The Saint in New York (1938)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 24 July (12.00 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

Ah, summer holidays. A chance for the BBC to throw out a season of classic movies, for no one in particular and not necessarily in the right order. But here we are, presented with the welcome sight of eight RKO pictures based on Leslie Charteris’s Saint novels. BBC2 screened a double bill yesterday, and are doing the same today. The second title is one of the series’ later entries, The Saint meets the Tiger, but first we get The Saint in New York, which also happens to be the franchise opener. It’s to be hoped that later in the holidays, the BBC will follow its Saint run with another scheduling of MGM’s Tarzan films, whilst Mrs Mike would ask for a post-modern, ‘knowing’ second chance for Charlie Chan.

Back to the Saint, with Louis Hayward in the first of his two film appearances as Simon Templar (the second would be years later). The film was intended to be a B-movie quickie, and that’s exactly what it was, Ben Holmes directing economically in ensuring the finished product ran little over the 70-minute mark. It opens with men talking, essentially discussing the set-up for the entire plot. They’re police, involved in the protection of New York, only the Big Apple’s suffering a crime wave and six men have been identified as responsible. The rozzers don’t know what to do. They appear entirely unable to stop the criminals, until someone mentions Simon Templar aka The Saint.

In one of those narrative developments that must have made perfect sense in the 1930s, the NYPD effectively holds up its hands, declares itself beat and hands over all responsibility for dealing with the problem to a vigilante, indeed it’s made clear Templar doesn’t always work on the side of the angels. Nonetheless, he takes on the challenge of cleaning up the city, beginning with his shooting of a recently acquitted criminal who was about to execute one of the high ranking police officers. It isn’t long before he’s more or less in control, working his way through the less savoury elements of NY and building up to uncovering the identity of ‘the Big Fellow’, who runs the criminal fraternity from a position of complete secrecy.

It’s nothing new, and I don’t imagine for one moment the intention was to take the crime genre in a fascinating new direction. In Hayward’s hands, Templar seems to float through all the perilous situations in which he finds himself, as though he knows he’s the hero of the story and can never die, so why worry about it? If Hayward appears to be channelling anybody, then it’s definitely Orson Welles – the same amused expression, intonation and quickfire quips, which makes him both agreeable and impossible to identify with.

Yet there are moments worth waiting for, glimpses of an imaginative piece of work that occasionally shine through. Particularly good fun is the bit where the Saint escapes through a first floor window, only to perform an elaborate acrobatic¬†manoeuvre¬†to lever himself onto the roof. I also like the appearance of character actor stalwart Paul Guilfoyle, whose role in the film is to provide a commentary on the Saint’s actions – doing so soon makes him an admirer of Templar, ironic as he’s on the opposite side.

In another world, The Saint in New York might have been directed by Alfred Hitchcock, who was certainly interested in taking on the assignment. In his hands, it’s almost certain the film wouldn’t have looked so cheap or prosaically made, but for all the film making by balance sheet, it’s never terrible. And for all Hayward would be overshadowed in the role by George Sanders (we’ll do a Sanders Saint tomorrow), he’s still better than Val Kilmer could dream of being.

The Saint in New York: **