Wednesday, October 25, 2017
By Ed Garea
The Saint Strikes Back (RKO, 1939) – Director: John Farrow. Writers: John Twist (s/p), A.C. Edington (treatment, uncredited), Leslie Charteris (novel Angels of Doom). Stars: George Sanders, Wendy Barrie, Jonathan Hale, Jerome Cowan, Barry Fitzgerald, Neil Hamilton, Robert Elliott, Russell Hopton, Edward Gargan, Robert Strange, Gilbert Emery, James Burke, Nella Walker, Willie Best & Paul E. Burns. B&W, 64 minutes.
This is the first of five films starring George Sanders as Leslie Charteris’ master criminal-turned-crime-fighter Simon Templar. As Charteris drew him, Templar was a charming, sophisticated rogue, whose humor hid his ruthlessness and a physical dimension he employed when the situation called for it. While Sanders lacked the physical dimension, he had all the rest, and his suave style combined with a silky smooth voice made the films a hit at the box office. At times it almost feels as if Sanders was playing an early version of James Bond.
For a film with a running time of only 64 minutes, the plot is quite complicated. When a gangster is murdered while about to take out a fellow guest at San Francisco’s Colony Club on New Year’s Eve, Val Travers (Barrie), who orchestrated the attempted murder, is the first to flee. Travers is the daughter of a police inspector who committed suicide after he was bounced from the force on suspicion of being a member of the gang of a notorious gangster known as Waldeman. She has organized a gang herself to ferret out the mysterious Waldeman and enact her revenge. Outside the club she runs into Simon Templar, who helps Val make her escape. The fact that Templar is waiting outside the club himself leads us to suspect he was the man who killed the potential assassin.
Hearing that Templar is in the city, the San Francisco police reach out to the NYPD for Inspector Henry Fernack (Hale), who is familiar with the Saint. The Saint visits Fernack in New York before the Inspector travels to San Francisco and the two form an uneasy alliance to catch Waldeman.
At San Francisco police headquarters, Templar theorizes that Traverse was framed by an inside man in the police department, but he is ridiculed by criminologist Cullis (Cowan) who suggests that Templar is the mysterious Waldeman.
Discovering that philanthropist Martin Eastman may be somehow involved, Templar and Zipper Dyson (Fitzgerald), a safecracker he learns was hired by Val to break into Eastman’s safe, do just that where they find a stack of federal bank notes Val’s father was supposed to have received from Waldeman’s organization as a bribe. When Eastman fails to notify the police of the theft, instead seeing Cullis, Templar suspects that Eastman and Cullis are in cahoots with Waldeman. However, the police are hesitant to act for fear of losing Waldeman. To flush out the gangster, Templar and Val visit Eastman. Templar had secretly returned the stolen bank notes and confronts Eastman with them after getting him to open his safe. Panicked, Eastman tries to flee but is shot down as he leaves the house.
Templar and Val next pay a visit to Cullis, confronting him with the stolen notes. Cullis confesses to framing Val’s father, but unbeknownst to him the San Francisco police have been tapping his apartment and hears his confession. When Cullis again accuses Templar of being Waldeman, the police commissioner informs him that Templar has been working with the police all along and they approved all his actions. Trapped by the evidence, Cullis finally admits that Waldeman is really Allen Breck (Hamilton), Val’s friend, admirer and attorney.
The novel that served as the basis for the film was also published under the titles of The Saint Meets His Match and She Was a Lady (the original publication title). Many changes were made for the film: moving the locale from London to San Francisco, replacing Scotland Yard Inspector Teal with NYPD Inspector Fernack, and changing the female lead’s name from Jill Trelawney to Valerie Travers. While Jill was British, Val is from San Francisco.
Sanders was a good choice to replace Louis Hayward, who played Templar in 1938’s The Saint in New York. Hayward was a difficult act to follow (and in my estimation, the best actor to portray the character), but Sanders makes playing Templar seem almost effortless, as if he were born for the role, though he does lack the edge Hayward gave to his portrayal.
Director Farrow keeps things moving, with the emphasis more on the whodunit aspect as opposed to gunplay. A delightful scene has Fernack and the Saint ending up on the same plane going back from New York to San Francisco, with Fernack insistent that he’s going to keep an eye on the Saint throughout the entire trip. When the plane has a stopover in Fort Worth, Templar slips out. When Fernack discovers the Saint is missing, he also leaves the plane, albeit in his dressing gown, only to find that Templar has trickled him and the plane departs for San Francisco leaving Fernack stranded.
One point that intrigued me was when the San Francisco police commissioner told Cullis that the Saint has been working with the police the whole time. If that is true, then why did they reach out to New York for the services of Fernack? Thought the film Fernack seems like Templar’s reluctant sidekick, without a reason for being there other than the screenwriter’s whim.
Another problem centers around Breck. We don’t see much of him in the film and never get any clues or explanations as to how he could have pulled of the ruse of being an attorney and Val’s wanna-be boyfriend while at the same time running a massive criminal organization.
One nice indication that this is indeed a B-movie comes when Cullis and the police break down Val’s front door. One would naturally suppose that a pair of front doors for a mansion would be heavy and would have to be knocked off their hinges, but the police break right through these with no tools as if it was made of balsa wood, which it probably was.
At any rate the film was a huge hit for RKO, and in rural and suburban theaters it was moved to the ‘A’ position. One thing that helps it nicely is the sterling supporting cast, including Fitzgerald, Cowan, Hamilton, Russell Hopton, and Edward Gargan. Willie Best, who may well have been the best actor in the film, is assigned the small role of Templar’s valet, Algernon. “Why Algernon?” Templar tells Fernack. “We tried several names and it was the one he liked best.” Hmmm.
When Sanders moved on to playing Gay Lawrence, the Falcon, he was succeeded by British actor Hugh Sinclair. Sinclair starred in the last two installments (1941 and 1943) before RKO pulled the plug on the series. It was ten years before another Saint movie was made, with Louis Hayward returning to the role for Hammer. The film was not a success, and the Saint disappeared from the screen until the 1960s when he was revived first in France (once by Jean Marais) and then, in its most famous revival, by Roger Moore in a long-running TV series and movie spinoffs. Moore’s portrayal of Templar was even closer to James Bond. There was another revival of the character in England during the late ‘70s, and the last appearance of the character was in an execrable 1997 movie starring Val Kilmer.
In early publicity for the film the studio announced the leads as Frederic March and Joan Fontaine, For his part, Charteris wasn’t satisfied with with Hayward or Sanders, feeling both were “hopelessly miscast” as the Saint. He had pressed RKO for his character to be played by either Ronald Colman, Cary Grant or Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. He was far happier with Roger Moore's image and interpretation.
Val Travers: Why are you telling me all this?
Simon Templar: Because… well… because I love you. But don’t lets get sticky about it – I’m really a very shallow person. I also love fireflies, mockingbirds and pink sunsets. I think, however, that we could find each other more diverting than a pink sunset, don’t you?
Simon Templar: (to Fernack referring to Val) I mean how could a girl as pretty as that be so clever?