Well, I was just trying to get into Hollywood Horror House (also known as Savage Intruder), an obscure, late 1960s Hagsploitation movie starring Miriam Hopkins, a video tape of which was sent to me (and is being reviewed here) by a connoisseur of camp, when I was seized by a violent coughing fit. Judging from the opening slasher scene, the film itself seems quite capable of irritating the throat muscles; but this was the oft-mentioned, nagging cold I have not been able to get off my chest ever since I caught it one rainy November night in New York City.
Being even more stubborn than the cough, I decided to tough it out once again—until I was entirely out of breath by about 2 AM. So, after a trip to the emergency room, I am loaded with steroids, sucking on my inhaler, and ready for another dose of murder and transmogrification.
As I remarked in the previous post, I have been following the adventures of the Saint in a series of RKO thrillers that aired on BBC 2 in early January (after having missed the movies when they were shown elsewhere a few months ago). The first film adaptation of a Saint story was the 1938 thriller The Saint in New York. Except for a bit of cross-dressing, it is very much a gangster movie fit for a Robin Hood of modern crime rather than one of those cosmopolished capers in which a smartly-suited man about town amuses himself, like a Nick without his Nora, by solving the odd case of murder between Martinis.
The Saint Strikes Back [my thanks to Saint expert Burl Barer, for editing here], the second Simon Templar story to be adapted for the screen, is somewhat closer to the Nick-and-Nora formula, with Simon being paired with a lovely—if preposterously coiffed—sidekick who actually kicks instead of just standing aside. Author Leslie Charteris disliked the film intensely—or at least its star, George Sanders.
As Barer shares in his book on the multimediated Saint (The Saint: A Complete History in Print, Radio, Film and Television), Charteris would have preferred a Cary Grant; but the studio was not in need of, nor willing to pay for, such star power to churn out a potentially long-lasting, low-budget franchise.
Shortly after striking back in San Francisco, Sander returned as The Saint in London, based on Charteris’s 1931 story “Black Face.” Retitled “The Million Pound Day,” it appeared in the first Saint omnibus, the 1951 paperback edition of which (pictured above) I found some years back at the Black Orchid, a mystery bookstore in Manhattan. So, I released my copy of Arrest the Saint from its wrapper at last, started to read and, inevitably, compare.
My intention was not to go in search of the real Simon Templar, but to find out what had been done to it, for better or worse. Most of the Saint adventure starring Vincent Price, one of the Templars of the airwaves, were written especially for the medium in which they played out. To my surprise, “The Million Pound Day” has all the makings of a terrific radio play.
Indeed, Charteris, (who, as I mentioned earlier, did write for radio), clearly acknowledges his interest in audio thrills: “Simon heard the juicy whuck! of his shoe making contact. . . . The wheezy phe-e-ew of electrically emptied lungs merged into the synchronised sound effects, and ended in in a little grunting cough.” The story, unlike the film, opens in “impenetrable” darkness. The first sound we hear (or are told about) is that most impressive of sirens—the scream of a human being in peril. Footsteps are approaching—a “wild tattoo” of running feet that spelled “stomach-sinking dread” and “stark terror.”
Rather than being pointed to a crook whose capture requires the Saint’s reckless, beyond-the-law approach to matters of turpitude, Simon finds himself in a dangerous situation of uncertain moral boundaries. Whereas the film shows a duel between two men, with the police more than halfway on the Saint’s side, the short story offers a free-for-all by twilight. “But the Queensberry Rules were strictly observed. There was no hitting below belts, which were worn loosely around the ankles,” Templar remarks nonchalantly after his first encounter with the criminal and his prey.
Whether the endangered one is a rogue, a gentleman, or both, matters little. Simon rescues the hunted, knocks out the “gorilla” in pursuit, and rushes the victim to a hotel near his own apartments in London. As a result of his selfless efforts to save the life of a stranger, the Saint is being suspected by the police of having committed the crime himself.
Hollywood movies tend to draw far clearer lines; and Charteris’s intriguing ambiguities were lost in the process.