RKO had three films based on Leslie Charteris’ The Saint books by 1940 and had found a great leading man for the role of Simon Templar in George Sanders. Charteris had come to Hollywood to help make the movies about the rogue detective, former crook and although he would contribute to the story of The Saint’s Double Trouble it was the first movie to not be based on one of the novels.
Perhaps for that reason, the story seems a bit out of joint with the other eight movies RKO ultimately made about Simon Templar. To its credit, however, the story starts out seeming straight forward, becomes confusing, and then reveals its plot ploy: a Saint look-alike.
Templar is in Philadelphia to pick up an item smuggled to recipient and long-time friend Professor Bitts (Thomas Ross). A pouch of jewels were hidden in a mummy delivered to the scientist that the reformed thief pockets easily enough. While at his friend’s home, he encounters the host’s lovely daughter Anne (Helene Whitney), who returns to Simon a ring he once gave her with his initials: S.T.
Also coincidentally in Philadelphia at the same time is New York’s Inspector Fernak, played by Jonathan Hale who repeatedly reprised this role in the RKO pictures. So when Professor Bitts ends up dead outside his home with the Saint’s ring on his finger and a note with Templar’s caricature on it, Fernack’s resistance to intervene is easily whittled away.
Meanwhile, Simon enters the basement room of a bar that is the secret hangout of a gang of jewel thieves/smugglers. The Saint informs his men he will go meet their guest –The Partner, played by Bela Lugosi— at the airport. Not too much later, the Saint returns and inquires of his mugs about the Partner’s arrival, causing great confusion for the men. It is at this point that we start to realize there is more than one Saint in this picture.
The remainder of the plot is an action-packed back and forth battle of wits and fists between Simon and his double, Boss Duke Bates. Anne naturally comes within harm’s way and is saved by our hero, who is captured and escapes from the gang multiple times.
Putting two George Sanderses on the screen at the same time was not accomplished with the same ease technology allows today. Only a few scenes feature the doubles together and are confined to the basement office of Boss Duke Bates. While Bates sits in the background at his desk, Templar is able to stand in front of it with the other two hoodlums. The latter three actors are performing in front of a screen on which the Boss’s image has been back projected. The trick is an obvious one as the background looks fainter and grainier than the real-life actors in front of it. In other instances, a body double is used to duplicate Sanders’ from behind.
The best part of the The Saint’s Double Trouble is the story’s main element, which frankly I did not see coming (despite having watched this movie years ago). Once it hits the viewer that there is more than one Sanders character in the scenario, it forces him to look back at the preceding scenes and try to determine whether the hero or the villain was in play. Perhaps the story is a silly one. The Boss does not realize the Saint is in town even though he is pinning a murder on the man, so it falls to coincidence that Simon is in town at the same time. But there is no coincidence in the stories of the Saint, so we must conclude that Simon has been aware of the smuggling and been following the case all along; however, this story point is not made evident.
Although The Saint’s Double Trouble has no source material in Charteris’ novels, it does tip its hat to one of the books via a newspaper headline reading: The Saint Wanted for Murder. It might not be the best in the Saint cannon of movies, but it is still full of fun with Sanders’ ever astute delivery of the witty dialogue for which Simon Templar is so famous.