Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Gay Falcon (RKO, 1941)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Afterwards Charles and I watched The Gay Falcon, a 1941 detective thriller from RKO that was at least nominally based on Michael Arlen’s good-bad detective-thief character, The Falcon. RKO’s inspiration for making a series of movies based on The Falcon was that Leslie Charteris, creator of Simon Templar a.k.a. The Saint, had pulled the rights to his character and left RKO scrambling to find a replacement character that could be played by the same actor, the urbane and sardonic George Sanders. RKO even advertised the film as “Fiction’s slickest super sleuth, created by Michael Arlen and portrayed by the star who thrilled you as ‘The Saint,’” and, as William Everson noted in his book The Detective in Film, “All that was really retained of the original stories was The Falcon’s fondness for the ladies and the smoothness with which he moved in high society. … With George Sanders starring, the movie series did little more than change his name from the Saint to the Falcon.” Indeed, the movie series did so little more than change the character’s name from the Saint to the Falcon that Leslie Charteris actually filed a plagiarism suit against RKO, though there doesn’t seem to be a record of how it turned out.

The Gay Falcon is also the only one of RKO’s many Falcon movies (the first three starring Sanders, the next one — The Falcon’s Brother — co-starring Sanders and his real-life brother Tom Conway as brothers, enabling the writers and producer to kill Sanders’ character off at the end of the film and continue the series with Conway in the lead as the original Falcon’s brother) to be based on an actual Michael Arlen story — and if all the Arlen Falcon tales were as dull as this one, it’s no wonder RKO sought out other writers for the later episodes (including buying Raymond Chandler’s novel Farewell, My Lovely for the third Falcon film, The Falcon Takes Over, in 1942 before remaking it two years later as Murder, My Sweet with Dick Powell as Philip Marlowe and Edward Dmytryk directing).

The Gay Falcon is an incredibly dull movie that seems a good deal longer than its actual 67 minutes, with a surprisingly uninteresting plot line about the priceless “Monsoon Diamond,” prize possession of Mrs. Vera Gardner (Lucile Gleason, surprisingly effective as a society woman given that she usually played the proletarian wife of her real-life husband, James Gleason), who brings it to a party hosted by Maxine Wood (Gladys Cooper), despite the fact that Wood’s parties are becoming notorious because at each one of them, a woman is robbed of her jewels. There’s a lot of back and forth between the two women in the Falcon’s life, fiancée Helen Reed (Wendy Barrie) and Elinor Benford (Anne Hunter), who recruits him to get involved in Ms. Wood’s case, and when Mrs. Gardner is murdered at a Wood-hosted party by a member of the jewel-thief ring, the story becomes a whodunit in which to no one’s particular surprise (at least no one who’s seen enough movies to recognize one of the hoariest old clichés when he or she encounters one) Ms. Wood herself turns out to be the mastermind of the ring, stealing the jewels as part of an insurance scam that involves claiming them as a “loss” and collecting on her policies as well as having the jewels herself to dispose of on the black market.

The most interesting aspects of this movie are a quite good villain performance by Turhan Bey as Manuel Retana, one of the actual thieves working for Ms. Wood, and some surprisingly noir-ish compositions from director Irving Reis and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca (who would later shoot some of RKO’s greatest noirs, including Out of the Past). At the risk of sounding like a heretic, I’m tempted to say based on my memories of the later Falcon films that the series actually got better with Tom Conway in the lead — not surprisingly given their real-life sibling status, they were two quite similar “types,” but Sanders comes off as a bit too dour for the role and Conway did the lightness and insouciance of the character better. (Sanders was their actual family name; Conway changed his because he wanted to make it on his own merits and not because people associated him with his already established brother.)