Wednesday, May 23, 2018

A Date with the Falcon (RKO, 1942)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After the Callas gala I looked for a quick time-filler and found it in A Date with the Falcon, a silly but charming 1942 RKO “B” comedy-thriller (this was an era in which most thrillers were played at least partly for laughs) that was the second in a long-running series about Michael Arlen’s detective, Gaylord “Gay” Lawrence (George Sanders), a.k.a. “The Falcon.” RKO started producing these movies in 1941 after they lost the rights to a previous good-bad character, Leslie Charteris’s Simon Templar a.k.a. “The Saint,” whom they’d been filming for three years, at first with Louis Hayward in The Saint in New York but thereafter, and far more effectively, with the urbane, sophisticated and oddly detached Sanders in the role. (As I’ve noted in these pages before, Sanders as Sherlock Holmes is one of the most potentially intriguing cinematic might-have-beens: too bad that during Sanders’ critical and commercial peak in the early 1940’s Basil Rathbone owned Holmes on screen!) When Charteris pulled the rights to the Saint, RKO just bought Michael Arlen’s novel The Gay Falcon and did little more than change the name “The Saint” to “The Falcon.” Both characters were former jewel thieves who kept having to re-convince the police that they had indeed gone straight, and both were heavy-duty womanizers who were trying to duck the women they were currently engaged to in order to keep their bachelor flings going. (This sounds like much more my sort of character than Charles’s!)

They cast Wendy Barrie as the “other woman” trying to break up Sanders and his fiancée in The Gay Falcon and then turned around and made her the fiancée in this film — she does the role charmingly but it gets to be a bit too much after a while and one wonders why she doesn’t break with him completely when he keeps standing her up and running after other women — and this time the “other woman” is jewel thief Rita Mara (Mona Maris, who had a truly weird career trajectory: she was active early enough to be in one of Humphrey Bogart’s first features, A Devil with Women at Fox in 1930, and she lasted long enough to return to her native Argentina and make her last film, Camila, there in 1984: it’s a film about political rebels who are executed at the end and Maris played the female lead’s grandmother). The plot, to the extent it matters, concerns a rather wimpy bald inventor, Waldo Sampson (Alec Craig, who proves they didn’t break the mold after they made Donald Meek), who’s come up with a process for making synthetic diamonds of gem quality and size. (Synthetic diamonds actually exist — and did when this film was made — but not of gem size; the difficulty of subjecting carbon to the millions of pounds per square inch to turn it into diamond means they can only make very small industrial diamonds for things like drill bits and turntable styli.) Sampson says he only wants the process used for legitimate industrial uses — he doesn’t want crooks to get hold of it and he also doesn’t want to collapse the market for gemstones — but of course a gang of crooks has other ideas: they kidnap Sampson to get him to reveal his formula, and inevitably Sampson gets murdered — at least that’s what we, the police and Gay Lawrence all think until he turns up alive at the end of the movie. “Don’t tell me that was your twin brother!” exclaims irascible police inspector Mike O’Hara (James Gleason at his acerbic best) — which it was; the murder victim was actually Sampson’s twin brother Herman, who’s never seen as a live person in the action. That line is a pretty good indication of the approach the writers, Frank Fenton and Lynn Root, took towards the Saint and Falcon scripts, at once exploiting the clichés of detective fiction and satirizing them.

Our copy of A Date with the Falcon came from the tail end of a VHS tape I had just transferred to DVD because it also contained the 1927 silent film It and the 1945 State Fair, and it got pretty glitchy at the end — a lot of tracking errors and a few blackouts — but it’s still a fun if rather superficial movie. For the third film in the Falcon series RKO went for more substantial story material, buying the rights to Raymond Chandler’s novel Farewell, My Lovely and turning it into a Falcon vehicle, The Falcon Takes Over — “Some of Philip Marlowe’s integrity even seemed to rub off on the superficial Falcon,” William K. Everson wrote — before they remade it as the noir classic Murder, My Sweet in 1944 with Dick Powell absolutely superb as Philip Marlowe and screenwriter John Paxton actually improving on Chandler’s story construction while keeping the appeal of the original. Then RKO made a film called The Falcon’s Brother, which was constructed because George Sanders was getting tired of the role and wanted out, so they introduced the Falcon’s brother, Tom Lawrence, and had him played by George Sanders’ real-life brother, Tom Conway — and in that film Sanders is mortally wounded and dies in hospital, so Tom Conway as Tom Lawrence could take over the series with minimal other adjustments. A Date with the Falcon was made at a time when the comedy-mystery schtick was beginning to date badly — Alfred Hitchcock had just arrived in Hollywood and he and John Huston, who made a triumphant directorial debut in 1941 with the third version of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, were showing that mystery films could be more powerful if they left out the comic relief and reproduced the edginess and cynicism of the “hard-boiled” style of detective fiction introduced by Black Mask magazine in the 1920’s. But it’s still a fun film even though the comedy elements (including Allen Jenkins at his most Allen Jenkinsish as the Falcon’s manservant, Jonathan “Goldy” Locke) are far more appealing than the rather dull and not particularly mysterious mystery.