Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Saint Strikes Back (RKO, 1939)

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

The film was The Saint Strikes Back — one of the appallingly generic titles that got fastened to these movies by RKO (it wasn’t always that easy to tell apart The Saint Strikes Back, The Saint Takes Over and The Falcon Takes Over, to name just three of these films), though to RKO’s credit they actually based the film on one of the novels by the Saint character’s creator, Leslie Charteris (the book had the much more appealing title Aspects of Doom), rather than basing just the first film in the series on a story by the person who invented the character and making the subsequent ones either original stories or adaptations of other mystery writers’ stories featuring other detectives, as was done with the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes stories and the Michael Shayne films with Lloyd Nolan.

The Saint Strikes Back is the second RKO Saint film and is actually presented as a direct sequel to the first one, The Saint in New York, though there’s an all-important casting change: George Sanders replaces Louis Hayward as the Saint. Hayward was generally a serviceable but rather dull leading man — in his two appearances as the Saint (here and in the very last film in the series, the 1954 production The Saint’s Girl Friday), he proved he was no Sanders; and in his 1950 Columbia remake of Captain Blood he proved he was no Errol Flynn either — while Sanders captured the combination of insouciance and sardonicism at the heart of Charteris’s character. (The only other actor who pulled that off was Roger Moore in the early-1960’s TV series; the other three Saints — Hayward, Hugh Sinclair, and Alec Baldwin in a leaden attempt to revive the character in 1994 — missed the mark.)

The plot (adapted by John Twist and A. C. Edington from the Charteris novel) has the Saint coming to San Francisco just after the events of The Saint in New York and ringing in the New Year at San Francisco’s swank Colony Club — only one gangster comes to the club with a gun intending to kill another, but gets killed himself. The Saint ushers socialite Val Travers (Wendy Barrie) out of the club just before the local police arrive; Travers, it turns out, is the daughter of a San Francisco police detective who was framed for corruption by a mysterious criminal boss named “Waldeman,” and she’s hooked up with the lower levels of Waldeman’s gang in hopes of finding information that will exonerate her father (posthumously, since he responded to his exposure by committing suicide). The Saint flies back to New York and turns up in the private home of Inspector Fernack of the New York Police Department just as Fernack was going to fly to San Francisco to help the San Francisco police investigate the Saint. In the film’s most delightful scene, Fernack and the Saint end up on the same plane going back from New York to San Francisco, and Fernack insists that he’s going to keep an eye on the Saint for the whole journey — only the Saint slips out of the plane when it stops in Fort Worth (this was the era in which transcontinental air travel still took long enough that the planes were equipped with sleeping berths) and lures Fernack out of the plane in his dressing gown, stranding him in Fort Worth when the plane — with the Saint back on board — takes off without him.

Fernack eventually finds his way to San Francisco and the Saint, a.k.a. Simon Templar, shows up at Val Travers’ apartment for what he thinks is going to be a tête-a-tête — only when he arrives Val’s attorney/boyfriend, Allan Breck (Neil Hamilton), is there. Cullis (Jerome Cowan — a real treat for us fans of this marvelous actor who regret that in his most famous film, The Maltese Falcon, he’s killed off in the first reel), a criminologist with the San Francisco Police Department, is convinced — or at least he says he’s convinced — that Templar is the mysterious Waldeman. Templar traces the murder victim from the Colony Club to retired philanthropist Martin Eastman (Gilbert Emery) and cracks Eastman’s safe, where he recovers the packet of $1,000 bills Val’s father was supposed to have received from Waldeman’s organization as a bribe. Eastman doesn’t report the theft to the police, which convinces Templar that he’s part of Waldeman’s gang — instead he contacts Cullis, who also turns out to be part of the Waldeman organization — and when Eastman tries to flee after Templar and Val have confronted him at his home, he’s shot, presumably by other members of the Waldeman gang. For a finale the police and Templar assemble all the principals in Cullis’s office and wire it so they can eavesdrop on his confrontation with Templar and Val — whereupon Cullis admits that he framed Val’s father but insists that Breck is actually Waldman (though we don’t see Breck again and we never get a clue how he could have conducted the imposture of being both an attorney and Val’s boyfriend while running a far-reaching criminal enterprise — a cop-out ending similar to that of the first Secret Agent X-9 newspaper comic serial scripted by Dashiell Hammett and drawn by Alex Raymond in a Hearst effort to compete with Dick Tracy).

Nothing much happens in The Saint Strikes Back — after that marvelous scene in Fort Worth it’s really just a series of confrontations in rooms — but it’s nonetheless a tour de force for Sanders and also an important apprentice assignment for director John Farrow (Mia’s father), who drenches this relatively simple-minded mystery in proto-noir atmospherics and surprising camera angles (Frank Redman was the cinematographer) that anticipate his back-to-back noir masterpieces from 1948, The Big Clock and The Night Has a Thousand Eyes.