Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Falcon in San Francisco (RKO, 1945)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched the 1945 film The Falcon in San Francisco, a pretty routine series entry from the later stages of this long-running (1940 to 1946) RKO Radio “B” series. It started out with the 1938 film The Saint in New York, based on a novel by Leslie Charteris and starring Louis Hayward as the ex-thief turned detective Simon Templar, a.k.a. “The Saint.” RKO turned that into a series and cast George Sanders as the Saint in the subsequent films — a decided improvement over Hayward — until 1940, when Charteris suddenly withdrew the rights to his character. The resourceful “suits” at RKO’s “B” department responded by buying the rights to Michael Arlen’s novel The Gay Falcon and making sure they had ongoing rights to the book’s central “sleuth” character, Gay Lawrence, nicknamed “The Falcon.” All went well for three movies — the third of which, The Falcon Takes Over, was an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely and hence quite a bit better than the average for this series — until Sanders got tired of being stuck in a “B” detective series when other studios wanted him for big roles in major productions. So the “suits” struck again, hiring writers Craig Rice and Stuart Palmer to construct a script called The Falcon’s Brother, introducing Sanders’ real-life brother Tom Conway (Sanders was the family name but Conway changed it because he wanted to make it on his own and not on his brother’s coattails) playing his on-screen brother Tom Lawrence, who takes over as the Falcon after Sanders’ character is killed at the end. The series went on for another dozen films until RKO got out of “B” production altogether at the end of 1946, and most of them were pleasant, unimaginative mysteries — though The Falcon in Hollywood, which TCM ran last week as part of their current excursion through this series, was noteworthy for using the same plot gimmick as Mel Brooks’ comedy classic The Producers (a stage producer making his first film sells 200 percent of it, sabotages his own production and, in this version, ultimately starts knocking off his investors when it looks like the film is going to be good despite his efforts to screw it up) in a serious dramatic context. The Falcon in San Francisco isn’t so distinguished, even though on this occasion RKO got Joseph H. Lewis to direct instead of the hacks like Irving Reis and William Berke who usually did these films. Don’t work up much of a sweat about that, though; Lewis threw in some quite Gothic shots of the Falcon and his sidekick “Goldie” Locke (Ed Brophy) being menaced in an old dark house, and a couple of times borrowed a camera crane from one of RKO’s more prestigious productions to get overhead shots of Tom Conway walking down the mean (and vertiginous) streets of San Francisco, but as a San Francisco-set thriller The Maltese Falcon or Vertigo this is not. 

Still, writers Robert E. Kent (in between ballgames) and Ben Markson managed to squeeze in a few Maltese Falcon-ish plot elements, including the Joel Cairo-like character of Peter Vantine (John Mylong), who speaks with an odd accent and tries to stick up the detective hero but is easily overpowered; and a final climax involving a mysterious cargo being smuggled on board a ship that is destroyed while in the San Francisco harbor. (Perhaps the subliminal effect of the juxtaposition of “Falcon” and “San Francisco” led them to rip off as much of Dashiell Hammett’s classic as they dared.) Otherwise, The Falcon in San Francisco is an O.K. film, marred by an overly confusing plot — nurse Carla Keyes (Hermine Sterler) is murdered on the train taking Lawrence and Locke to San Francisco for a vacation; the Falcon gets mixed up with the young girl Annie Marshall (Sharyn Moffett) Keyes was taking care of; it turns out Annie’s older sister Joan (Rita Corday) is the heiress to a steamship line whose general manager, DeForrest (Robert Armstrong), is really Duke Monette (misspelled “Monet” on’s page for the film), an old liquor smuggler during Prohibition who handled Repeal by taking over the steamship line, attaching his old rumboats to it and continuing to smuggle contraband (at the moment it’s raw silk), and DeForrest is knocking off everybody who could possibly expose him, including Carla Keyes (her husband was the first mate on one of DeForrest’s ships until he got suspicious of what the vessels were really doing and DeForrest made him disappear), his girlfriend Doreen Temple (a nice femme fatale performance by Fay Helm, though it’s a pity we don’t get to see more of her), the butler at the Marshall home and Peter Vantine as well. At the end DeForrest sabotages the engine room of his own ship and it’s about to blow up with Lawrence on board and the Marshall girls about to get there; Lawrence gets off the boat just in time to keep himself and the Marshalls from dying in the explosion — and, oh yes, did I also tell you that DeForrest/Monette is the Marshall girls’ biological father? Fortunately for Joseph H. Lewis, after he made this movie he jumped from RKO to Columbia and made the film My Name Is Julia Ross, the first movie in which his visual sensibility was actually married to a genuinely interesting and compelling script.