The Saint Strikes Back (1939)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 25 July (12.00 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

George Sanders had already featured in fifteen films over the course of a five year career in the industry before his starring turn in The Saint Strikes Back. It was the first of five appearances as Simon Templar, released over a breathless two year period that seems almost unimaginably quick on the draw. The part and actor met at the right time. Not yet a star, indeed destined never to rise to stratospheric levels of fame, Sanders nevertheless was a perfect fit for the Saint, bringing his urbane style and silky voice to bear as the supremely confident Robin Hood of the modern era. And if there are shades of James Bond in his playing, then it feels natural that the Saint was kind of a forerunner for 007. Fortunately, by 1930s standards his way with the ladies doesn’t extend as far as outright bedding, but rather winning over the delightful Wendy Barrie with his charm and cleverness.

Whilst Louis Hayward did well enough in the role, Sanders is effortlessly watchable and in fact makes his acting feel unforced and easy. His work alongside Jonathan Hale, returning from The Saint in New York as Inspector Fernack, is the stuff of genius. Unconvinced by his accomplishments in New York, the copper tails Templar because he suspects the Saint is up to no good, only to be fooled time and time again. On one occasion, Templar makes Fernack think he’s been given the slip whilst they’re on a plane making a routine stop in Dallas, so off he runs into the terminal, still wearing his pyjamas and dressing gown, only to find the flight, with his quarry still very much on board, taking off without him. Later, Templar feeds Fernack into nodding off, leaving the Inspector with feverish dreams about lobsters on swings, a freaky bit of surreal humour for the time.

Elsewhere, Sanders gets some incredible dialogue to play about with, at one point comparing San Francisco in winter with Naples in April, only to confess they’re both in fact very different. Later, Barrie’s character forces him to reveal his reasons for helping her. He replies it’s because ‘I love you. But don’t let’s get sticky about it. I’m really a very shallow person. I also love fireflies, mockingbirds and pink sunsets.’ All good stuff, though Sanders manages to get across the Saint’s inscrutability and shadowy past. Nobody knows who he really is, and when it’s suggested late in the film that he might marry Barrie, he politely declines and ends the picture leaning against a lamp post in foggy San Francisco, watching the world go by and letting the mist consume him.

The emptiness at the heart of the character is only teased at. The film’s little over an hour long and there isn’t time to go into such plot developments as Templar’s back story, and it’s moments like these that we must hold on to. Sanders has little of Hayward’s gritty edge. His Saint is all charm, talking his way both in and out of trouble with errant ease. It’s so effective that director John Farrow’s attempts to give added dimensions to Templar are fragmentary and never really the point.

By all accounts, Saint series author Leslie Charteris had little time for either Sanders’s or Hayward’s takes on the part. He wanted Cary Grant and apparently thought Roger Moore’s portrayal on the small screen was the closest to ‘Sainthenticity’ anyone managed. Sanders might have agreed. He was critical of his own talents, claiming ‘I never really thought I’d make the grade. And let’s face it, I haven’t.’

The Saint Strikes Back: ***

5 Replies to “The Saint Strikes Back (1939)”

    1. Thanks Sergio. The dance floor scene’s brilliant, but I much prefer the bit where Fernack’s discussing his visit to San Francisco and the Saint with his wife, only for her to leave the room and who should be sat in his armchair, hidden from view…? Lovely stuff.

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