Louis Hayward is the perfect Simon Templar in... The Saint in New York (1938)
A "buccaneer in the suits of Savile Row, amused, cool, debonair, with hell-for-leather blue eyes and a saintly smile," Simon Templar was one of the 20th century's most fascinating characters. Created in 1928 by author Leslie Charteris, Templar has come to appear in numerous books, films, TV shows, radio series, and comic strips over the years. For people like my father, their introduction to the Saint was through Roger Moore's indelible, irresistible portrayal on the hit British show that ran from 1962 to 1969. For me, though, I discovered "the Robin Hood of modern crime" by watching 1938's The Saint in New York, which was the first Templar film ever made.
Directed by Ben Holmes and released by RKO, The Saint in New York took me quite by surprise. A taut B-movie with moody cinematography, a snappy pace, dialogue that is at turns poetic and funny, and interesting, dimensional characters, the film finds Templar being persuaded to come to New York by the police commissioner in order to take out a handful of powerful crime leaders who have the city in their grip. As he crosses the names off of his list of victims, the Saint forges an unlikely friendship with Inspector Fernack (Jonathan Hale) and falls for a mysterious woman named Fay (Kay Sutton).
There are many things to like about this movie. Simon Templar is, plain and simple, an incredible character and Hayward brings him to life beautifully. Hale also does a fine job as Fernack, and the characters' relationship is one of my favorite parts of RKO'S Saint series. On the other side of the law is Sig Ruman as a snarling crime boss, Jack Carson as his quiet, unsmiling henchman, and, in a particularly delightful turn, Paul Guilfoyle as Ruman's other henchman, a dimwitted guy who can't help but be in awe of Templar.
The only element that doesn't completely work for me is the romance between Fay and Templar. Their relationship just happens much too fast. They share two electric, flirty scenes, and then Fay declares she loves him and it suddenly feels... off. We're supposed to believe that her feelings for Templar reveal a warmer, gentler side to her personality than the calm, cool, and collected woman we've seen, but there is a disconnect between Sutton and Fay. Sutton's acting no longer matches her character as the script forces Fay to coo sweet nothings in Templar's ear while Sutton is still playing the distant femme fatale that we initially believed Fay to be. It just doesn't gel, making the film's surprisingly tragic ending more effective in theory than in practice.
The film works best as a showcase for Louis Hayward, an underrated actor who will likely never get the proper recognition he deserves. After The Saint in New York, Hayward was replaced with George Sanders, thanks to a multi-picture deal with producer Edward Small that made him unavailable. While I adore Sanders and he plays Templar marvelously, there is an edge to Hayward's performance that Sanders -- the man behind Shere Khan, Jack Favell, and Addison DeWitt -- shockingly doesn't fully replicate. After five films, Sanders found himself in a new movie series about another suave crimefighter named the Falcon, the result of a dispute between RKO and Templar's creator Leslie Charteris. Hugh Sinclair soon stepped into the role for two British-made films, but he never made an impression like his predecessors had. Twelve years after Sinclair's run, Hayward returned to the role for Hammer Films' production of The Saint's Return (also known as The Saint's Girl Friday). I'm just dying to see this movie, but it's proving very hard to find, unfortunately.
After watching all of Sanders's performances and one of Sinclair's, I must say that Hayward is my favorite cinematic Templar. He leans into the character's bloodthirsty characteristics with glee and yet balances it with an aloof romanticism. However, the definitive Saint is, without a doubt, Roger Moore. This might be unfair since he had six seasons to prove it, but Moore embodied Hayward's menacing charm and Sanders's witty sophistication while still making the role entirely his own, making the Saint's inevitable victories all the more delicious and his heartaches infinitely more poignant.
This is my second entry to the Made in 1938 Blogathon. You can see the other entries here!