In the 1940s every major Hollywood studio had a fictional private detective on its payroll, in addition, I’m sure to a good many real ones. Detective fiction dominated the literary landscape and Hollywood, which knows a good thing when it sees it, plundered the genre. From the pens of Raymond Chandler (Philip Marlowe) to Leslie Charteris (Simon Templar), pulp magazines and novels were scoured as studios rushed to take advantage of the literary public’s voracious appetite for private detectives. Some of these characters have gone down in legend, the two mentioned above foremost among them. Simon Templar, crook, detective, or secret agent depending on your point of view appeared in a string of novels by Charteris between 1928 and 1963 and continued long after his creator’s death in book, film, TV and comic form. The Saint, as he was also known, is a crime fiction heavyweight. Other characters weren’t so lucky and today I’d like to pick one out for special mention. The Falcon, created by Michael Arlen in a single short story that got optioned by RKO and turned into a series of 16 films between 1941 and 1949 was popular in its day but lacked the longevity of its contemporaries. Such was the strength of the genre and the richness of the literary and filmmaking output of the 1940s that there is only a limited space on the shelf for iconic characters and stories. As such treasures like The Falcon are unknown to many. That is until now because it is not just me that sees fit to mention the character. The BBC is currently broadcasting some of these 16 films on iPlayer. If you can, watch them. It is like a window into a different world.
RKO entrusted the majority of the project to Maurice and Gerald Geraghty. You may not have heard of them but they were the Coen brothers of their day. The Geraghty brothers were producers, directors and screenwriters and they produced an extraordinary amount of output between the 1930s and 1950s. This output included The Falcon. Arlen’s original creation, from a short story written in 1940, presented the character of Gay Falcon as an adventurer. The studio, looking for a ready addition to the success it had enjoyed with The Saint renamed the character Gay Lawrence. I say addition, but replacement is nearer the mark. By 1941 Charteris was in dispute with RKO about the way in which the studio, and George Sanders the actor, represented Simon Templar. Sanders had played the character several times by this point and the show was a hit with audiences. Following the dispute, RKO cut their ties with Charteris and put their weight behind a new project. The studio paid Arlen about $5,000 for the rights to his short story. At just under 4% annual inflation that is about $80,000 in today’s money. Nice work if you can get it, and Arlen did. George Sanders stepped into his new role as The Falcon and was practically indistinguishable from The Saint. Proof, if it were needed, that there is no need to change a winning formula. Sanders would go on to become a Hollywood staple (Rebecca, King Richard and the Crusaders and the voice of Shere Khan in The Jungle Book). It is little wonder that RKO had such faith in his appeal.
Sanders’ new character was an instant hit and after producing two films RKO paid Raymond Chandler $2,000 for the rights to his novel Farewell, My Lovely (1940) and recast Philip Marlowe as The Falcon. The film was released in 1942 as The Falcon Takes Over which is strangely reminiscent of another George Sanders film, The Saint Takes Over released two years earlier. RKO didn’t stop there. During their careers, George Sanders and his older brother Tom Conway both played the character of The Saint. They also both appear in The Falcon’s Brother (1942) as, well, brothers and from that film on Tom replaced George as The Falcon. RKO ditched Gay Lawrence for Tom Lawrence, swapped George Sanders for Tom Conway and carried on making films. One thing troubles me though. RKO changed the named of the character from Gay Falcon to Gay Lawrence. Despite calling the entire series The Falcon this nickname is never actually explained. I guess when you consider how it presented the character as witty, urbane, upper-class English gent portrayed by a Russian born actor with one of the most distinctive voices in show businesses then it makes sense he would have a nickname.
The films are a delight. An hour in length all subscribing to the same basic premise. You need a crime, a bungling police duo, a pretty girl (more than one ideally), a red herring, a double-cross and a witty, urbane, upper-class English gent. Catch them on iPlayer while you can. It’s a winning formula. Plus, it’s George Sanders. Why wouldn’t you?