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The Saint Takes Over

The Saint Takes Over(1940)

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teaser The Saint Takes Over (1940)

Late in his career, author Leslie Charteris wrote a new introduction to the 1928 mystery novel Meet-the Tiger! that introduced Simon Templar, known as "The Saint" to friends and foes alike. In it, Charteris said he'd wanted the Saint to embody "the old-style hero, who had a clear idea of justice, and a more than technical approach to love, and the ability to have some fun with his crusades."

That sounds like an early prototype for James Bond, known as Agent 007 to friends and foes alike. The success of both heroes is evidence that Charteris was right when he staked his career on the idea that "there was a solid place in escape literature" for a "rambunctious adventurer" who was "prepared to lay everything on the line."

To date, the Saint has been the hero of fifteen films. RKO Radio Pictures produced and/or distributed the first nine, beginning with The Saint in New York, starring Louis Hayward, in 1938. The Saint Takes Over (1940) was the fifth entry in the series, and the fourth with George Sanders as the eponymous hero. Sanders did one more Saint picture the following year, then abandoned the character for good.

The next Templar was Hugh Sinclair, who played him in two films produced by William Sistrom for the British wing of RKO in 1941 and 1943, after Charteris had regained the rights to the character. RKO's final shot at the franchise was The Saint's Girl Friday in 1953, with Hayward back in the title role. Hayward thus had the distinction of creating Templar's screen image in RKO's very first Saint movie, and returning fifteen years later to polish it off.

Templar lived on in two French films of the 1960s, with Felix Marten and Jean Marais as the hero. Charteris reportedly hated these and kept them from playing in English-speaking countries. TV also capitalized on the haloed hero: A series with Roger Moore thrived from 1962 to 1969; another with Ian Ogilvy ran in 1978 and 1979; and a third with Simon Dutton came along in 1989. (The first two spun off theatrical features as well.) Paramount Pictures released its big-screen Saint adventure in 1997, with Val Kilmer heading the cast.

Sanders also lived on after his Saint years, starring in a long list of movies that included four outings as "The Falcon" in a series (fourteen films in all) using characters from Michael Arlen mystery stories. Sanders claimed to dislike the Saint character intensely, and he didn't like the Falcon any better, regarding these projects as the low point of his career. Audiences disagreed, of course.

The Saint Takes Over begins on a trans-Atlantic liner carrying Templar from London to New York, where he hopes to figure out how a whopping $90,000 got into the safe of his old friend Inspector Fernack, who's been kicked out of the police for allegedly taking illicit loot. On the ship he meets an alluring woman (Wendy Barrie) who slips away from him after they land, then reenters his life (natch) later in the story.

In a twist recalling Agatha Christie, there are five crooks who might be able to clear Fernack's name, but they have an alarming tendency to get killed before he and Templar have a chance to pressure them for confessions. Worse, the evidence often suggests Fernack bumped them off himself.

The story provides a reasonably robust body count before the Saint definitively proves that his pal's been framed by gangsters. He also discovers that his lady friend has a vengeful streak, accounting for the inconvenient murders that have piled up. The finale, with Templar taking a nighttime stroll down a lonely Manhattan avenue, is bittersweet.

Sanders was a specialist in super-suave characters, and he's so well suited to the Saint that the job seems almost too easy; his dialogue rarely calls for emotion, and the only facial expressions he needs are a condescending smirk on his lips and a bemused furrow in his brow. His best moments come during the plot's mildly offbeat scenes--when he and Fernack strap a mobster down for a torture session, for instance, even though it's obvious no torture could happen in a lightweight picture like this.

Barrie is more interesting to watch, giving her character an air of mystery and melancholy that's understated enough to fit the movie's casual mood. Jonathan Hale is just right as Fernack, a character he played several times in the series. Best of all is Paul Guilfoyle as Clarence "Pearly" Gates, a criminal with two problems: He's as dim-witted as they come, and anxiety over getting caught has tied his stomach into so many knots that he switches from booze to milk. Guilfoyle made a strong enough impression to reprise the role in Sanders's last Templar picture, The Saint in Palm Springs, a year later.

Noting that the Saint movies look very much alike, rarely straying from the basic blueprint, critic Don Miller wrote in his 1973 book B Movies that The Saint Takes Over is probably the best, or at least "the closest to the original conception of the Robin Hood-like character." This seems like a fair assessment-and an ironic one, since The Saint Takes Over is the first of the RKO pictures not based on a Charteris novel or story. (The only other one is The Saint's Girl Friday, which ended the series.)

In any case, even Templar's best adventure will appeal mainly to viewers who enjoy the kind of formula filmmaking practiced at RKO by the low-budget unit Lee Marcus headed there. Keep your expectations low and you'll have a reasonably diverting ride.

Producer: Howard Benedict
Director: Jack Hively
Screenplay: Lynn Root, Frank Fenton; based on characters created by Leslie Charteris
Cinematography: Frank Redman
Film Editing: Desmond Marquette
Art Direction: Van Nest Polglase
Cast: George Sanders (Simon Templar, the Saint), Wendy Barrie (Ruth Summers), Jonathan Hale (Inspector Henry Fernack), Paul Guilfoyle (Clarence "Pearly" Gates), Morgan Conway (Sam Reese), Robert Emmett Keane (Leo Sloan), Cyrus W. Kendall (Max Bremer), James Burke (Patrolman Mike), Robert Middlemass (Captain Wade), Roland Drew (Albert "Rocky" Weldon), Nella Walker (Lucy Fernack), Pierre Watkin (Ben Egan).
BW-69m.

by Mikita Brottman and David Sterritt

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