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July 17th 2016 print

Neil McDonald

The Many Faces of Raffles

The 'gentleman cracksman's' exploits are meant to be fun, but they are also blessed by darker textures. With lead characters based in part on Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, there is a subtle gay sub-text in the originals -- just one of the elements that drew George Orwell's incisive attention

rafflesFor those of us in the 1960s and 1970s who wanted to teach and study mainstream fiction and film seriously, two essays were an inspiration: Raymond Chandler’s “The Simple Art of Murder” and George Orwell’s “Raffles and Miss Blandish”. The latter was more “respectable”. It was after all written by the author of Nineteen Eighty-Four and a noted essayist, while “The Simple Art of Murder” was by a writer of private-eye novels. In fact they were both excellent critics, even if Orwell was, perhaps, the more self-consciously intellectual. He chose E.W. Hornung’s “Raffles” stories to compare with James Hadley Chase’s novel No Orchids for Miss Blandish because of their popularity and also because they “shine the limelight on the criminal”.

When we were confronted by colleagues who would smile contemptuously when we tried to explain how westerns worked as allegory or when we argued that private-eye novels and movies were critiques of capitalist society, Orwell’s essay was a godsend. He rigorously examined a series of stories that we had all grown up with, elucidating areas of meaning that we had overlooked. We all knew that Raffles, the main character, played cricket for England, had bachelor chambers in the Albany and, in company with his former fag at public school, Bunny Manders, burgled the Mayfair and country houses they had often entered as guests. The books may have been written in the 1900s but most of us had found reprints in shopfront lending libraries. I even recall finding a selection of “Raffles” novels in the school library when I was teaching at North Sydney Boys’ High along with an excellent selection of American and British crime novels. The school inspectors of the 1960s might have been appalled but the students were grateful. It was not the only occasion when John Bates, NSBH’s long-serving librarian—a double honours graduate in Greek and Latin—was ahead of his time in his selections for one of the best school libraries in the state.

For Orwell, what was important about the Raffles stories was that their protagonist is not an honest man who has gone astray, but a public school man who has gone astray—a gentleman. Moreover, Hornung has made him a cricketer; a game where in Victorian and Edwardian England sportsmanship and “good form” were valued over winning. “In making Raffles a cricketer as well as a burglar,” Orwell argues, “Hornung was drawing the sharpest moral contrast he could possibly imagine.” The stories are, the famous socialist insists, about snobbery. Raffles and Bunny are at best upper-middle-class, without the means to sustain their lifestyle. Raffles is only welcomed into “society” because of his cricket and his personal charm. His revenge is to steal from these same upper classes. But he does have standards. As a houseguest he will rob the other guests but not his host. Orwell insists that Raffles usually goes unarmed and executes his robberies without violence. The overall impression, he concludes, is one of boyishness, of a time when there were standards, even if they were foolish ones.

For Orwell, No Orchids for Miss Blandish is “a header into a cesspool”. The story is of the kidnapping of a heiress—the Miss Blandish of the title—by two separate gangs. The original plan had been to kill her as soon as the ransom money was received but Slim, a simple-minded member of the gang whose sole pleasure in life consists of driving his knife into other people’s bellies, takes a fancy to her even though he is sexually impotent. His mother, the brains of the gang, decides to keep Miss Blandish alive until Slim can rape her and cure his impotence. The rape is achieved but an equally brutal private eye breaks the case and the gang is exterminated. Miss Blandish, who has acquired a taste for Slim’s caresses, throws herself out of the window of a skyscraper after she is rescued.

This essay appeared in the June edition of Quadrant.
Subscribers had no need to wait for it to be released from our paywall.

Orwell concedes that No Orchids for Miss Blandish is “a brilliant piece of writing, with hardly a wasted word or a jarring note anywhere” and mentions that the plot derives from William Faulkner’s Sanctuary. What he finds deplorable is that “the English author has made a complete mental transference to the American underworld”. The whole theme of this and Chase’s other books, he argues, is the pursuit of power—pure fascism indistinguishable in Orwell’s opinion from the Stalinists in the socialist movement. Clearly he was still vividly recalling his experiences in the Spanish Civil War, which he had brilliantly described in Homage to Catalonia. Orwell’s conclusion is typically incisive:

Comparing the schoolboy atmosphere of the one book with the cruelty and corruption of the other one is driven to feel that snobbishness, like hypocrisy, is a check upon behaviour whose value from a social point of view has been underrated.

The essay was written in 1944 but was still influential in the 1960s. My friend and mentor Bill Maidment contemplated making a similar analysis of Mickey Spillane, and together with John Flaus encouraged me to undertake an article for Film Digest comparing Ross Macdonald, Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammett’s novels with their screen adaptations. Another source of inspiration was Chandler’s “The Simple Art of Murder”, also written in 1944. Even though they are both masterpieces of literary and cultural criticism, these two great essays are very much of their time. Chandler was making the case for the more “realistic” type of crime fiction that had emerged in the 1920s and 1930s, while Orwell was commenting on the underlying attitudes in British popular fiction. However, he told only part of the story.

From the beginning “Raffles” had a further life on stage and screen. In 1903 Hornung and Eugene Wiley Presbrey adapted two of the stories for a play, Raffles, the Amateur Cracksman, that ran successfully on Broadway. There was a film of Raffles in 1905, listed as a short, that seems to have been lost. The great actor-manager Gerald du Maurier mounted a West End staging of the play in 1908 with himself in the title role. The production ran for two years.

Then in 1917 there was a film, Raffles, the Amateur Cracksman, directed by George Irving and starring a very handsome John Barrymore. Again it was based on the play—Presbrey’s name is on the credits—but presumably to open out the action the film opens with a sequence based on “A Gift for the Emperor” the short story at the end of The Amateur Cracksman collection, in which Raffles is exposed while attempting a burglary on a cruise and dives overboard. The remainder of the film, set mainly in the inevitable country house, is rather static; but Barrymore is extraordinary. In a beautifully understated performance he captures the style and elegance described in the originals as well as Raffles’s addiction to danger. Against this the sanitising of the cracksman’s thievery—a title tells us that he robs the rich and gives to the poor—doesn’t matter. In spite the inept titles, Barrymore has visually embodied the character Hornung created. It is worth mentioning that in one of his finest sound performances, playing the Baron in Grand Hotel (1932), Barrymore makes him a romantically tragic Raffles figure. The same year, in a different style altogether, he played a witty, enjoyably lecherous Arsene Lupin.

The next Raffles (1925) is a travesty. The cracksman only steals so he can return the loot and donate the reward to charity. But Raffles (1930) is a near masterpiece of early sound film. The script was by Sidney Howard, later to become famous for providing Gone with the Wind with its structure, and the director was George Fitzmaurice, who replaced Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast. D’Arrast was supposed to have had difficulties directing dialogue at the right pace for the new sound equipment. Fitzmaurice was one of early American cinema’s most accomplished directors, whose career extended well back into the silent era. Perhaps his most famous credits are The Son of the Sheik (1926) and Mata Hari (1931), but he also had a hand in the stylish remake of another Raffles-type adventure, The Last of Mrs Cheyney (1937), and directed the witty Arsene Lupin Returns (1938). For Raffles he was working with one of the great cinematographers of the period, Gregg Toland, who was to photograph Citizen Kane. The film was designed by William Cameron Menzies, who was to drawing-board just about all the shots in Gone with the Wind. Between them they create a series of deftly composed low-light sequences for the scenes when Raffles is doing his burgling, trying to evade the police in the fog or escaping over rooftops. The country-house set, where the main action takes place, may seem more American than British, but is not impossibly elaborate and looks good in the night scenes.

Again the original is softened. Raffles is about to retire and marry his girlfriend, played by a delightful and very young Kay Francis, when Bunny attempts suicide in the cracksman’s flat because he has paid off his gambling debts with a series of bad cheques. The cracksman is forced to try and steal the Melrose necklace to cover Bunny’s losses. This is similar to the first short story, “The Ides of March”, only Hornung has Bunny go on his first job with Raffles to get the money, only to be morally blackmailed into becoming his assistant: “The division of property is all wrong anyway,” the cracksman explains. The film, however, becomes an entertaining duel of wits between Ronald Colman’s urbane Raffles and David Torrence’s Inspector MacKenzie, here much more likeable than he is in the stories.

The plot of the movie is a box of tricks: Is the alarm on? Who turned it off? Where is the necklace hidden? What makes this work as well as it does is Colman. Instead of the dashing crook of the “Amateur Cracksman” collection he plays the more regretful character of the later stories. Of course the film does not follow the last story, “The Knees of the Gods”, in which Raffles goes to the Boer War, exposes a spy and dies heroically in action. But Colman does capture the spirit of atonement and regret that is an essential part of Hornung’s vision. Satisfyingly in the movie Raffles gets away in the end. But he has promised to reform.

One realises just how good this version is when one compares it with the 1939 remake. It is virtually the same Sidney Howard script, with some additions by John Van Druten which are not for the best. Raffles’s “crimes” are more in the nature of pranks, not a livelihood, and David Niven’s charming cracksman has nothing like the depth of Colman’s. Certainly Dudley Digges makes an excellent MacKenzie and Dame May Witty is much more believable as Lady Melrose than Alison Skipworth’s enjoyably over-the-top performance was in the earlier film.

The Raffles tales are meant to be fun, but they need the darker textures. The characters were based on Hornung’s friends Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas. (Another influence was his brother-in-law Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson.) And there is a subtle gay sub-text in the Hornung originals. Bunny is jealous of Raffles’s romance with an Australian girl: “How could you stand that voice?” Is Bunny an accent snob as well as a passer of dud cheques? In a touching pair of stories in “A Thief in the Night”, Bunny relates how while on a job with Raffles he was discovered at a safe by the girl he hoped to marry. In an epilogue he quotes a letter from the lady relating how the cracksman had revealed his part in the robbery to her so that she and Bunny can be reconciled. None of this ever appeared in any of the adaptations until in 1975 Graham Greene wrote the play The Return of A.J. Raffles. Not only are Bunny and Raffles “an item” but Bunny is a friend of Lord Alfred Douglas and the burglary is to get some money to help out Oscar Wilde in Paris. The play must have been quite diverting as well as being a glorious in-joke but it is light years away from the complexity of the original stories.

However, also in 1975, Yorkshire Television produced Raffles, a telemovie scripted by Philip Mackie from the same stories that were used in the play and the 1930 film. Anthony Valentine played Raffles and Christopher Strauli was cast as Bunny. Then in 1977 there were broadcasts of a fourteen-episode mini-series entirely scripted by Mackie and also starring Valentine and Strauli. They all followed the original Hornung stories closely, and this was almost certainly the most faithful treatment of the characters ever attempted. The settings are Victorian/Edwardian and the upper classes are enjoyably arrogant and pretty much deserve to be robbed. Hornung’s Raffles, for all his adherence to his own code and his occasional chivalry, is far more ruthless than he had ever been played on screen before.

Orwell was mistaken when he stated Raffles was usually unarmed. A close reading of the stories reveals he usually carries a revolver and is prepared to use it. Barrymore was ahead of his time when he explored the cracksman’s addiction to danger, but Mackie and Valentine portray this aspect of the character with relish. Revolvers also appear and are even fired—occasionally. The series is shot in the usual style for British television of the period: videotape for interiors, 16mm film for exteriors. The acting is unabashedly theatrical, which suits the Victorian/Edwardian setting. Mackie builds up the character of Inspector MacKenzie, making him, as played by Victor Carin in ginger side-whiskers, as unpleasant and arrogant as he is in the books. Mackie mines the rich vein of comedy in the originals at the expense of making Bunny an outraged silly ass straight out of P.G. Wodehouse. Only occasionally does the rather anguished character of the original emerge. However, Bunny is given at least two episodes where he executes daring rescues as some kind of compensation. There is also the delicious image of Raffles and Bunny climbing the wall of a country house in full evening dress complete with top hats.

Arguably the darkest Raffles story is Hornung’s only novel devoted to the character, Mr Justice Raffles, published in 1909. There is more than a whiff of anti-Semitism in this tale of how Raffles executes a plan to free a young cricketer, who has “gone to the Jews” for money, from the clutches of a brutal “Shylock”. In fairness to Hornung these attitudes were common in British society at the time, but the author has Raffles treat the villain’s wife with kindness and there is no sign that Hornung despises Jews as a race. Mackie’s television adaptation tidies up the structure of the novel, and even though our hero still executes vigilante justice on a brutal money lender there is no indication the character is Jewish. The series concludes as subversive comedy. After feigning death to get rid of an old flame, Raffles announces his next job will be to rob the Bank of England.

Orwell’s cautionary essay remains disturbingly relevant. The will to power and fascism he discovered in No Orchids for Miss Blandish exists in many contemporary graphic novels—comics to us. The mindless violence in the Marvel series of movies that are based on the comic franchise are overdue for an Orwell kind of analysis, while the gentle Raffles tales can still provide a useful contrast. Indeed Lawrence Block is still writing the Bernie Rhodenbarr mysteries about a burglar who robs rich houses in New York. Bernie is a bookseller by day with a cat called Raffles, in case anyone misses the point. He is often accompanied by Carolyn, a Bunny-type assistant who picks up tips at her dog-grooming salon about where valuable caches of jewels might be found when their owners go on holiday. Carolyn is very attractive but gay—more in-jokes. As well as these genteel robberies Bernie usually finds himself solving a murder. The same happened to Raffles when in 1933 Barry Perowne started writing the character in modern settings, perhaps inspired by how well the stories worked when they were updated for the movies.

George Orwell demonstrated that not only could works of popular fiction provide evidence of social attitudes but they could also include fine writing. He can hardly be blamed for ignoring the film or stage adaptations, even though the last Raffles movie was being revived in 1944 when he was writing the essay. There was, however, a stage version of No Orchids for Miss Blandish running in London in 1942, and a film appeared in 1948. The British censor later apologised for failing to protect the British public from such a dangerous film. As yet I have not tracked down this version, which was made in England in American settings and proved to be a great success. Less successful was Robert Aldrich’s 1971 adaptation made in America, The Grissom Gang, which after extensive rewriting by Leon Griffith became a powerful full-scale tragedy. All of which will be the subject of another article.