Sally Gray and George Sanders star in THE SAINT IN LONDON, directed by Paddy Carstairs for RKO Radio Pictures.

The Saint in London (1939, John Paddy Carstairs)

One of the unfortunate developments of television is the proliferation of hour-long mystery dramas. While these programs might be good, it means movies like The Saint in London don’t get made anymore. The film’s not episodic, with an abbreviated first act–George Sanders (playing the Saint for the first time) gets no introduction. But the first act isn’t missing anything; it isn’t hurried. Immediately, most of the principals are introduced to the viewer, as well as the film’s plot. The film only runs seventy-some minutes, so there isn’t a lot of room for verbosity.

The romantic interest needs to be quickly presented–and in walks Sally Gray, in an incredibly convenient (but not contrived) manner. The present action of the film, sans the first scene, runs about twenty-four hours (something Gray and Sanders discuss later on). It makes the script concise–there’s only one conversation in the entire film not directly involved with the plot. The film’s fullness, then, comes from the cast.

Sanders is excellent as usual, but The Saint in London gives him the opportunity to charm, something he rarely got to do later in his career. He’s erudite and affable, a perfect lead for a fast-paced mystery. He and Gray play wonderfully off each other, her headstrong, bored blue blood a fine match for his enigmatic troubleshooter. Their dialogue’s quick and a lot of fun–Carstairs’s direction is fine throughout, but during these scenes, he really knows how to work the actors together for best effect. The Saint in London is not a whodunit. Instead, it’s Sanders forcing his way throughout a situation–I suppose that distinction has to do with the differences between troubleshooters and detectives in narrative–so Carstair’s can’t rely on the mystery to keep the viewer interested.

The supporting cast–starting with David Burns’s pickpocket turned Sanders’s assistant and Gordon McLeod’s henpecked Scotland Yard inspector–usually plays for humor. Burns gets a limitless amount of scene-closing one liners and he deliveries each to great effect. McLeod’s got some funny phone exchanges with his unseen wife and a fantastic comic scene with Athene Seyler.

While Carstairs’s direction is strongest during the humor and the banter, he does understand how to make mix the ingredients. The film’s constantly funny, but it’s never harmless. There’s always a good amount of danger, even if the heroes’ success is assured. The villains–particularly Henry Oscar–are both funny and evil. Carstairs and Sanders make the bantering between good guy and bad work. Sanders walks through the film with such an amused air, it’s hard to think it was a challenge for him, but the character’s an ideal vehicle for him.

The film’s technically sound–the music, from Marr Mackie, seems a tad ornate at times, especially after it’s been a while since the last thriller sequence. Mackie strives to remind the viewer of the tonal shift, something the script, direction and lighting have already accomplished.

The Saint in London, thanks to the script and acting, is an excellent diversion. It’s a shame the genre’s disappeared.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by John Paddy Carstairs; screenplay by Lynn Root and Frank Fenton, based on a story by Leslie Charteris; director of photography, Claude Friese-Greene; edited by Douglas Robertson; music by Marr Mackie; produced by William Sistrom; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring George Sanders (Simon Templar), Sally Gray (Penny Parker), David Burns (Dugan), Gordon McLeod (Inspector Claud Teal), Athene Seyler (Mother Buckley), Henry Oscar (Bruno Lang), John Abbott (Count Stephen Duni), Ralph Truman (Kussella), Charles Carson (John Morgan), Carl Jaffe (Stengler), Norah Howard (Mrs. Edith Morgan), Ballard Berkeley (Blake) and Charles Paton (Tobacco Shop Proprietor).

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