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 typically indolent Sanders quickly grew bored with B movie work and handed the reins over to his older, lesser-known brother Tom Conway, as Gay Lawrence's brother, Tom, beginning with (appropriately enough) The Falcon's Brother (1942). This is a more action-packed entry than usual, and it's a real treat to see both real-life brothers briefly working together on screen. Conway, not in Sanders caliber as an actor, nonetheless proved a very genial presence, and in many ways was much better suited to the part of the Falcon, quickly making it his own. Conway lacked Sanders' barely-concealed contempt and smug sneer, but seemed just as cultured and suave. He brought a nice balance of smooth, worldly charm, aloof insouciance and leering sophistication to the rest of the nine Falcon films he would go on to star in over the next four years.
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.
More moody and atmospheric than the series' norm, The Falcon and the Co-Eds mixes a pinch of Daphne Du Maurier-esque melodrama into the formula, as Lawrence finds himself posing as an insurance investigator looking into the suspicious death of a popular male teacher at the all-girls Bluecliff Academy. The local coroner's verdict was death by suicide, but the Falcon soon susses out that the man was deliberately poisoned. Several members of the staff at the school, and even a few students, find themselves on the suspect list, including the sultry, hard-boiled Ms. Gaines (Jean Brooks); her sometime paramour, Dr. Anatole Graelich (George Givot), a psychologist with a shady past; Marguerita (Rita Corday), a troubled young student who claims clairvoyance; the flighty Mary Phoebus (Isabel Jewell); and the school's headmistress, Miss Keyes (Barbara Brown), who seems intent on covering up any trace of scandal that might damage the Academy's reputation. The Falcon follows his usual M.O., poking around looking for clues and motives, looking suave and bemused whilst flirting with any attractive woman who crosses his path (though he's fairly decorous with the adoring throng of schoolgirls who trail after him) and having fun one-upping homicide cops (and series' regulars) Inspector Donovan (Cliff Clark) and Detective Bates (Edward Gargan).
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.
Suspicion centers on Vanessa, a former dancer and fashion model considered a gold digger by several of Tex's cronies. Tex's attorney, Steven Hayden (Donald Douglas), steps in to represent her, but it isn't long before Vanessa skips town and heads out to Irwin's ranch, purportedly left to her in the victim's will. The Falcon swiftly follows and surprises her in her railway carriage, where the two have a brief powwow and Lawrence agrees to help her, if he can. Donovan and Gates, along with lawyer Hayden, are there to meet them when they arrive, and all agree to head to the Irwin ranch to get to the bottom of the affair. After an amusing interlude with a runaway stagecoach (after Ed Gargan's big bear of a detective knocks the driver off the coach and spooks the horses), the Falcon meets super cute and capable cowgirl, Marion Colby (Barbara Hale, a good dozen years before becoming famous as Della Street on Perry Mason). Marion is the daughter of the murder victim's partner, David Colby (Minor Watson), who notoriously squabbled with Irwin over how to run their cattle empire. Other suspects include ranch foreman Dusty (Lee Trent) and the widow, Mrs. Irwin, who is soon ensconced in her old home, down the hall from interloper Vanessa.
The Falcon saunters between the various suspects, suspicious of everyone but clearly enjoying the attentions of the two gorgeous ladies in the case. It's a kick seeing the oh-so-urbane Conway out on the ranch, dressed down in his cowboy duds and riding horses like a pro, dodging bullets and dismissing death threats (an old Indian scalp impaled with a knife on his bedroom door) with equal aplomb. It's also fun having the irascible Inspector Donovan and the constantly-eating Gates along for the ride; Clark and Gargan are old pros and both possess wonderfully craggy, expressive faces. Carole Gallagher only had a brief career but makes the most of her lead role here - she's utterly gorgeous and looks fab in both evening gowns and riding gear. (Gallagher can also be seen in an unbilled part in The Falcon and the Co-Eds, as the perpetually fainting Elsie). Barbara Hale is all fresh-faced, girl-next-door natural beauty, and is equally adorable. (In fact, watching the series as a whole, it becomes obvious that Conway's tenure as the Falcon saw the caliber of female pulchritude on display rise considerably.)
Conway went on to star as the Falcon in an additional five entries (The Falcon in Mexico, The Falcon in Hollywood, The Falcon in San Francisco, The Falcon's Alibi and The Falcon's Adventure) before calling it quits in 1946. In between stints as the Falcon, he found time to star in three Val Lewton horror classics, Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie and The Seventh Victim. Conway seemed content to toil away in the B movie realm for most of his career, with the occasional time out for a part in a bigger picture, such as Prince Valiant or as vocal talent for Disney, as the narrator in Peter Pan and the noble collie in 101 Dalmatians. He gradually shifted over to work on various television programs, including headlining his own series in the early 50s, Mark Saber. Troubled by alcoholism in his later years, Conway succumbed to cirrhosis of the liver in 1967, at age 62. While he might never have achieved A-list star status, Conway remains a pleasant screen presence, and, for me, the definitive Falcon.
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.
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