Leslie Charteris

The Saint Strikes Back (1939, John Farrow)

The Saint Strikes Back is George Sanders’s first Saint film. It’s strong, even though John Farrow might not be the right director for it. The script’s great, playing to Sanders’s strengths of being the charming cad, but Farrow’s close-ups are poorly conceived and some of Frank Redman’s lighting is questionable. Jack Hively, who went on to direct one of these Saint films, does a good job editing it.

This one’s also a little different–while a lot of the principals are the same–Sanders, Wendy Barrie and Jonathan Hale (who both appear in other entries)–Jerome Cowan and Barry Fitzgerald are in Strikes Back, which gives it a more A picture feel, especially Fitzgerald.

It’s a solid mix of mystery and comedy. There’s some nice montage a couple times throughout.

The pacing plays up the film’s San Francisco setting (obviously it didn’t shoot on location). It does a lot to convince the viewer of the location, only starting to fall apart in the last act with the exterior of a house and it’s clearly a set. It doesn’t feel right, since the other street sets are so well-done, shot at night with fog machines.

Sanders and Barrie both have some great scenes. Their chemistry isn’t particularly sharp, with Sanders playing the big brother here. Fitzgerald’s a hoot. Neil Hamilton’s solid, even though he gets short-changed.

John Twist’s dialogue for Sanders is incredible. It’s quite hard not to spend one’s time watching the film grinning at Sanders’s deliveries.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Farrow; screenplay by John Twist, based on a novel by Leslie Charteris; director of photography, Frank Redman; edited by Jack Hively; music by Roy Webb; produced by Robert Sisk; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring George Sanders (The Saint / Simon Templar), Wendy Barrie (Valerie ‘Val’ Travers), Jonathan Hale (Inspector Henry Fernack), Jerome Cowan (Cullis), Barry Fitzgerald (Zipper Dyson), Neil Hamilton (Allan Breck), Robert Elliott (Chief Inspector Webster), Russell Hopton (Harry Donnell), Edward Gargan (Pinky Budd), Robert Strange (Police Commisioner), Gilbert Emery (Martin Eastman), James Burke (Headquarters Police Officer) and Nella Walker (Mrs. Betty Fernack).


The Saint’s Double Trouble (1940, Jack Hively)

George Sanders can do no wrong in The Saint’s Double Trouble, so much so, he has the ability to smooth the film over. He’s such a joy to watch, the critical part of the brain shuts down. Eventually, as the film nears the conclusion, Sanders looses his control, letting judgments percolate to the surface. This condition isn’t particularly rare, but what makes Double Trouble is the repeating effect. Even after it’s clear the film’s charm is pulling the wool over the viewer’s eyes, it goes ahead and charms him or her again, setting up another realization a few minutes further into the running time. It keeps it up until the final shot, which plays on the surface like it should get a pass… but it’s really quite hollow.

There’s a distressing lack of content to The Saint’s Double Trouble. It opens rather grandiosely–or, with grandiose promise–in Cairo. Bela Lugosi shows up, mailing a coffin back to the States (there’s no reference to Dracula, which is kind of unfortunate, because it’s got to be what the viewer’s thinking). Lugosi’s actually quite good in Double Trouble–it might be his best performance (or the best performance I’ve seen from him). But then the film skips to Philadelphia and in The Saint’s Double Trouble, Philadelphia only has one exterior street corner. There’s a depressing lack of scale, with the script, budget and direction failing each other. Hively doesn’t do anything to make the film feel like it’s taking place anywhere other than a backlot. He’s a decent director, even if he likes cheap shots occasionally–and he can’t direct a suspenseful scene–but he’s generally fine.

The script’s a different story. It’s got some good one-liners and some fine conversations, but the film’s plot is so addlebrained, the incredibly complex series of double crosses–occurring off-screen–is never unraveled. It’s not as important as the film’s hook, George Sanders playing both the Saint and the villain. These two characters apparently know each other–it’s implied, at least–but there’s never anything more about it. I’m all for letting the viewer figure things out for him or herself, but The Saint’s Double Trouble asks the viewer to ignore critical reasoning and it goes down like castor oil.

The film’s abbreviated running time–sixty-six minutes soaking wet–means not only does Lugosi get short-changed (he’s even funny at one point), but so does second-billed Helene Whitney. She has a bunch of history with Sanders–thank you expository dialogue–but it doesn’t go anywhere. Their scenes together are wasted, accelerating the plot. Sanders is great in the scenes, but the film doesn’t have a single payoff. It keeps deferring the payoff–it really does seem like it’ll come at the end–but no. The film pulls it away again… and the end is so cheaply done, it makes The Saint’s Double Trouble seem like a low budget impression, filmed in someone’s backyard. Hively’s not entirely at fault–RKO controlled the budget–but he doesn’t do anything creative.

The supporting cast is good. Jonathan Hale’s hilarious as Sanders’s erstwhile sidekick slash pursuer. Whitney certainly shows potential. Elliot Sullivan’s a solid henchman….

It’s a fine diversion, but Double Trouble wastes its ingredients.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Jack Hively; screenplay by Ben Holmes, based on the novel by Leslie Charteris; director of photography, J. Roy Hunt; edited by Theron Warth and Desmond Marquette; music by Roy Webb; produced by Cliff Reid; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring George Sanders (Simon Templar / Boss Duke Bates), Helene Whitney (Anne Bitts), Jonathan Hale (Inspector Henry Fernack), Bela Lugosi (The Partner), Donald MacBride (Chief of Detectives John H. Bohlen), John F. Hamilton (Limpy, a Henchman), Thomas W. Ross (Professor Horatio T. Bitts) and Elliott Sullivan (Monk).


The Saint in London (1939, John Paddy Carstairs)

One of the unfortunate developments of television is the proliferation of hour-long mystery dramas. While these programs might be good, it means movies like The Saint in London don’t get made anymore. The film’s not episodic, with an abbreviated first act–George Sanders (playing the Saint for the first time) gets no introduction. But the first act isn’t missing anything; it isn’t hurried. Immediately, most of the principals are introduced to the viewer, as well as the film’s plot. The film only runs seventy-some minutes, so there isn’t a lot of room for verbosity.

The romantic interest needs to be quickly presented–and in walks Sally Gray, in an incredibly convenient (but not contrived) manner. The present action of the film, sans the first scene, runs about twenty-four hours (something Gray and Sanders discuss later on). It makes the script concise–there’s only one conversation in the entire film not directly involved with the plot. The film’s fullness, then, comes from the cast.

Sanders is excellent as usual, but The Saint in London gives him the opportunity to charm, something he rarely got to do later in his career. He’s erudite and affable, a perfect lead for a fast-paced mystery. He and Gray play wonderfully off each other, her headstrong, bored blue blood a fine match for his enigmatic troubleshooter. Their dialogue’s quick and a lot of fun–Carstairs’s direction is fine throughout, but during these scenes, he really knows how to work the actors together for best effect. The Saint in London is not a whodunit. Instead, it’s Sanders forcing his way throughout a situation–I suppose that distinction has to do with the differences between troubleshooters and detectives in narrative–so Carstair’s can’t rely on the mystery to keep the viewer interested.

The supporting cast–starting with David Burns’s pickpocket turned Sanders’s assistant and Gordon McLeod’s henpecked Scotland Yard inspector–usually plays for humor. Burns gets a limitless amount of scene-closing one liners and he deliveries each to great effect. McLeod’s got some funny phone exchanges with his unseen wife and a fantastic comic scene with Athene Seyler.

While Carstairs’s direction is strongest during the humor and the banter, he does understand how to make mix the ingredients. The film’s constantly funny, but it’s never harmless. There’s always a good amount of danger, even if the heroes’ success is assured. The villains–particularly Henry Oscar–are both funny and evil. Carstairs and Sanders make the bantering between good guy and bad work. Sanders walks through the film with such an amused air, it’s hard to think it was a challenge for him, but the character’s an ideal vehicle for him.

The film’s technically sound–the music, from Marr Mackie, seems a tad ornate at times, especially after it’s been a while since the last thriller sequence. Mackie strives to remind the viewer of the tonal shift, something the script, direction and lighting have already accomplished.

The Saint in London, thanks to the script and acting, is an excellent diversion. It’s a shame the genre’s disappeared.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Paddy Carstairs; screenplay by Lynn Root and Frank Fenton, based on a story by Leslie Charteris; director of photography, Claude Friese-Greene; edited by Douglas Robertson; music by Marr Mackie; produced by William Sistrom; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring George Sanders (Simon Templar), Sally Gray (Penny Parker), David Burns (Dugan), Gordon McLeod (Inspector Claud Teal), Athene Seyler (Mother Buckley), Henry Oscar (Bruno Lang), John Abbott (Count Stephen Duni), Ralph Truman (Kussella), Charles Carson (John Morgan), Carl Jaffe (Stengler), Norah Howard (Mrs. Edith Morgan), Ballard Berkeley (Blake) and Charles Paton (Tobacco Shop Proprietor).


The Saint Takes Over (1940, Jack Hively)

Speedily paced. The Saint Takes Over is somehow fast, running sixty-nine minutes, but quite full of content. It’s so full of content, in the first act, I was convinced George Sanders was somehow going to remain non-central to the picture, since so much time was being spent establishing the ground situation he finds himself in. And there’s no mystery either… the murder, if not the motive, is revealed rather early on. But it all still works–and this Saint is my first (besides the tragically unappreciated Val Kilmer one); I waited until after it was over to check IMDb and now I understand I would have known what was going on were I familiar with the series.

The story is engaging because, instead of revealing clues, the characters are continually wrapped tighter and tighter in an impossible situation. Eventually, it’s all up to Sanders to get them out of it, which of course he will, but he does so in a–while not unpredictable–always entertaining way. It’s a solid amusement.

The whole thing, in terms of being entertaining, rests on Sanders’s shoulders. I wanted to see one of his Saint films because it’s Sanders and he’s usually enough… except, I had no idea how amazing his performance was going to be. The film starts on a cruise ship and Sanders intrudes into an existing situation, establishing himself very quickly. It’s a series and establishing the main character in a series is always difficult. What if someone hasn’t seen the previous film or what if the character were played by a different actor… whatever. But Sanders sort of–well, oozes sounds bad–he’s funny, charming, and sophisticated. He’s just amazing. His comic delivery, his sarcastic comments, all perfect. But there’s also another element to the film, the one pushing it beyond the b-programmer. It’s sensitive. The Saint is sensitive and so is the film. The director has some really nice moves for showing the emotional effect of these fantastic, b-movie situations on the characters.

Besides Sanders’s unspeakably great performance, there are a handful of other good ones. Most are mediocre, especially Wendy Barrie, who’s too much the mystery woman, but she does have a couple good scenes. Paul Guilfoyle and Jonathan Hale are both good and after that lengthy establishing period is over, it’s really all about the three (Sanders, Guilfoyle, and Hale) hanging out and being really funny together. It’s a pleasure to watch them, though Hale’s the only one who wouldn’t have anything to do if it weren’t for the others’ great comic performances.

The film is rather simple, but it’s not condescending and it is centered around its characters, even if it sets itself up as being centered around its setpieces. It’s got some depth to it, making it funny, engaging, and deep, which a lot of a-list movies are not. And they don’t have Sanders as the lead… and Sanders makes a great leading man. He’s an acting leading man–that uncommon variety, though there are always the rather obvious exceptions–but he’s actually able to shrink (and Sanders is a big guy) when the Saint needs to shrink. He’s just great.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Jack Hively; screenplay by Lynn Root and Frank Fenton, based on the character created by Leslie Charteris; director of photography, Frank Redman; edited by Desmond Marquette; produced by Howard Benedict; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring George Sanders (Simon Templar), Wendy Barrie (Ruth Summers), Jonathan Hale (Inspector Henry Fernack), Paul Guilfoyle (‘Pearly’ Gates), Morgan Conway (Sam Reese), Robert Emmett Keane (Leo Sloan) and Cy Kendall (Max Bremer).


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