Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Saint in New York (RKO, 1938)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles got home shortly after 9 and I looked for a reasonably short movie we could run — and found it in The Saint in New York, made by RKO in 1938 as the first episode in their film series based on Leslie Charteris’s famous character. They had a good deal of trouble finding both a star and a director for this one: their original choice for the Saint was Fredric March and for the director was John Cromwell — both of which suggest they had in mind a bigger budget than they actually spent on the film we have (in which virtually every set had the look of something recycled from a previous film). Later RKO offered it to Alfred Hitchcock as an inducement to sign a contract and come to the U.S. to work — but Hitch turned it down, obviously preferring a more prestigious project for his first American film (which he got, brilliantly, in Rebecca). The final cast was topped by Louis Hayward as the Saint — he had the appropriate dark handsomeness for the character, and his performance registered the enigmatic aspect of the Saint quite well, but the insouciance of the character eluded him and George Sanders, who at his best was insouciance personified, was a major improvement in the next RKO Saint film, The Saint Strikes Back.

The director is someone named Ben Holmes, and he turns in a competent job — though the script by Charlie Kaufman and Mortimer Offner doesn’t give him much more to work with than a nice collection of snappy one-liners and bizarre gags (including the Saint’s murder of one particularly obnoxious gangster by shooting him while disguised as a nun!) dressing up a pretty ordinary plot. One of the few Saint films actually based on a Charteris story (a novel of the same title he’d published in 1935), The Saint in New York deals with the efforts of a secret citizens’ committee to rid New York City of six gangsters who are controlling all crime and vice — and whose corrupt attorneys are using the weaknesses of the court system to keep them out of prison and unaccountable for their actions. One member of the secret committee, Valcross (Frederick Burton), insists that the way to stop the crime wave is to bring in the Saint and let him eliminate all the gangsters, since he’s not bound by any petty notions of due process and can just target and kill them. (Sounds like a John Ashcroft wet dream to me.)

The opening reels of The Saint in New York cry out for the full-scale Warner Bros. treatment — fast, loud, with thundering gunfire drowned out by even more thundering music and a frenetic pacing that leaves us breathless — and don’t get it. Instead we get a rather placid RKO-style thriller with almost no underscoring and some intriguing off-casting (though given Sig Ruman’s reputation as a comic foil for the Marx Brothers and Jack Benny it’s hard to accept him in what’s clearly intended to be a serious role; and in one of those morally ambiguous femme not-quite-fatale roles Barbara Stanwyck could do to perfection Kay Sutton is good-looking but rather blank) but a dull, woeful lack of pace and a visual look that seems excessively dark — not noir dark (which would have been appropriate to the story) but just badly lit (the cinematographers were Joseph August and Frank Redman) in a way that attempts to be impressive and only succeeds in obscuring what’s supposed to be going on.

The plot doesn’t help, either: as the story progresses both we and the Saint learn that the six named gangsters are themselves merely employees of a mysterious boss of bosses known only as the “Big Fellow” — and anyone who’s seen as many movies as we have by now (especially The 13th Man, made at Monogram the year before, which also used this gimmick) will have absolutely no trouble guessing that Valcross is the “Big Fellow,” though his motive for hiring The Saint remains unclear until the last reel (when it’s revealed that all the gang’s earnings have gone into a blocked bank account that will be opened three years after it was created and split evenly among all seven parties — so clearly Valcross’s idea was to have the Saint murder the other six so he could keep all the money himself). The Saint in New York is a better movie than I’m probably making it sound, but its body count is awfully high, its amorality is a problem and it simply isn’t a good enough piece of filmmaking to rise above the genre conventions (as some of the later Saints did based on the personal appeal of stars like Sanders and Roger Moore in the role). — 4/11/03


Recently Charles found an old copy of Leslie Charteris’s novel The Saint in New York, published in 1934 and the basis for the first film of the Saint character, also titled The Saint in New York, made four years later. Charles was surprisingly taken by the book and passed it on to me; I found the writing style occasionally engaging but mostly pretty clunky — the plot (the Saint is hired by a multi-millionaire as a free-lance vigilante to wipe out all the crime bosses in New York, including the mysterious “Big Fellow” to whom all the other top gangsters report) had real potential but through much of the book I was wishing someone with the commanding prose style of Raymond Chandler were telling it — and, though we’d seen it before, I wanted to run the film for us while the novel was still fresh in our minds for comparison, and it turned out to be a strikingly close adaptation (by screenwriters Charles Kaufman, Mortimer Offner and Anthony Veiller) with just a bit of softening, almost certainly mandated by the Production Code. At the beginning of the film, the Saint (Louis Hayward, in his first of two performances in the role — the American Film Institute Catalog says “Hayward played the Saint only once,” but in fact, after relinquishing the part to George Sanders and Hugh Sinclair, he reclaimed it in 1954 for a one-off revival of the character called The Saint’s Girl Friday) is brought into the action not by just one person, Valcross (Frederick Burton), but by a Secret Six-like group of prominent New York business leaders of which Valcross is only one member; he’s officially deputized by police inspector Fernack (Jonathan Hale) — who’s actually shown in a good light in this episode; in later films in the series Fernack became to the Saint the sort of dumb foil Inspector Lestrade was to Sherlock Holmes); and the corrupt judge he terrorizes in the novel is merely a corrupt defense attorney, Vincent Nather (Charles Halton), in the movie.

Also a number of the character names of the gangsters are changed, probably more to give the actors easier names to pronounce than for any other reason, and the Saint doesn’t kill his first victim, Irboll (a cop-killer who has just been acquitted thanks to a corrupt attorney and judge), in plain sight on the courthouse steps as he does in the book. Aside from those minor changes, the story is actually virtually the same as in Charteris’s book, including the thickly German-accented gangster Hutch Rellin (Sig Rumann — Charles said he had thought S. Z. Sakall would have been closer to his image of the character from the novel) and the mysterious woman, Fay Edwards (Kay Sutton), who’s the only member of the gang who knows the identity of the “Big Fellow” at the top — who to no particular surprise (especially to anyone who’d seen the Monogram production The Thirteenth Man, made two years earlier, whose writers might have borrowed the gimmick from Charteris) turns out to be Valcross himself: following the repeal of Prohibition Valcross, acting incognito in the best Moriarty-Mabuse manner, decided to organize New York’s criminal leaders into a syndicate, doing various illegal activities but focusing on extortion, that would last three years: the proceeds would go into a central fund and be shared by all the surviving participants at the end of the three years (it seems as if Charteris ripped off this part of his plot from Robert Louis Stevenson!) — and Valcross decided to pose as a reformer so he could hire the Saint to dispatch all the other claimants to the fund so he could grab it all himself.

The Saint in New York is certainly the darkest of the series — Louis Hayward’s performance wouldn’t have worked for some of the lighter plots in later entries but he’s fine here, though originally RKO had even more prestigious plans for this film. It was first announced in 1936, with Fredric March scheduled to play the Saint (just as David O. Selznick, then a producer at Paramount, had wanted him for a projected 1929 film of The Maltese Falcon — only Paramount studio head B. P. Schulberg was building March up as a romantic leading man, he said he’d only do The Maltese Falcon with George Bancroft as Spade, Selznick said that wasn’t the sort of anti-type casting he wanted and he let the rights go, Warners picked them up and made a quite good version in 1931 with Ricardo Cortez and Bebe Daniels, a stupid one in 1936 called Satan Met a Lady with Warren William and Bette Davis, and then the classic one from 1941 with Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor et al.) and John Cromwell directing.

Later RKO tried to attract British thriller specialist Alfred Hitchcock to their studio to make The Saint in New York — and a Hitchcock-directed version of this story is one of movie history’s intriguing might-have-beens, especially if he could have got the actor who (with all due respect to the best really existing Saints, George Sanders and Roger Moore) would have been the absolutely perfect choice for the part, Cary Grant (and Hitchcock and Grant did eventually make a quite Saint-like film together, To Catch a Thief), but Hitch decided he wanted to make his American debut under more auspicious circumstances, so he signed on with David O. Selznick and did Rebecca two years later.

Ultimately The Saint in New York as an RKO project sunk in prestige from an “A” programmer to a sort of “B-plus” movie, running 72 minutes and with a good second-tier star like Hayward in the lead, evocative proto-noir cinematography by Joseph August and Frank Redman (though the extant print is grainy and photographically “soft” and still bears the C&C Television reissue logo from the 1950’s as well as a C&C end title) and a script that stays surprisingly close to the book except for speeding up several of the incidents — not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, since edge-of-your-seat suspense was not one of the things Charteris was good at as a writer and several times in the book he tries the sorts of long philosophical build-ups to the action climaxes Chandler could do superbly but in Charteris’s clunkier prose style you just wish he’d cut the crap and get on with it already. The Saint in New York is a film perched uncomfortably on the cusp between lightweight thriller and noir (the same could be said of Charteris’s novel) and Louis Hayward, though a perfectly competent leading man, is likewise too in-between, not lovable enough to have the roguish appeal Sanders and Moore brought to the character and not cynical and world-weary enough to turn in the sort of film noir performance Humphrey Bogart could have given it.

Ironically, in search of more Saint material I logged onto and found a whole batch of radio shows based on the character (whose announcer, interestingly, pronounced the last name of the Saint’s creator as “CHAR-ter-is”; I’d always thought it was “Char-TARE-is”) made from 1944 to 1951 and starring, of all people, Vincent Price as the Saint. He’s too big and ungainly-looking to be imaginable as a visual Saint but his voice is quite good in the role, especially since the approach of the radio producers (at least if we can judge by the one broadcast we heard, “Nineteen Santa Clauses”) was almost relentlessly camp; though there were only two Santa Clauses in the story (Simon “Saint” Templar himself, who gets a call while he’s about to go to a party dressed as Santa to take a case; and a burglar who gained entry to a home by hiring on to play Santa at a kids’ party and heisting the family jewels), the dialogue was openly comic and the show overall far more laugh-out-loud funny than thrilling or suspenseful. — 12/9/10