By 1938, the Saint had been alive in the novels of Leslie Charteris for 10 years, and although Simon Templar’s adventures largely take place overseas, Hollywood clearly could not resist the opportunity to make the first film adaptation set in its own country. The Saint in New York, RKO’s first of nine flicks based on the Saint, largely did justice to the book of the same title, in some ways seeming to draw the action directly off the pages of the novel.
Simon Templar, played by Louis Hayward, has arrived in New York after being approached abroad by William Valcross (Frederick Burton) who asks him to help clean up the corrupt city, led by cop-killing gangsters. It is that murderer who becomes Simon’s first victim. Jake Erboll intimidates witnesses into getting his case dismissed but does not get far before the Saint, dressed as a nun concerned for the man’s gunshot wound, takes him out. The proximity to the victim his get-up allows, gives Simon the opportunity to place his signature stick-figure drawing in Erboll’s hand.
Erboll was the first on a list of individuals Valcross has asked him to eliminate as a means to clean up the city. Simon will next visit Erboll’s attorney (in the book it was the judge on the case) Vincent Nather (Charles Halton) where, in a scene straight out of the novel, he will employ his ever-so-cool demeanor and abscond with $20,000, which comes with the name Papinoff (Ben Welden). The Saint also listens in on a phone call for Nather from a woman named Fay whose voice instantly enraptures the sleuth. She informs Nather the “Big Fellow” says to stay home tonight. Simon adds this mysterious man to his list.
Before he departs the lawyer’s home, the Saint and Nather are joined by Inspector Fernak, played expertly by Jonathan Hale. In relaying the telephone message, Simon causes the cop to become quite enraged at the attorney as he deduces Nather is under the thumb of the top hoodlum. The Saint joins Fernak in his car for their first tete-a-tete on his mission and gathers information about his next destination –as well as overhear a radio call about the kidnapping of the daughter of a wealthy New Yorker.
A guarded nightclub is where Simon seeks Papinoff, who will apprehend the Saint and deliver him to the next man up the ladder, Morrie Yule, who is holed up in a New Jersey house where the kidnapped girl is being kept. Showing his deft physical skills, the Saint kills one of the three men in the room with the knife they failed to discover was strapped to his forearm –a weapon the Saint always carries. In the now-darkened room, he is handed a gun by a woman he assumes to be Fay (Kay Sutton) and by the time he leaves the premises has killed another man and rescued the girl.
Although quite climactic, the scene is far from the end of the story. Simon will go on to meet the remaining men on his list and at one point be delivered to his execution only to be saved by a woman. The identity of the Big Fellow becomes the leading question of the story and his identity is definitely a surprise.
I appreciate that The Saint in New York sticks pretty closely with the book, making only minor alterations to the names of some characters and combining two gangsters into one. The book is so wonderfully suspenseful, however, that it is hard to appreciate the film version when you know more details about each scene than the screen tells you. It is nevertheless a great story, nicely complicated and entertaining.
Hayward does a good job portraying the Saint. He has the coolness of personality required, but probably no actor could portray just as physically skilled a man as Simon is meant to be. I will likely forever prefer George Sanders as the Saint, and had a hard time fully accepting Hayward. Part of this hurdle is because when reading the books I envision Simon as a tanner, blue-eyed Sanders. The character is meant to be particularly tall –as Sanders is– and is British (an accent Hayward lacked) and as witty as only Sanders can convey. Charteris would later say that he thought Sanders and Hayward were “hopelessly miscast” as his hero.
Lastly, Hale as Fernak is a great bit of casting. He is utterly calm and trusting in the Saint, whom he knows by reputation but has just met. The character is the same in the book, one of the cops Simon partners with and always manages to evade when he might actually be tapped for a crime. Hale went on to play Fernak in the George Sanders’ Saint movies that take place in New York –always the on-the-sidelines ally of Simon Templar.