I have a real soft spot for the "B" movie mystery series pumped out by the studios in the 1930s and '40s. They were often developed from established literary properties, like Charlie Chan, Mr. Moto, Sherlock Holmes, etc., though frequently taken in a far different direction once adapted to the screen. Unlike those far more famous characters, the Falcon was pretty much hot off the press at the time. Created by Michael Arlen, the Falcon made his debut in short story form, in "The Gay Falcon," published in Town and Country magazine in 1940. RKO Studios quickly brought the character to the screen in the person of snidely suave, British George Sanders, fresh from The Saint series. Indeed, the first three Falcon films made with Sanders - The Gay Falcon, A Date with the Falcon (both 1941) and the Farewell, My Lovely riff The Falcon Takes Over (1942) - were basically Saint movies in all but name, with Sanders' Gay Lawrence a sort of gentleman adventurer (ala Simon Templar), always quick to step in to assist a lady in distress.
The Conway Falcon films are much of a piece, all spry, fun little mysteries with plenty of comedy, and graced with an impressive array of beautiful starlets as miscellaneous femme fatales and romantic interests for our hero. Two of the more unusual entries in the series are The Falcon and the Co-Eds and The Falcon Out West, both directed by William Clemens with the sort of polish and ease that seemed second nature to those who populated the old Hollywood studio system.
On the night of a benefit performance by the school's drama and music club, another murder occurs, this time implicating Marguerita. Eventually, and with the help of three precocious little daughters of one of the school's patrons, nicknamed the "Ughs", Lawrence gets to the bottom of the case. The Falcon and the Co-Eds benefits from its wind-swept, seaside location and the customary interest inherent in any murder mystery set in academic surroundings. There's still plenty of cute comedy moments throughout, such as when Donovan and Bates chase a suspect into the girls' dormitory and get angrily tossed out on their ear by the elderly den mothers ("The very idea! Two grown men frightening young girls! Aren't you ashamed of yourselves?" Gates: "We didn't do nuthin', lady. We just walked through a door. We're police officers!") The supporting cast is good value, including Amelita Ward and Patti Brill as older students making goo-goo eyes at the Falcon, as well as familiar faces Olin Howland (as the Bluecliff driver) and Ian Wolfe (as a duplicitous undertaker).
The next film, The Falcon Out West, opens with a seemingly-impossible murder in a crowded nightclub. Millionaire rancher and businessman Tex Irwin (Lyle Talbot) is dancing with his fiancee, Vanessa Drake (Carol Gallagher), when he suddenly keels over, dead from an apparent rattlesnake bite. The Falcon happens to be on the scene, summoned there by Tex's jealous ex-wife (Joan Barclay), and quickly takes over the crime scene, much to the chagrin of his rivals at the Homicide department, Inspector Donovan and Detective Gates.
All in all, the Falcon films are a load of fun, pacy, packed with deft supporting performances, humor both sly and broad, and surprisingly engaging mystery plots. They all run just a little over an hour and cram a lot of incident and entertainment into their spare running times...no mean achievement for any movie, really.
DVD Note: All 13 films are available on two MOD sets from the Warner Archive Collection. Though there are occasional speckles and dirt, the transfers are mostly sparkling, and though I still can't fully get behind DVD-R product being sold at pressed DVD prices, it's great to have this nifty little series of programmer mysteries available for collecting.