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The Saint


Simon Templar, alias the Saint, is a sinner. He lies, cheats, and steals. But as played by Val Kilmer in the new Paramount flick The Saint, Templar is also a winner, succeeding in wooing a beautiful damsel in distress (Elisabeth Shue) and also in overcoming hordes of Russian baddies.

Based on Leslie Charteris’ popular literary creation (although, surprisingly, Charteris’ name is not mentioned anywhere in the movie’s credits), the new Saint is the latest in a long line: since 1928, the 64 Saint books have sold over 40 million copies, and the character has appeared in 14 films, two TV series, six TV-movies, a number of radio programs, comic strips, his own magazine, and even bubble gum cards. Roger Moore as The Saint.Roger Moore as The Saint.

The Saint of the books is self-mocking and suave, operating under his own moral code as he helps the downtrodden and rights injustices. He was created in the 1920s by 20-year-old Leslie Charteris (born Leslie Charles Bowyer Yin in Singapore). The author, who had taken his pen (and later legal) name from Colonel Francis Charter, a notorious gambler and founder of the Hellfire Club, had loved pirate stories as a youth and began writing thrillers as a lark.

The Saint was created in a period when fictional “Gentlemen Outlaws” were the rage, sporting colorful nicknames like The Toff, The Baron, Nighthawk, and Blackshirt. Templar, often dubbed “The Robin Hood of Modern Crime,” was an iconoclastic adventurer, whose credo was straightforward: “To go rocketing around the world, doing everything that’s utterly and gloriously mad – swaggering, swashbuckling, singing – showing all those dreary old dogs what can be done with life – not giving a damn for anyone – robbing the rich, helping the poor – plaguing the pompous, killing dragons, pulling policemen’s legs...”

The Saint stories are fast-paced, intricately plotted, and highly unpredictable, dealing with stolen jewels, unexplained murders, and hair’s breadth escapes. And they are all done in a tongue-in-cheek style that readers of the ‘30s found uniquely brash (a typical Saintly rejoinder: “I hate to disappoint you – as the actress said to the bishop – but I really can’t oblige you now”).

In 1938, Hollywood took notice, anointing Louis Hayward the first cinematic Saint in The Saint in New York . While the pretty Hayward is athletic, quick-talking, and brash, his Templar comes across as a slippery neurotic, living for adventure but killing with the ease of a psychopath. The plot, lifted from Charteris’ book, paints Templar as a slightly loony vigilante, executing criminals whom the law cannot touch. Nonetheless, Hayward got one aspect of the Saint right: under the flippant exterior, there lurks a dark figure. After all, who but a nut would take the risks Templar does? The Saint at the movies.

Saint No. 2, George Sanders, eliminated the psychopathic elements by remaking the character into a smooth, cynical, and slightly bored hero (when called a “modern-day Robin Hood” in The Saint in Palm Springs, Templar replies with a touch of well-bred irritation: “Really, I’m a remarkably bad shot with a boy and arrow, and I have never tasted venison in all my life.”) Sanders’ Saint is droll, witty, but not terribly menacing or athletic, more at home with a martini glass than a dagger, better at sharp barbs than savage blows.

His successor, Hugh Sinclair, was not an improvement. Moustached, with a nice voice and trim physique, Sinclair appeared in two creaky British movies that couldn’t have done anything for foreign relations. His Templar dashes around with a stiff upper lip, but is as personable as an efficient British store clerk – and about as interesting.

At about the same time, ham actor Vincent Price was portraying the Saint on radio. While cultured, his Templar is an arch, almost smarmy, snob, given to bad puns and even worse dialogue. The most effete and miscast of the many Saints, Price’s rendition is probably Templar’s nadir.

The character rebounded with Roger Moore, who, before becoming a substandard James Bond in 1973, appeared in 114 hour-long TV adventures from 1962-69. The definitive screen Saint, Moore handled action and dialogue smoothly and had the perfect air of both charm and menace. His Templar is recognizably Charteris’, with a taste for fine food, good clothes, beautiful women, and twisted justice.

Finally, there is Val Kilmer. For the Saint’s latest incarnation, the producers have attempted to modernize the character, adding James Bond-style gadgets, fast-paced stunts, explosions, and a pop-psychology origin that explains the hero’s penchant for derring-do. It also tips its hat to TV’s Mission: Impossible by making Templar a master-of-disguise.

Kilmer is excellent in the different disguises but ironically enough is weakest as the hero: his Saint is neither sardonic nor entertaining, coming across as a sensitive stud who talks to himself while displaying a tortured soul. In fact, this Saint takes himself much too seriously. The filmmakers have also made a key error: by trying to transform Templar into a tragic, flawed character, they have taken away the hero’s unique personality. Obsessed with the death of a childhood sweetheart, Kilmer’s Saint is a Freudian swashbuckler lacking the flare that made the original character such an unusual hit.

One thing is certain, though: despite Kilmer’s moody interpretation, Simon Templar himself will survive, as he always has, with his halo intact. “I don’t see why he shouldn’t go on another 30 years,” said Charteris shortly before his death in 1993. “He is the last of the fictional swashbucklers in the tradition of Dumas...the last guy who could fight with a laugh and a flourish and a sense of poetry thrown in.”