THE SAINT STRIKES BACK (1939)
THE SAINT IN LONDON (1939)
Recently, Turner Classic Movies devoted an entire month to detective movie series of the 30's and 40's, so I took this opportunity to catch up on some of the series I've missed or haven't seen in a while. I like mystery novels, but I'm not a big follower of series characters; when I've read a couple by any given author (like Martha Grimes or P.D. James, for example), I've usually had my fill, no matter how good they are. Generally I feel the same about these movie series, and the closer they are to formula programmers, the stronger I feel. I admit to getting the Saint and Falcon movies of the 40's mixed up, mostly because George Sanders played both for a time, and the character types are similar: suave, quiet, upper-class gentlemen with a bit of the rogue about them who help folks in distress, sometimes with and sometimes against the police. Sanders is always fun to watch, and STRIKES BACK was his first movie as the Saint, real name Simon Templar, who is explicitly referred to in the film as a Robin Hood type, not above a little larceny for the right reason. This one begins with a bang in a San Francisco nightclub at a New Year's Eve celebration. Wendy Barrie, who has made headlines on a crusade to clear her dead father's reputation as a corrupt cop, is seated with a couple of men. When the lights dim at midnight, one of the men gets up, pulls out a revolver, and takes aim at another man, but Sanders, hidden behind a plant, aims at the gunman first and kills him. In the ensuing uproar, Barrie sneaks out, followed closely by Sanders. The two don't exactly hit it off, but he does find out that Barrie and her boyfriend (Neil Hamilton) have become mixed up with a gang of shady characters who they hope can help them in her crusade. Sanders himself is on a mission to bring down mysterious underworld boss Waldman, and since it was Waldman who framed Barrie's dad, Sanders and Barrie eventually overcome their adversarial relationship to work together. The supporting cast includes Barry Fitzgerald as a safecracker, Jerome Cowan as a criminologist, and Jonathan Hale as the police inspector who gets a goofy hallucination scene when he gets sick from eating lobster. As often happens, the plot strands got a bit difficult to follow, but Sanders' dry delivery makes it worth sitting through. No real romance develops in this one, though my favorite line has Sanders saying to Barrie that he loves her, but that he also loves "fireflies and mockingbirds and pink sunsets."
LONDON also has a memorable opening, with Sanders getting his pocket picked by David Burns, then Sanders returning the favor, and then hiring Burns has his valet. Sanders is on the trail of crook Henry Oscar who is behind a counterfeiting ring. Young socialite Sally Grey, wanting some action, tags along with Sanders as they break into a safe and find a beaten-up man along the road, a foreign count (John Abbot) who was forced to cooperate with Oscar's gang. Sanders hides him at a boarding house, passing him off as police inspector Teal (Gordon McLeod), but the bad guys get him anyway, and the real Teal gets involved. Again, there are some confusing plot strands, and the cast of British supporting players were mostly unknown to me and they all started looking alike, so I had a harder time than usual keeping characters clear in my mind, but with kidnapping, espionage and murder (at least one at the hand of Sanders), and the sometimes bungling attempts of Burns and Grey to help, things stay lively to the predictable end. More sleuth series reviews coming up. [TCM]