Monday, October 18, 2010

The Saint in London (RKO, 1939)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Saint in London, an oddball entry in RKO’s late-1930’s series featuring Leslie Charteris’s character Simon Templar, a.k.a. The Saint — a suave, gentlemanly thief but one presented as a moral hero because he only steals from those who deserves it, and is usually alternately helping and trying to seduce some comely damsel in distress — because unlike most of RKO’s “The Saint in … ” or “The Falcon in … ” movies (RKO started making films based on Michael Arlen’s character The Falcon in 1940 after Charteris pulled the rights to The Saint, and did little more than change the character name in films that otherwise fit into the same formula; they even used the same star, George Sanders, and when Sanders bowed out after Falcon number four, The Falcon’s Brother, they cast his actual brother Tom Conway as his on-screen brother and killed the Sanders Falcon so the Conway Falcon could live, take over the character and continue the series), The Saint in London was actually filmed in Great Britain. (The American Film Institute Catalog relegated its listing to their appendix on the ground that it was a foreign-made film merely released by a U.S. studio.)

The damsel in distress this time around is Penelope “Penny” Parker (Sally Gray, less slinky and more charming than the actresses who got this assignment back in the U.S.), whom we first meet at a boring dinner party given by her Aunt Edith (Norah Howard) at which she’s somewhat disconsolately watching her aunt play bridge and wishing something exciting would happen to her. Something exciting turns up in the person of Simon Templar (George Sanders), who’s the good-bad guy after bad-bad guy Bruno Lang (Henry Oscar), a Moriarty-like crime boss whom the Saint is convinced must be up to no good even though he doesn’t have a visible criminal involvement until about a reel or two in. Simon breaks into Lang’s house and cracks his safe, stealing a mysterious document and then leaving while Lang’s bodyguard is in hot pursuit; he escapes the bodyguard’s bullets thanks to Penny, who’s been parked outside, ready for him, The good guys discover what sort of crime the bad guys are committing when they rescue a man who’s been beaten and left by the side of the road to die.

His name is Stephen Duni (John Abbott) and he’s the emissary of an unnamed central European country which has its currency printed in Britain; he was kidnapped by Kussella (Ralph Truman), one of Lang’s associates, and forced to increase the print run on his country’s latest currency issue by one million pounds so the baddies can flood Europe with authentic-looking but valueless whatevers and make a ton of money for themselves while undermining the economy of Duni’s country. There’s also an American crook, Dugan (David Burns), who makes the mistake of trying to lift Simon Templar’s watch — Templar gets him back by stealing Dugan’s own watch, and eventually they trade and Templar makes Dugan his sidekick (at least for the duration of the film). Penny and Dugan both fall into the clutches of the bad guys, and as with a lot of the Saint movies the first half of the film is delightful, full of nice comic banter by screenwriters Lynn Root and Frank Fenton (adapting a Charteris short story called “The Million-Pound Day”) and a clever ruse in which Templar adopts the alias “Claud Teal” — the real Teal (Gordon McLeod) being the Scotland Yard detective who, as is obligatory in these films, is convinced Templar is still a crook and is trying to nail him.

Filming The Saint in London in London was an audacious move on the part of usually cost-conscious RKO (MGM was shooting a few major films in the U.K. then, either importing American stars like Robert Taylor and Rosalind Russell or using people like Robert Donat, a Brit with solid followings on both sides of the Atlantic, but it was certainly unusual for an American studio to send a British star home for a “B”), but I’m not sure the film gained all that much from being shot on location; it benefited from the marvelous pool of British character actors and also from the marvelously atmospheric cinematography of Claude Friese-Greene (son of the hapless inventor William Friese-Greene, whose attempts to create the first successful movies were chronicled in the 1951 British film The Magic Box with Robert Donat playing him), but the locations didn’t seem all that convincingly “British” and at times only the right-hand drive steering wheels on the cars give the film’s British locale away.

Delightful for the first half, The Saint in London rather plods in the second — a common failing of the Saint movies and possibly the fault of Leslie Charteris (this is one detective series that did base most of its entries on stories by the character’s creator — though maybe it would have been better if it hadn’t!); the characters fall into and out of danger pretty much at whim and not even the fine hand of director John Paddy Carstairs (his real name was Nelson John Keys and his career lasted long enough for him to return to the Saint character and direct some episodes of the early-1960’s TV series with Roger Moore) can redeem a “thriller” ending that just isn’t all that thrilling. Also, Sanders seems to be wearing a more severe haircut than he did in his other films around the time. The Saint in London, like most of the other films in the series, is good light entertainment and an excellent showcase for Sanders — as I’ve commented here before, it’s a pity Sanders never got to play Sherlock Holmes (probably because when Sanders was at his artistic and commercial peak, Basil Rathbone owned Holmes on screen); his voice may not have had the clarion power of Rathbone’s but he too could have credibly dramatized both Holmes the cerebral thinker and Holmes the man of action, a balance that’s eluded all too many actors who’ve tried the role.