Monday, 27 August 2012

The Saint Strikes Back

Saint George

The Saint Strikes Back
USA 1939
Directed by John Farrow
Warner Archives Edition Region 1

Well I’m happy to say that this second movie of Leslie Charteris’ popular character The Saint, the first of five from the original series in which George Sanders took over the role of Simon Templar from Louis Hayward, was not nearly as hard to watch as I was expecting it to be, bearing in mind the following two factors:

1. I love Louis Hayward’s interpretation of the role in the first of his two films playing the character, The Saint In New York (reviewed here) and believe this is really the one where the character was nailed and played just like the character in the books. They really got it right.

2. I really don’t empathise with George Sanders too much. He wrecked the romance between The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, leaving Mrs. Muir the only option of finding true love after her own death and he was rather indifferent to the fate of Quiller in the movie adaptation of The Quiller Memorandum (aka The Berlin Memorandum) too. Yes, I know I’m totally responding to his on-screen image but until I see evidence to the contrary, this is the way I’ll always continue to see him. This reaction to him is, of course, evidence that he was probably a great actor.

Now I don’t know why Louis Hayward didn’t continue to play The Saint in subsequent films in the series until another single stab at the role in the fifties, but Sanders really isn’t too much of a disaster in the role. Certainly, from what I remember of the novels, his interpretation of the role is a valid one, and the film is done fairly faithfully, from what little I can recall, to the spirit of the story on which it was based (She Was A Lady aka The Saint Meets His Match by Leslie Charteris). However, although the character continues to have all those wonderful one liners, I find Sanders’ delivery of his lines just way too slow and, well, almost lazy. I keep wanting him to spit out what are, in all honesty, supposed to be quick-fire, screwball comedy style one-liners, like the way I read them in the books (yeah, I know, don’t go there... not getting into that argument with you). George is just a little too laid back for my liking... I can’t imagine this guy doing anything fast. However, the plus side to this is, of course, that this characterisation of Templar now seems a lot more confident... if some guys are pointing guns at your chest and you can’t be bothered to do anything that quickly, you must be a confident so-and-so, right?

George Sanders whistles a tune in this film for the first time, which is also worked into Roy (Cat People) Webb’s score for the movie. This is used in some of the subsequent films and scores in the series as a signature tune for The Saint and was even re-used for the character as late as the opening prelude jingle to the start of the theme tune in the 1978 Ian Ogilvy version of the TV show, Return Of The Saint. There seems to be much dispute as to who actually wrote this theme tune, with many saying it was Webb and Leslie Charteris, the author of the novels on which these are based, saying he composed it for George Sanders to whistle on set. Either could be true... I don’t know if Webb would have been involved with providing source music before the film was in the can or not but he certainly used it in the score and Sander’s whistle “could” have been added in post-production or even in pick up shots. I guess it’s something we’ll never know the truth of but it’s an iconic jingle which will live forever in fans of the character.

The film keeps up links to the previous film in the series by a few references and the addition of a recurring actor/character... which is probably a good idea if you’re going to suddenly change the lead actor on everyone, I guess. Of course, there’s a much clever way of changing your lead actor as seen in The Saint copycat movie series toplining, The Falcon... but I’ll get to that on this blog sometime later this year or early next year. Got ‘em lined up in a pile to watch after I’m done with the majority of The Saint series (want to watch them all in chronological order which means The Falcon series starts before the first Hugh Sinclair movie in The Saint series, I think). Anyway, where was I? Recurring character... to this end, Jonathan Hale returns as Inspector Fernack, the US equivalent of Inspector Teal of Scotland Yard (in the books set in England) from the first movie. It would, however, be true to say that the character has changed somewhat. It’s a subtle shift but where the character was a very helping hand to Templar in the first film, and very much a character in his own right, here he has been reduced to the role of bumbling comedy sidekick, very much fulfilling the same function that the excellent Nigel Bruce portrayal of Dr. Watson used to fill in the Basil Rathbone series of Sherlock Holmes movies. So Hale is great to watch but the comic vignettes with Sander’s Saint pranking him are something I could have done without... I prefered the more dangerous and infinitely more intelligent version of Hales characterisation of Fernack that he used opposite Louis Hayward a heck of a lot more.

Still, it’s really not a bad movie and there are some great little “spot the actor” moments in this one. A young Tristram Coffin (yeah, that’s right, King Of The Rocket Men) can be glimpsed right at the start and a less minimal role is filled by a young Neil Hamilton, who readers may remember best as Comissioner Gordon opposite Adam West’s Batman. There’s also Willie Best, playing Simon’s butler, who used to turn up in films in the Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto series', on hand too. But the big find in this one is an early, sizeable, happy-go-lucky sidekick role for a young (he was never young) actor called Barry Fitzgerald, here playing a thief named Zipper Dyson. I’ll never forget Fitzgerald’s performance opposite John Wayne in The Quiet Man and he’s an absolute pleasure to watch here, too.

Definitely a nice little movie, this one, and I’m sure I’ll warm to Sander’s portrayal as the series continues (and to his role as The Falcon in the first four movies in that film series). Looking forward to them a lot. Give this one a go if you’ve not seen it before but I’d definitely start off with The Saint In New York, which this is technically a sequel to, before seeing this one.

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