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: ***

The Sea Chase (1955)

When it’s on: Monday, 23 April 2012 (11.00 am)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Those who watch The Sea Chase out of a sense of intrigue are likely to come away disappointed. Yes, John Wayne plays a World War II German, but it’s quickly established he’s no card carrying Nazi; he even orders his men to switch off a radio broadcast of one of Hitler’s speeches early in the film. The Duke is Karl Ehrlich, captain of a battered German freighter, the Ergenstrasse. As news of the war breaks, Ehrlich and his men are docked in Sydney. Here, the captain meets his old friend, Jack Napier (David Farrar), a British naval commander, who introduces him to his German fiancé, Elsa (Lana Turner). Napier passes on the warning that the Ergenstrasse’s crew may need to be interned, but worse follows with the revelation Elsa is a spy, her role to use her womanly wiles on high ranking British officials and pass on their secrets.

Soon enough, Ehrlich is sailing out of Sydney harbour under dead of night, with Elsa on board and Napier in hot pursuit. The British feel capturing the Ergenstrasse won’t be a problem. It’s a hulk, low on fuel and supplies and no match for Britain’s finest. But Napier knows different, dropping hints that Ehrlich is a far more cunning and able seaman than his current post suggests. The scene is therefore set for a cat and mouse chase across the South Pacific.

The Ergenstrasse’s first stop is Auckland Island, home of a remote supply base. Ehrlich sends his First Officer, Kirchner (Lyle Bettger) for the requisition, who subsequently comes across some marooned British sailors and kills them. Unlike his captain, Kirchner is a proper Nazi, which broadly translates into being a nasty piece of work. His slaying of unarmed man will have fateful consequences for the ship’s crew, and for its honourable captain…

The story was adapted from Andrew Clare Geer’s novel, which in turn was based on the real-life tale of the Erlangen, a German freighter that gave its pursuers the slip and eluded capture all the way to neutral Valparaíso, Chile. A yarn that has the potential for great suspense never quite exploits it in the film. The evil Nazi on board commits no further atrocities. A crew on the verge of mutiny as the ship’s slim resources tell on morale resolves its issues as Ehrlich’s noble spirit wins everyone over. The Ergenstrasse stops for some time on the uninhabited – and fictional – Pacific island of Pom Pom Galli in order to gather as much wood as possible for the voyage to Chile. Here it stays, unmolested as the British are forced to check every South Seas island for their prey, even though Napier knows where they are likely to have gone. This makes for a tension-free chunk of movie, scenes of sweaty crewmen chopping down trees barely plugging the gaps; neither does the lukewarm chemistry between Wayne and Turner.

The Sea Chase isn’t without some worth, however.  John Farrow’s leisurely direction explores every inch of the Ergenstrasse, minuting the life of its crew in fine detail. The response of the shipmates to the death of one of their own following a shark attack is moving. The slow turnaround of Ehrlich’s popularity with his men makes narrative sense. He cares for them, making it clear he wants to get them home safely. The relationship between Ehrlich and Napier is also satisfying. There’s a mutual bond of respect, and the pain of betrayal is clear on the British officer’s face as he learns of the Auckland murder (though not its real protagonist). Wayne convinces as Ehrlich, the captain rather than the lover, and how Turner escapes more than some lingering stares as she struts around the ship in figure hugging sweaters is entirely beyond this writer. A pity none of it is as exciting as the posters (‘He was a skipper sworn never to be taken! She was the fuse of his floating time-bomb!‘) and publicity suggested.

The Sea Chase: **