The Saint Strikes Back: Review
George Sanders is best remembered today for his beautiful portrayals of sophisticated villains (Ivanhoe, The Jungle Book) and suave scoundrels (Rebecca, All About Eve). However, the witty and charming bon vivant deftly alternated his on screen personas between cads and that of roguish heroes in such films as Foreign Correspondent, Lured and five turns as Simon Templar in the popular serial of The Saint, the first of which, The Saint Strikes Back premiered in 1939.
Known for his skill at delivering cutting lines with his purring, deep, smooth voice, Sanders is a man you can listen to with pleasure whether he’s reciting a grocery list or threatening to end your life. Which makes him the perfect choice for portraying a character that is both a criminal genius and a man who has turned his expertise toward helping the greater good. In a nut shelf, now that he’s retired from a life of crime, the Saint aids the police in solving complicated capers when he feels there is an injustice being committed. Many a film and TV show have been based on the same premise and appealing character (Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief, Robert Wagner in It Takes a Thief), but George Sanders not only created the type but owns it completely.
As the title role in The Saint Strikes Back, Sanders elevates what might otherwise be an average mystery of who did what to whom into a much more intriguing game of cat and mouse. In fact the whole cast is a cut above the average with the consummate actress Wendy Barrie (The Hound of the Baskervilles) playing double duty as the foil and love interest. Her heroine is no piece of fluff who waits for a man to save her. Her intention is to clear her dead father’s name by any means necessary, even if that means breaking the law. So, she leads a gang of thugs whose nefarious activities help get to the truth behind her father’s downfall. That’s certainly a nice twist to the norms of the times. And because of Barrie’s believable portrayal of an embittered woman, there is a tangible chemistry between her and Sanders, as they play two sides of the same coin.
The rest of the cast is just as solid in their performances, including the recognizable face of Neil Hamilton, who at the time was a standard second banana who never got the girl but is best remembered as Commissioner Gordon in the original Batman TV show. You’ll have to keep your eye on him, as he tirelessly tries to ingratiate himself as a well-meaning suitor. Another recognizable face will be the charming safe cracker played by Academy Award winner for Best Supporting Actor of 1942, Barry Fitzgerald (Going My Way, The Quiet Man). His Irish brogue is certainly endearing, but you can’t be sure whose side he’s on at any given time. And you may also recognize Jerome Cowan (The Maltese Falcon, Miracle of 34th Street) with his trademark pencil-thin mustache and slicked back hair. Cowan is always reliable regardless of the size of is role, and here he’s a San Francisco police detective who may or may not be double-dealing.
The most thankless role goes to Jonathan Hale as Inspector Fernack (Boys Town, Alice Adams). He does an admirable job playing the beleaguered inspector who can’t help but like The Saint while simultaneously working frantically to catch him off his guard. Director John Farrow (Five Came Back, His Kind of Woman) helming his first real big film gives Hale a very nice scene in the beginning where he and his wife pack for his journey. Not only does it set up his admiration for his intended target, but also it gives the audience an opportunity to sympathize with him and understand the difficulty of his job. Although The Saint will take advantage of their familiarity and make him out to be the comic relief from time to time, their friendship is undeniable and appreciated by both. A tough task to portray, but well executed by both actors under the supervision of a director who would go on to do some very memorable projects (The Big Clock, Hondo).
The Saint Strikes Back stands as the best of the five films in which Sanders appears as the reformed robber. His skill and ability at turning a phrase would take the esteemed actor onto bigger and better roles, and win him an Oscar for the Best Supporting Actor of 1950 as Addison DeWitt in All About Eve. And as good as he is in all those other roles, you still can’t help but see a bit of The Saint in there somewhere. In a very good way, that persona stayed with Sanders the rest of his life. I only wish he had given us a few more turns in the roguish role. The world today has far too few rogues for which to route, and far too few to remember.