Sunday, 30 March 2014

The Saint Strikes Back (1939)

Before Roger Moore made the part of Simon Templar his own in the 1960s TV series, the smooth talking gentleman thief and amateur sleuth appeared in a series of B pictures made by RKO. After putting Louis Hayward in the title role for The Saint In New York, the studio switched for the effortlessly debonair George Sanders for the follow up, The Saint Strikes Back.

Loosely based on the novel Angels of Doom, by Saint creator Leslie Charteris, the plot sees Templar come to the aid of the daughter of a San Francisco police officer, a man who committed suicide after being framed by a mysterious gangster. Can our hero clear the name of the innocent party, and unmask the crook?

George Sanders is one of those actors who nearly always plays a variation on the "George Sanders" character, someone who is charming, witty, and impervious to the doubts and emotions that plague us mere mortals. Unlike later films such as The Picture of Dorian Gray or All About Eve, the "George Sanders" here lacks the malevolent edge of Lord Henry or Addison DeWitt, which is in keeping with the roguish but basically decent character of Simon Templar, but is slightly less fun to watch.

I have seen The Saint described as a "Robin Hood-like" character, but if anything he seems like a precursor to Dr Who, someone whose motives are vague and wanders into situations seemingly by accident, solving problems, charming the authorities, then disappearing off into the sunset with no material reward.

The rest of the cast are competent enough, with significant roles given to Jerome Cowan, who would be immortalised as Miles Archer, the doomed partner of Humphrey Bogart's Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, and Neil Hamilton, later to play Commissioner Gordon on the Batman TV show.

The direction from John Farrow is also competent and workmanlike, with no expressionistic or artistic flourishes, apart from one brief and unexpected scene of a policeman having a nightmare about lobsters on trapezes. Farrow works hard to convince us we are in the City by the Bay, with some nicely foggy ambience. Screenwriter John Twist moves the action here from the original novel's English setting, and packs the dense screenplay with plenty of twists and turns, and some witty dialogue.

An enjoyable bit of fun, The Saint Strikes Back ends on a slightly downbeat note. For all Templar's cool, detached persona, at the end we are left with the impression of a lonely man and the final scene sees him quoting Kipling (“he travels fastest who travels alone”) before the camera tracks back, leaving a solitary Templar, leaning on a lamppost in the fog, whistling in a slightly resigned, almost melancholy fashion.