Wednesday, November 23, 2011
Friday night is Falcon night
One of the great things about not having access to any television channels is that you get to programme your own viewing like it's your own channel, which in my case invariably means a kind of mix and match approximation of the television I used to enjoy as a boy.
So while classic series detectives may be good fun at any time, they're just sublime on Fridays round about teatime, just as they were in the early 1980s, when BBC-2 introduced me carefully and sequentially to the adventures of Rathbone's Holmes, Charlie Chan and The Saint.
Friday night was going to be Charlie Chan night, in fact, but I was dismayed to pull out my old copy of The Black Camel two weeks ago and discover that the sound was almost completely inaudible. So a last-minute substitution was needed, and my eyes fell upon The Falcon, which I had never really payed much attention to before, and certainly didn't know inside out and upside down, as I do the Rathbones and many of the Chans.
I'd loved George Sanders as The Saint, and had always been intrigued by the idea of The Falcon's Brother, in which the Falcon hands over his investigations to his brother, played by his soundalike real-life brother Tom Conway, who then carried on for the rest of the series. So on it went.
The first, The Gay Falcon, was a treat, and so I pressed on the following week, and A Date With the Falcon was a treat too. So now Friday night is Falcon night for the foreseeable future.
Sanders is most of the show, of course, but they are distinctive, playful little films; I love the character's bon mots, his outrageously roving eye, and the interplay with Allen Jenkins as his ex-con Watson. It's sort of reminded me of something I was in danger of forgetting: that Sanders is actually one of my favourite actors of the forties.
Truth is, the movies didn’t really know what to do with him. He didn’t seem to fit any available type. With his chiseled good looks and supremely melodious voice he should have been a gift to Hollywood in leading man roles, but he projected a more complex and ambiguous persona than, say, Ronald Colman or Leslie Howard. Nor did he have the easy charm of a Cary Grant. He was never quite comfortable playing the straightforward hero. But neither was he suited to villainous roles: they tried that, too. He was too obviously good-natured to play the bad guy, yet too indolent for the hero, and casting him soon became almost impossible.
So the bulk of his movies, certainly the performances we remember best, are supporting roles: slimy Jack Favell in Rebecca, epigram-tossing Lord Henry Wooton in The Picture of Dorian Gray and the accidentally heroic ffolkes in Foreign Correspondent (opposite Joel McCrea, the kind of uncomplicated heroic lead Sanders could never be).
Had he been American, he might have been a natural fit for the kind of world-weary private eye roles in which Bogart came to specialise, but his deeply cultured voice counted against him there. The Saint and The Falcon were as close as he got (though his last full Falcon adventure was based rather impudently on Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely): sleuths at large in a forties noir world, but with a distinctly 1930s urbanity.
It was his air of cynicism, detachment and a kind of amused boredom that most defined his screen presence, a dark twinkle in his eyes, the slight but ever present hint of a sneer around his mouth and a slightly mocking note in his voice. Sanders’s characters can be heroic if absolutely necessary, but they certainly don’t go looking for maidens to rescue and dragons to slay.
He had never longed to be an actor: that his good looks and even handsomer voice might be well-suited to the stage was suggested to him by the company secretary of an advertising agency where he was working, and on her recommendation he gave it a whirl, as he did most things, more or less in the spirit of a lark, never dreaming that it might actually come to something. (She didn’t do too badly for herself either: she was Greer Garson.)
“Acting is like roller-skating,” he later explained. “Once you know how to do it, it is neither stimulating nor exciting.” But if you’re one of the lucky ones, it does offer a relatively undemanding means of paying the bills, which was exactly what he was looking for. In his autobiography he wrote: “I am not one of those people who would rather act than eat. Quite the reverse. My own desire as a boy was to retire. That ambition has never changed.”
Hollywood was especially useful because it kept him out of the war; according to David Niven he made no secret of his refusal to contribute to the war effort, which certainly took bravery of a sort. He also told him cheerfully that he would take his own life in his sixties, when it had ceased to interest him.
Witty and well-dressed cads seemed his stock in trade through the forties (“beastly but never coarse” as he put it, “a high class sort of heel”), though as he grew older he was able to diversify somewhat. He played a lot of costume roles in biblical and historical epics in the fifties, beginning with Cecil B DeMille’s Samson and Delilah in 1949, and continuing through Ivanhoe, King Richard and the Crusaders and Solomon and Sheba.
But amidst all the corn he managed to turn in some of his very finest work: in All About Eve, ideally cast as wasp-stinged theatre critic Addison DeWitt and, even better in my opinion, as Ingrid Bergman's bored and cynical husband in Roberto Rosselini’s Voyage To Italy, a character one suspects to be very close to the Sanders of real life.
Voyage is one of those movies I have to strictly ration: I could watch it over and over. His interplay with Bergman, herself never more magnificent than when working for Rossellini (I love her Hollywood films, but this is simply a different actress), is excoriatingly real and vivid, and the film has an unmistakable power that makes its initial rejection, by critics as well as audiences, seem simply inexplicable.
With grey hair, stockier build and a new found gravitas he also made an ideal foil for comedians. I love him as the art dealer who takes on Tony Hancock’s pretentious painter in The Rebel, unaware that the Hancock masterpieces that send him into such raptures were painted by his former roommate: Hancock's own work (he considers himself father of the Shapist movement: all the colours are different shapes), though the rage of the dilettantes, is a mess of childish scribbling. (Galton & Simpson, Hancock's writers, recalled Sanders telling them that he had reached an age where sex was infinitely less preferable to a really successful bowel movement.) And he's hilariously deadpan as the millionaire under suspicion of murder in A Shot in the Dark who plays a memorable game of billiards with Peter Sellers’s Inspector Clouseau. He also revealed a new talent as a singer and songwriter, recording the delightfully titled album The George Sanders Touch: Songs for the Lovely Lady, a collection of classic and self-penned romantic ballads, in 1958.
Off the screen his life was often unpredictable, and increasingly unsatisfying to him. His first marriage had come to an end in 1949, and he immediately married Zsa Zsa Gabor. Though this ended in divorce in 1954, the two remained friendly for this rest of his life. (His fourth marriage, in 1970 and lasting only six weeks, was to her older sister Magda.)
His happiest marriage, and the only one not to be ended by divorce, had been his third, to actress Benita Hume, the widow of Ronald Colman, in 1959. He was devastated when she died of bone cancer in 1967, and it was at this point that his habitual cynicism tipped into outright pessimism. He made a few more films, but he was drinking heavily, and was so distraught when a small stroke resulted in his inability to play his grand piano he smashed it to pieces with an axe.
Unable to stomach the thought of being helpless and cared for by others, he began to prepare the end by his own hand that, according to Niven, he had been planning since his youth. His prediction came to pass in a hotel room in Barcelona in 1972. He left three notes: one for his sister, a kind and thoughtful request that she not grieve unduly, one to the manager of the hotel, explaining that he had left the cost of his room in his jacket pocket, and one beginning ‘Dear World’.
In the latter he wrote, “I am leaving because I am bored”, and signed off “Good luck.”
Despite his once summing up his career by saying “I never really thought I'd make the grade, and let's face it, I haven't”, Sanders now seems one of the real standout actors of his day. You certainly don't mistake him for anyone else (not even Tom Conway).
Offscreen it seems he was a man who never really found his place in the world, or quite knew what he wanted to do with the life he had been given. But he left more behind to remember him by than he realised.
When I've finished with the Falcon, I'm going to reintroduce myself to The Saint.