version, the character is portrayed by another elegant and sophisticated velvet-voiced Brit — David Niven.

By day, the charming A.J. Raffles is a famous cricket player, a highly-respected figure in the most exclusive social circles in London. Once his appearances have been made, Raffles moonlights as an expert jewel thief and safecracker. Before you get the wrong idea about Raffles, his clever thievery is never for his own financial benefit. While he certainly gets a thrill from the act of stealing, Raffles, under the guise of his alter-ego “The Amateur Cracksman,” anonymously gifts stolen jewels and artwork to individuals who need financial help, instructing them to return the goods to Scotland Yard to claim the posted reward money. Raffles operates right under Scotland Yard’s nose, benefiting from his impeccable reputation in London society. With the police a step behind him, Raffles decides to give up his risky hobby before he is caught. But when his good friend admits to considering suicide after racking up a gambling debt he’s unable to pay off, Raffles decides to plan one more heist to help his desperate friend. Unfortunately for Raffles, Scotland Yard is closing in on him, and so he must try to pin the theft on another criminal to maintain his cover while helping his friend and allude the authorities.

RAFFLES, from left, Dame May Whitty, Olivia de Havilland, David Niven, 1940

After several years of playing supporting roles in films such as William Wyler’s 1936 film Dodsworth (written about here) and The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), David Niven finally snagged a few key roles in 1939, including Raffles and the romantic comedy Bachelor Mother, alongside Ginger Rogers, proving that he could play a charming leading man. But while he certainly had that romantic quality, Niven was never able to hold on to his leading man status—a statement that feels utterly ridiculous to write, but is unfortunately true. And while some of my favorite David Niven performances are when he’s playing the lovable lead, his supporting roles later on in his career feature some of his best work—like Bonjour Tristesse and his Academy Award-winning performance in Separate Tables, both released in 1958.

In taking the role of A.J. Raffles, David Niven had pretty big shoes to fill, as it had been previously played by his good friend Ronald Colman in Samuel Goldwyn’s earlier version of the film in 1930. Niven is great as always, of course, and provides a different take on the character than Colman, but his performance as Raffles is often forgotten. This is exacerbated by the fact that the film hadn’t been readily available to modern audiences until 2014, when it was released on DVD as a double feature alongside the 1930 version. While not the original film adaptation of Hornung’s story—that honor goes to Raffles, the Amateur Cracksman (1917), starring John Barrymore–the 1930 film is possibly the best, and certainly the most popular amongst classic film fans. Ronald Colman certainly has a lot to do with how great the film is, but the story itself (that of an unrepentant jewel thief) benefits from the pre-Production Code era of Hollywood filmmaking. That said, Sam Wood’s version is quite entertaining, and while costars Olivia de Havilland and Dame May Whitty are in top form, it’s always fun to see David Niven playing a handsome, sophisticated gentleman—a role he always carried on with great ease, no matter the size of the part.

Jill Blake

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2 Responses The Gentleman Jewel Thief: David Niven in Raffles (’39)
Posted By Coolbev : September 18, 2017 8:42 am

I’m a big Raffles fan – the Hornung stories. It sounds like they’ve changed the story a little: in the original, Raffles stole because his finances didn’t match his social standing.

Did they include his side-lick Bunny? Even though I understand the idiom, I have to giggle when I read the part about how Bunny “fagged” for Raffles in school.

Posted By swac44 : September 21, 2017 9:24 am

This explains why Niven was the perfect choice to play The Phantom, who steals The Pink Panther in the same film that gave us Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau. Too bad he couldn’t reprise the role in The Return of the Pink Panther, but Christopher Plummer wasn’t a bad alternative.

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