The Saint in London (1939)

2012 #62
John Paddy Carstairs | 69 mins | TV | 4:3 | USA / English | PG

The Saint in LondonThe third film in RKO’s Saint series is a bit of a mixed bag, from my point of view.

Let’s start with the bad. I’ve said it before and I will say similar again, but I found the plot to be over-complicated, like I wasn’t following it. I can’t help but feel this is my fault, because that’s not really what you expect from this vintage of adventure film, though perhaps I was just expecting too much clarity. Conversely, it was creator Leslie Charteris’ favourite film — he even dedicated a book to the director because of it.

It’s again based on a Charteris story, The Million Pound Day (part of The Holy Terror, or The Saint vs. Scotland Yard in the US), and sees the Saint encouraged by a friend to investigate Bruno Lang, who as far as I could tell didn’t appear to have done anything; but then he gets sidetracked looking into something to do with the printing of foreign currency, and… well, it goes from there.

Still, the followability of the plot is only one element. Humour is the film’s strongest point, I’d say. It’s not a comedy, but it goes about its business with wit and verve. If it were a Bond film (and we’ll return to that in a second), it would be a late Connery or one of the better Moores, where the threat still feels real enough but our hero is having a bit of fun, even if he would really rather be cracking a joke than cracking heads.

Templar, Simon TemplarI bring up Bond again because this is perhaps the most proto-Bond of all the Saint films. Within the first few minutes we have a tuxedoed Saint introduce himself as “Templar, Simon Templar”, enter a fancy restaurant where he drinks a martini, and expertly orders a swish meal and the appropriate wine to go with it. Later, villain Bruno Lang (because yes, he is relevant in the end) is a somewhat Bondian villain, a powerful man with a grand plan who thinks he’s smarter than our hero. Which he isn’t, of course. Perhaps there was an abundance of these kind of heroes in the middle decades of the twentieth century, but as Bond is the only one that’s endured while retaining the same iconography, these similarities are striking.

Sanders is again an enjoyable persona to spend time with. Here he’s partnered with David Burns as pickpocket-turned-manservant Dugan, the kind of role the series repeats with new characters across its run, though Burns is as fun as anyone. As Scotland Yard’s Inspector Teal, Gordon McLeod is adequate but a bit of a poor stand-in for Fernack. Considering the latter is rather shoehorned into some of the US-set films, it’s sensibly plausible that they didn’t force him into this one too.

Plucky PennyBest of all is Sally Gray as Penny Parker, a charming girl Templar bumps into — as he’s wont to do — who forcibly strings along for the ride. Every film in the series contains a pretty young thing who falls for the Saint, and who he seems to fall for back before casually disregarding at the end — at least Bond faded to black, leaving the inevitable parting off-screen, whereas Templar is almost callous-with-a-smile. Of all the girls the series offers, though, plucky Penny is the one you’d wish had stuck around. Even with that silly hat.

I started off thinking The Saint in London was one of the lesser films in the series — the absence of Fernack is somewhat felt and I still don’t quite understand how the villains’ scheme worked. But the triple act of Sanders, Gray and Burns works so nicely that, on reflection, I enjoy it all the more.

3 out of 5

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

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