The Saint Strikes Back (1939)

2012 #60
John Farrow | 62 mins | TV | 4:3 | USA / English | PG*

The Saint Strikes BackThe first film to star the Roger Moore-ish George Sanders as Simon Templar, aka the titular Saint, is also one of the RKO series’ better entries.

For starters, John Farrow’s direction is admirably slick for ’30s B-movie filler. One of the first shots of the film is a grand single take through a nightclub; not the longest shot ever, of course, but very effective, including a neat balloon-popping reveal of the movie’s villainess — a most striking introduction. There are a couple of directorial flourishes along these lines throughout the movie, including a bizarre hallucination sequence and a final tracking shot that loses the Saint in the fog.

If there’s one thing the Saint series is surprisingly good at it’s evoking a place. Each film seems to occupy a different setting (though there are a couple of trips to New York throughout the series) and, though I suppose fundamentally arbitrary, they do a solid job of reminding the viewer where they are. It’s no coincidence that almost half follow a The Saint in… title format. Here it’s The Saint in San Francisco, evoked with very atmospheric opening shots of the Golden Gate bridge — presumably stock footage, but its fogginess is carried on to the studio sets/backlot the film transfers to.

To be frank, I found the plot to be equally foggy in places. It’s adapted from one of Saint creator Leslie Charteris’ novels (She Was a Lady, aka Angels of Doom or The Saint Meets His Match) and perhaps it’s the legacy of squishing a book down into an hour of screentime. It’s not ludicrously unfollowable, just… foggy. The ending in particular seemed fudged, rushed, or just not as clear as it should be.

Wendy Barrie mk1Nonetheless, it’s mostly a fun romp. Sanders’ portrayal of Templar is witty and enjoyably knowing, even more so than Louis Hayward in the previous film. He’s at once more laid-back and less self-certain; by which I mean you can sometimes see him working out his devilishly clever plans as he goes along, rather than floating through with invulnerability. This Saint is the kind of man who’ll bluff that a criminal’s house is surrounded by police so that he can escape, but then can’t resist phoning back to have a little gloat about how his bluff worked. Lighter, jokier — if Hayward was Sean Connery, Sanders is (as noted) Roger Moore. Though I’ve never seen the ’60s TV series, here I can see clearly how Moore was suited to the role.

Returning as Inspector Fernack, Jonathan Hale has a great double act with Sanders. Their relationship clearly grows as the series goes on, but it clicks from the off. He’s a great sidekick and foil, here treated to a neatly constructed subplot about his diet. It’s better than that sounds. Also topping the bill is Wendy Barrie, making the first of three appearances as three different characters. This is her best turn in the series, however, the part being the most interesting of her three roles as well as getting the most to do.

Initially I would have said I preferred in New York to Strikes Back, by a smidgen; but having completed Sanders’ run in the series before writing this review, I’ve further warmed to his portrayal. As I said at the start, this is certainly one of the high points of the run.

3 out of 5

Read my thoughts on the four other films to star George Sanders as the Saint here and here.

* As with many of the Saint films, this has apparently not been passed by the BBFC since its release in 1939. Nonetheless, it’s available on DVD, rated PG. ^

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