Friday, November 9, 2012

The Saint in New York

Films in Focus

By Ed Garea

The Saint in New York (RKO, 1938)  Director: Ben Holmes. Starring Louis Hayward, Kay Sutton, Sig Ruman, Jack Carson, Paul Guilfoyle, and Ben Welden.
Let me begin by saying that, since the age of 10, when I discovered the TV show starring Roger Moore, I have been a big fan of The Saint. I even went to my local library and read every story author Leslie Charteris wrote. The television show was on NBC, Channel 4 in New York, on Sunday nights at 11:30. I never missed one, even watching the reruns with great interest, which made for some interesting Monday mornings in school. For me, Roger Moore was Simon Templar: a charming, roguish sort with a great devil-may-care attitude.

When I began watching the Saint movies, I loved George Sanders in the role (he’s one of my favorite actors at any rate), but I found his portrayal of Simon Templar to be rather bland. When he later starred as The Falcon, I found that I could not tell either the film nor his performance apart from the earlier Saint flicks if I wasn’t informed going in or had seen it before. When I finally saw this film, however (the first entry in the series), I was blown away by Heyward’s performance. He’s a whole lot smoother and rakish, fitting right in with Charteris’s interpretation. I learned later that Moore based his interpretation of the role on Heyward’s and came away further impressed.

The film is faithful to Charteris’s novel, with Templar being a raffish Robin Hood of sorts who lives by his own code. And that’s just the way Heyward plays him: a mix of the suave and the psychotic. Convincing as a smooth character, he is totally convincing as a cold-blooded killer and I enjoyed the dark feel he brought to the film, never losing his cool detachment and sense of humor.  

In this film, Templar is hired by the police commissioner on the recommendation of the head of an anti-crime citizens group to rid New York of a criminal gang. The gang not only thumbs its nose at the police and the public, but brazenly uses the legal system to sidestep guilt (it helps if you kill off or drive away the witnesses). The citizens group not only wants Templar to break up the rackets, but expose the mysterious man in charge, known only as the “Big Fellow.” 

The head of the good-government group turns out to be the Big Fellow. Why he would bring Templar to New York has to be the biggest mystery of the film. Unlike other detective movies where the hero brings the guilty to justice, Templar kills them. Of course, it wouldn’t be sporting (or interesting) if he simply knocked them off, so he waits to do it while they are engaging in the commission of their crimes.

Kay Sutton co-stars as the femme fatale who helps Templar out of a few scrapes, and although her performance is rather flat and her character is undeveloped, she and Heyward do manage to make their boilerplate romance believable. Also in the cast as victims of The Saint are Sig Ruman, Jack Carson (in an early role), and Paul Guilfoyle, who acquits himself quite well as a gunsel who is fascinated with Templar’s way with words and his cool under duress.

The print itself cries out for restoration. I could hear the crackling of air bubbles on the soundtrack and the brightness that can only be brought on by decay. As for the production itself, RKO looks like it spent every penny of $10 on it.

Despite this, it’s hard not to like a film with so many wonderful lines. My favorite is when Templar is in the office of baddie Maury Yule (an uncredited Anthony Warde). He notes that the gang is obviously behind the kidnapping of young Violet Throckmorton. He then goes on to say: “You’d think someone with the name ‘Violet Throckmorton’ would have enough trouble in life without you adding to it.” I recommend this movie highly and ask those who think that Sanders or Moore is the last word as Simon Templar to watch it with an open mind, and then tell me. 

This movie was supposed to be Alfred Hitchcock’s first American film. But he couldn’t get out of his contract in England at the time. We can only wonder what this movie would have been as Hitchcock was coming into his own around this time. Hitchcock had made The Lady Vanishes in 1938, the same year as this film, Sabotage in 1936 and The 39 Steps in 1935. This is the type of material that would have fit in with his style. When RKO couldn’t get Hitchcock, the studio decided to go make the movie anyway and gave it to Ben Holmes, who turned the film into a great B-thriller. 

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