Saturday, 16 February 2013


Just by chance the other night, thanks to TV Void, I wound up watching Devil's Cargo, a 1948 Falcon movie I'd never before come across. It's one of three made with the famous magician John Calvert as the Falcon, and because the poverty-row studio that released it, Film Classics, wasn't long for this world, it's now in the public domain.

The curious thing was that in this film the Falcon is called 'Michael Watling', not Gay Lawrence, as he was in the RKO series. This was not a case of early-onset homophobia, but the change must have been made at a late date in filming, because throughout the movie, when characters (including the Falcon himself) use the name Watling, it has been redubbed, and redubbed badly, apparently by one man who simply recorded the word 'Watling' each time without any thought for dropping it into sequence with volume, tone, or pace.

This appears to suggest the change from the Michael Arlen character was a case of running into some trouble somewhere, which is strange because the Calvert films are supposedly based on a radio series that ran concurrently with the the RKO film series, and their Falcon was also called Watling, though he wasn't a magician. This requires some explanation.

The Falcon most of us remember, as played by George Sanders and then by his brother Tom Conway, was basically put on film by RKO to replace the Saint series, in which Sanders played Simon Templar. This appears to have been largely because Leslie Charteris, creator of the Saint, was such a pain in the studio backside. So when his contract was up, RKO bought the rights to a short story by Michael Arlen, called 'The Gay Falcon', written in 1940, and simply continued producing stories enough like the Saint for Charteris to sue them. You can link to my article about The Falcon Takes Over, a surprisingly good reworking of Chandler's Farewell My Lovely, here.

Arlen was a nice name to attach to the product, bringing both class and a touch of daring. His big claim to fame was his novel The Green Hat, published in 1924 and considered hot stuff in the Roaring Twenties. The 1928 Greta Garbo-John Gilbert film Woman Of Affairs is a considerably bowdlerised version of the story, and the talkie version, Outcast Lady, with Constance Bennett, wasn't much franker.

But Arlen was as slippery a character as the Falcon. He was born Dikran Kouyoumdjian, a Bulgarian of Armenian parentage, and despite his status as an enemy alien during the Great War began to make inroads into London literary, and other, society. After the war he changed his name to Michael Arlen, became a best-seller, had a famous affair with Nancy Cunard, and was supposedly the model for Michaelis in DH Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, which makes the choice of the Falcon's name even more interesting. He also wrote the short story 'When A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square', from which the song got its title. What's interesting too is that as his novels grew less popular, he turned to science fiction, publishing a novel Man's Morality (1933) which was generally seen to have borrowed heavily from Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, published the previous year. Since he might be said to have borrowed Nancy Cunard from Huxley too, this may have been a low blow.

But it lends some credence to the idea that Arlen wrote his Falcon story somewhat influenced by Drexel Drake, who published The Falcon's Prey, the first of three Falcon novels (and one short story), in 1936. His Falcon was called Malcolm Wingate, and seems patterned on the Saint, although with a more hard-boiled style, and an ex-cop sidekick called Sarge. There was also a criminal called Goldy in that first novel, and you may remember Allen Jenkins playing Goldy as the Falcon's sidekick in the Sanders films.

Drake's Falcon, as I mentioned, was on the radio, starting in 1943, while RKO were making their films, but here the character is called Michael Waring, and he works as an insurance investigator. Someone may have read Double Indemnity. I wonder if the Calvert films called him Wingate, and then decided to cash in on the radio series, or whether there was some other name, like Lawrence, involved.

Devil's Cargo is all over the place as a film—Calvert has to do magic tricks and sleight of hand almost constantly, and in fact the movie has a scene, where it's pointed out he has two identical portraits of himself, and one, he says, isn't him but John Calvert. This might be looked at as an early venture into Being John Malkovich territory. He's also driving a Studebaker two-door, which seems almost as unlikely as the Roger Moore Saint's Volvo, which it resembles somewhat, although it looks more like a streamlined version of Commando Cody's helmet.

The film does have its interesting bits, especially Roscoe Karns, looking somewhat under the weather, as a friendly police lieutenant, Lyle Talbot somewhat miscast as a smooth gangster, and Rochelle Hudson doing a very nice job as the femme fatale. Her erstwhile husband is supposedly a Mexican, as played by Paul Marion he seems to be putting everyone on. Theodore Van Eltz isn't bad as the lawyer revealed to be the worst of a larcenous lot.

After the three Calvert movies, the Falcon would make one more return, this time in a syndicated TV series, Adventures Of The Falcon, with Charles McGraw playing him as an international agent, when he would have been better suited to be an insurance investigator. And with that the Falcon was grounded, seemingly, forever. The one thing the McGraw finally got rid of was the strange nature of the Falcon's appeal to women: he is portrayed as both irresistible and strangely childish in dealing with the charms of the women who find him so—and this runs through the character no matter who plays him or which writer he is ostensibly based on. A strange bird indeed.

Note: I'm indebted to the Thrilling Detective website for information about the Falcon and Drexel Drake. You can link to it here.

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