Wednesday, 15 August 2012

George Sanders

I wasn't joking when I wrote last time that my Olympics viewing was really cutting into my film viewing. However, now that it is all fading into several many happy memories, I can get back to the business at hand. Looking at what I did manage to view over the last fortnight, there is not a lot that deserves anything but the briefest of comments.  I was surprisingly rather taken with a Ted Danson-Mary Steenburgen TV two-parter from 2002 called "Talking to Heaven", where he convincingly played a reluctant psychic helping to solve a series of youth killings, but there's not much to add to that summary. Then there was a rather nasty British 'horror' that I skipped at Frightfest a few years back called "Panic Button" that proved that it was indeed a missable movie.  Zoe Saldana was certainly watchable playing a dedicated assassin in the preposterous "Columbiana", but it was one of those movies that painlessly fills the time and can then safely be forgotten.

What got me thinking about George Sanders is the fact that BBC2 has been filling its daytime schedules during the past fortnight with a selection of films from RKO's 'Saint' and 'Falcon' series from the early 1940s.  Although I have seen them all before, I thought I would like to take copies of some of them which starred Sanders, an actor for whom I have always had a soft spot.  He was never a leading man in A-films, but lent a certain indelible suavity and sophistication to all of his supporting roles. He had a distinctive, slightly disdainful, voice and never lost his clipped English tones (despite being born in St. Petersburg -- Russia, not Florida-- to English parents).  Unlike the current crop of Brit actors who have 'gone Hollywood', he never made any effort to disguise his origins and therefore was a natural choice for the roles of cads, Nazis, and miscellaneous villains.  He started as a chorus boy in London, but swiftly moved to Hollywood where he appeared in more than 100 films peaking with a best supporting-actor Oscar for "All About Eve" (1950).  His numerous subsequent appearances were in a number of not so memorable movies, but he was certainly the best choice for voicing Shere-Khan in 1967's "Jungle Book" and his turn as a cross-dresser in one of his last roles, "The Kremlin Letter", must be seen to be believed. In the end he committed suicide, leaving a note reading "Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored.  I feel that I have lived long enough,  I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool.  Good Luck."  A rather sad and flip ending for a famous, oft-married womaniser and romantic.

Anyhow getting back to these shortish 1940's films, they were great fun, well-written, and rather jokey mysteries in which Sanders is undoubtedly the best thing in them.   He did not actually originate the Saint role in films -- that honour was Louis Hayward's -- but took over from the second in the series, for a total of five films before he moved to the first Falcon film "The Gay Falcon" (not a title that could be used on the marquee today!) On many levels the two series seem indistinguishable, especially since the same RKO supporting actors could be seen playing different supporting roles in the next release. Most notable amongst the regulars are Wendy Barrie as his most frequent love interest, James Gleason (not fat Jackie G) as a dim-witted inspector (shades of Sherlock Holmes), and  Alan Jenkins as sidekick "Goldy" Locke; but the films are redolent with familiar faces.  And long before James Bond became known for his clever comebacks, Sanders' gentleman detective was chucking these about with dry wit.

The most interesting movie in the two series is "The Falcon Takes Over" (1942) which is based on Raymond Chandler's "Farewell My Lovely", remade a mere three years later as an A-list production starring Dick Powell in his first non-musical role.  In the Sanders version, Moose Malloy (later a memorable Mike Mazurki) is played by John Ford regular Ward Bond and he cuts an equally menacing presence.  The film also provides meaty roles for Anne Revere, George Cleveland, Edward Gargan, Hans Conreid, and Turhan Bey (naturally playing a turbaned mystic.) Eventually the jaded Sanders, who seemed to become easily bored, became fed up with playing Gay Lawrence and was written out of the series by gifting the role to his real-life brother Tom Conway in "The Falcon's Brother".  Conway isn't a patch on Sanders but proved surprisingly popular, going on to don the Falcon suit for another nine movies.  He continued appearing in a variety of minor films until drinking himself to death some years before brother George decided that he'd had it with the world and found his answer in an overdose of barbituates. All very sad, if you ask me. 
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