Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Saint Takes Over (RKO, 1940)

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

The Saint Takes Over was a fast, relatively articulate, well paced by director Jack Hively and vividly acted by George Sanders (it’s nice, for a change, to see his supercilious manner on the right side of the law — sort of) and Wendy Barrie, who (surprise!) turns out to be the mysterious killer who’s knocking off gangsters right and left. It’s hardly a great movie, but it’s the sort of unpretentious entertainment Hollywood turned out so regularly back then — and Sanders’ reading of the Saint was much more subtle and sophisticated that the unambiguous hero Roger Moore played in the 1960’s TV series (about the other movie Saints, Louis Hayward and Hugh Sinclair, the less said the better). — 1/24/93


I ran The Saint Takes Over, a 1940 RKO “B,” the fifth RKO “Saint” film and the first based merely on the characters created by Leslie Charteris rather than by any specific Saint novel or story he had written — though in some ways that was actually an advantage; being able to concoct their own plot seemed to have freed writers Lynn Root and Frank Fenton to emphasize the sardonicism that made George Sanders’ Saint series the finest rendition of this character ever done (though Roger Moore’s TV series was definitely the runner-up — I haven’t seen any episodes in decades but I remember it as a fun camp-fest, though Sanders’ performances as the Saint remain supreme).

It features Sanders and frequent co-star Wendy Barrie as shipboard acquaintances who meet again in New York while he’s investigating a race-fixing gang consisting of a marvelously assorted collection of movie gangster “types”: avuncular crooked attorney Eagan (Pierre Watkin); nightclub owner Rocky Weldon (Roland Drew); “specialty broker” Max Bremer (played by the marvelously corrupt Cyrus W. Kendall); Sam Reese (Morgan Conway, taking a detour on the wrong side of the law before he became RKO’s first Dick Tracy); Leo Sloan (Robert Emmett Keane); and comic-relief figure Clarence “Pearly” Gates (Paul Guilfoyle), the principal witness for the defense in the trial of Weldon for murdering undercover cop Jack Summers, who had infiltrated the race-fixing gang. The crooks manage to get their principal nemesis on the NYPD, detective inspector Henry Fernack (Jonathan Hale) — a character recycled from The Saint’s Double Trouble and previous films in the series — suspended by planting $50,000 in his home safe and thus making it look like he took a bribe, and Fernack and the Saint attempt to catch the crooks only to find that some mysterious person is killing them off faster than they can take them alive.

The mysterious person turns out to be Ruth, Wendy Barrie’s character, who (surprise!) is Jack Summers’ sister and is knocking off the gang members one by one for revenge. (So revenge plots are nothing new even at this level of filmmaking, as much as this morning’s Los Angeles Times Calendar section tried to make them seem like a novelty!) The Saint Takes Over isn’t particularly compelling as a mystery — few “B” mysteries were — and it’s obvious that Root and Fenton couldn’t have cared less whodunit; what they were going for was the sardonic appeal of the title character, and they gave us that to spare, especially in an early scene in which the Saint pretends to believe Fernack really did accept a bribe so he can rag him about it (“What? You didn’t give any of the money to your wife?” begins one of his most bizarrely charming riffs), while director Jack Hively could have given the people who staged some of RKO’s bigger-budgeted, more prestigious thrillers lessons in building and maintaining suspense. — 4/5/04


Charles and I did watch a movie last night: The Saint Strikes Back, a relatively late (1940) entry in the RKO Saint series with George Sanders, and even though (or perhaps because) it was only based on Leslie Charteris’s characters and not one of his actual stories, it turned out to be one of the better entries in the series, an intriguing movie on the cusp between the relatively light mysteries of the 1930’s and film noir. It begins on an ocean liner, presumably bringing the Saint, a.k.a. Simon Templar (George Sanders), back from his adventures in his native land in The Saint in London, returning to New York City and the colorful gangster milieu that had made the first film in the series, The Saint in New York, interesting even though the Saint in that film was Louis Hayward, a decent-looking but colorless leading man who didn’t even approach the marvelous wisecracking insouciance that made Sanders (and, later, Roger Moore) right for the part.

On the ship Simon meets a young woman (Wendy Barrie) and tries to kiss her; she reacts by slapping him and hiding from him for the rest of the voyage, but he sends her a corsage of roses and she shows her true level of interest in him by wearing it. The scene then cuts to a gang of New York crooks who have formed a syndicate headed by crooked attorney Ben Eagan (Pierre Watkin), who has just successfully defended one of its members, restaurateur Rocky Weldon (Roland Drew), against charges that he fixed horse races so he and his syndicate buddies could make money placing bets on them. Eagan not only fixed the outcome of the trial by having the chief prosecution witness, Johnny Summers, murdered, he also hired a safecracker to break into the home of Inspector Henry Fernack of the New York Police Department (Jonathan Hale) and plant $50,000 in his safe so it will look like Fernack is on the take and the police will fire him and press charges. Though half-convinced, as usual, that Templar is in on the crime ring, Fernack agrees to work with him and see if they can find out who killed the witness.

This becomes even more urgent when Eagan is shown surprising the safecracker, “Pearly” Gates (Paul Guilfoyle), who attempted to rob Eagan’s safe at Rocky’s behest; a hidden camera linked to the safe took Gates’s picture as he was opening it, but shortly thereafter Eagan himself is shot and killed, not by Gates but by someone else firing through an open window in Eagan’s house. The Saint finds a rose petal on the scene of Eagan’s murder and thereby suspects the woman from the ship as the killer, though Fernack — being the typical unimaginative movie cop — is sure Gates must have killed Eagan because his picture is on the negative taken by Eagan’s hidden camera. Simon and Fernack kidnap syndicate member Leo Sloan, and he gets killed before they can get him to talk. The only remaining members are Sam Reese (Morgan Conway, who switched sides in subsequent films and played a prosecutor in RKO’s engaging 1946 “B” The Truth About Murder and Dick Tracy in the first two of RKO’s four-film series with the character in 1946-47) and Max Bremer (the marvelously oily Cyrus W. Kendall).

Eventually it turns out that Wendy Barrie’s character is in fact the killer — she was Ruth Summers, sister of the witness they rubbed out, and her motive was revenge — and Simon and Fernack, about to be arrested for the crimes themselves, get out of it by wiring Bremer’s office and broadcasting their confession to Johnny Summers’ murder and the frame-up of Fernack. The police arrest Reese, but Bremer goes out the fire escape — and is confronted outside by Ruth, and there’s a shoot-out in which they kill each other — not only an unexpectedly violent denouement for a Code-era film but one of the few instances I can think of in which a woman participated in a shoot-out to the death in a late-1930’s crime film. The moral ambiguity of Ruth Summers’ character — at once sympathetic and a murderess — would be enough to consider The Saint Takes Over at least proto-noir, but there’s more to it than that: the cinematographer, the virtually unknown Frank Redman, shoots it in the full-dress chiaroscuro style that would soon be associated with noir and director Jack Hively (a considerably livelier filmmaker than most of the people who had done the previous Saints) keeps the energy level high and avoids the longueurs most RKO directors fell into when they did thrillers.

For once the characters in this one seem to have real motivations and drives — they’re not just puppets being manipulated to create an interesting movie story — and Wendy Barrie’s character arc from typical movie socialite, turning down the advances of a man she’s secretly attracted to, to driven revenge figure to a genuinely remorseful death scene as she confesses all in Simon’s arms, is really powerful and gives this generally ill-used actress something powerful to do and some real emotional depths to sound — and there are at least some cracks in George Sanders’ legendary sang-froid as he bids her farewell … permanently. After RKO (temporarily) lost its rights to the Saint character and cooked up another series out of Michael Arlen’s The Gay Falcon, Sanders would make another movie called The Falcon Takes Over (third in the new series) rewritten from a Raymond Chandler novel, Farewell, My Lovely, and as William K. Everson put it, “Some of Philip Marlowe’s integrity even seemed to rub off on the superficial Falcon” — though here, even without an imprimatur from a writer later hailed as someone who transcended his origins in the pulps, Sanders turns in a first-rate performance in an original story by Lynn Root and Frank Fenton and shows he’s clearly warming up for the marvelous desperation he showed as the unjustly accused innocent — but suspicious-acting — man in the 1947 Douglas Sirk film noir Lured. — 10/23/10