Friday, 17 August 2012


Thanks to the magic of BBC IPlayer, I had managed to catch up with a few of the old Saint movies just before and during the Olympics—a little light relief, as it were. I recommended them on twitter (@carlsonsports, if you're interested) and one follower asked if I could recommend the Falcon films as well. I suggested he try The Falcon's Brother, in which George Sanders' brother Tom Conway replaces him as the lead character, and The Falcon Takes Over, which famously is based on Raymond Chandler's Farewell My Lovely. Then I realised I probably hadn't watched the latter in twenty or more years, and I gave it another viewing. It was made in 1942, and it holds up well for a series B-picture.

Transforming a complicated Chandler story into a light-hearted romp could not have been easy, but it is amazing just how much of Chandler's plot remains. The most interesting thing is Ward Bond's (uncredited) performance as Moose Malloy (the Chandler characters retain their names) – not as sympathetic as Mike Mazurki and obviously pumped up by a padded suit, Bond plays it almost like a horror movie villain, a better-looking Rondo Hatton. And it's revealing yet again to be reminded of just how cold and evil Bond could be when a part required it. Helen Gilbert makes a compelling Velma, too: she's attractive in a vampy way (helped by a Veronica Lake hairdo) rather than beautiful, and you can see her allure to Moose as well as to other gangsters. It is something of a giveaway as far as the plot goes, but Gilbert makes the best of it. And she is tiny; Sanders towers over her, and by rights they should have been able to get one shot of her and Moose standing to establish the beauty and the beast nature of their relationship.

Gilbert is an interesting story. Originally a cellist, her entry into films seems to have been via the MGM orchestra and a short-lived marriage (as most of her seven marriages were) from 1936-39 to the much older Mischa Bakaleinikoff, a musical director at Columbia, whose brother Constantin was a musical director at RKO, and indeed is credited as such on The Falcon Takes Over, though the score was actually done, uncredited, by Roy Webb. Her most interesting marriage was to Johnny Stompanato, the Mickey Cohen strongman more famous for being murdered by Lana Turner's daughter, or so the story goes. If you want a good comparison in actual Chandler movies it would be to Martha Vickers, from The Big Sleep—she projects the same sense of raw and dangerous sexuality. Like Vickers she never escaped to bigger roles, and like Vickers her career was over by the 1950s, even though in Vickers' case her performance in The Burglar should have reinvigorated it.

It's also a pleasure to see (unbilled, of course) two favourites in small but crucial parts: Turhan Bay as Ampthor and Hans Conreid as Marriott, where I'd argue he's at least as good, if not better, than Douglas Walton or John O'Leary, from the two straight-forward adaptations. What is interesting is the way that, in this film, you can see much more clearly the way the stories which Chandler grafted together to make his novel don't actually mesh perfectly—particularly the 'Mandarin's Jade' section.

Of course the big problem is the need to make this a Falcon movie. It's no surprise Leslie Charteris sued Michael Arlen for stealing his Saint—the films are almost indistinguishable from the Saint, particularly the Sanders ones, except that the humour is a bit broader (Alan Jenkins in the comic sidekick role and James Gleason as O'Hara, the cop are both great, but the play between O'Hara and his bozo underlings tires quickly). Seriously, how can you hate a picture where Gleason growls at Jenkins 'Awright Goldy, for the last time, why'd you knock off those swamis?' Sanders seems already bored with the role, and his fatal power over women—one kiss makes them faint, literally—belies his character's name, which is Gay Lawrence. There is something unconvincing about the charm of Arlen's Gay Falcon, and Sanders appears to enjoy making him a bit of a helpless buffoon in the face of femininity. That's why Lynn Bari, as Anne Riordan, whose role grows from the original novel, and is far bigger than in the movies which followed, is so refreshing. There's an element of His Girl Friday, which was released the previous year, about her wisecracking character, and the way she treats the Falcon as an equal, more or less. It's something Chandler wouldn't have done, and something which made the Bogart/Bacall combo work so well in The Big Sleep, so much so that Howard Hawks went back and made Vickers' role smaller and played up that chemistry of equals. It's only on a small scale, but this RKO programmer is the better for it.

I'm recovered from the Olympics, but the Falcon made a diverting evening anyway—I should take my own advice more often.

No comments :