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With two well-received programmers placed in release concerning Leslie Charteris' contemporary knight errant the Saint (The Saint in New York , The Saint Strikes Back ), the powers that be at RKO elected to head overseas to film the series' third entry, an unusually lavish consideration to be given a B project. With its authentic locales and able, primarily British cast, and George Sanders returning as the debonair Simon Templar, The Saint in London (1939) was one of the more flavorful installments of the character's run at RKO.
The scenario (based on Charteris' 1932 short story The Million Pound Day) opens at a society dinner, where Simon's considerable charm is working its magic on the hostess's niece, the beautiful but ditzy debutante Penny Parker (Sally Gray). Attractive as Penny is, Templar's main objective at the soiree is to shadow another guest, the purportedly legitimate businessman Bruno Lang (Henry Oscar), whom Templar believes to be linked to a counterfeiting ring. Penny's fascination leads her to tail Simon to Lang's home, which the Saint burgles in the hopes of finding incriminating evidence.
In fleeing the house, Templar and Penny encounter a badly beaten man on the roadside. After receiving medical attention, the victimized gentleman identifies himself as Count Stephen Duni (John Abbott). The nobleman asserts that he had been kidnapped by Lang's business associate Kussella (Ralph Truman) and forced to turn his engraving skills to forging one million in pound notes. From there, the suspense (and the body count) mounts and hostages change hands as Templar, Penny, faithful valet Dugan (David Burns) and flummoxed Inspector Teal (Gordon McLeod) try to bring Lang, Kussella, and their fellow collaborators to justice.
The direction benefited from the light touch of British veteran John Paddy Carstairs, whose final professional credit, ironically enough, would come on a 1964 episode of the popular TV adaptation that starred Roger Moore as Templar. Sanders would make a total of five Saint films through 1941, at which point RKO gave him the essentially lateral assignment of bringing another fictional gentleman detective to screen life. After three vehicles as Michael Arlen's hero Gay Lawrence, AKA The Falcon, Sanders wanted out, and in The Falcon's Brother (1942), the character's mantle was literally handed over to Sanders' real-life sibling, Tom Conway. The elder Conway, regarded as "the nice George Sanders" in Hollywood, continued in the role for nine more Falcon forays.
The beautiful and statuesque Gray, a staple of British B-movies since the mid-'30s, would also be on hand as the leading lady in Hugh Sinclair's first outing as Templar, The Saint's Vacation (1941). RKO wanted to bring her stateside on the strength of her performances in the Saint series, but she had no interest in leaving her homeland. Gray struggled with depression over the WWII years, but rebounded nicely in the late '40s, notably in the classic British suspensers Green for Danger (1946) and The Hidden Room (1949). After playing socialites, life imitated art in 1951 when she married the Irish lord Dominick Browne and retired. Lady Oranmore and Browne passed away in London in September 2006 at the age of 90.
While Sanders' acerbic charm made him the definitive big-screen Templar to many, he interestingly failed to win over the Saint's creator. Charteris, the British-Chinese wordsmith born Leslie Charles Bowyer Yin, chronicled nearly a hundred adventures for his hero over a span of better than 50 years. He wrote in a 1960 issue of The Saint Mystery Magazine that Templar "could have been superbly played, albeit in different styles, by such actors as Ronald Colman, Cary Grant, or Doug Fairbanks Jr.; and if this is my conception of the role, it should be obvious that such totally different types as Louis Hayward and George Sanders were hopelessly miscast...I can be wrong about lots of things; but on all matters concerning Simon Templar, I can cheerfully proclaim myself the one and only infallible incontrovertible expert on earth."
Producer: William Sistrom
Director: John Paddy Carstairs
Screenplay: Lynn Root, Frank Fenton, Leslie Charteris (story)
Cinematography: Claude Friese-Greene
Film Editing: Douglas Robertson
Art Direction: C. Wilfred Arnold
Music: Marr Mackie
Cast: George Sanders (Simon Templar), Sally Gray (Penelope Parker), David Burns (Dugan), Gordon McLeod (Inspector Claud Teal), Athene Seyler (Mother Lizzy Buckley), Henry Oscar (Bruno Lang).
by Jay S. Steinberg