I like to think of the Falcon movies as film noir lite.
When I can’t stomach the amoral bitterness and grisly endings of true noir, this mystery series still satisfies my craving for seductive low-key lighting, cynical dialogue, and underworld intrigue. With his Bond-like resilience and devil-may-care banter, the debonair amateur sleuth known as the Falcon makes the viewer feel reassured and protected as he leads us down those mean streets in search of answers—and gorgeous dames.
Between 1941 and 1946, RKO’s B-movie unit churned out thirteen Falcon programmers. Amazingly, the quantity did not undermine the quality of the thoroughly enjoyable films. Distinguished up-and-coming directors like Edward Dmytryk and Joseph H. Lewis helmed individual movies, and more workmanlike directors still served up polished, competently-made films that clock in at a little over an hour. On a broader level, I suspect that Val Lewton’s successful RKO horror cycle strongly influenced the sleek, shadowy look of the Falcon movies. In any case, one can only assume that the studio—which managed to produce The Stranger on the Third Floor (widely considered the first film noir), Citizen Kane, Cat People, and Out of the Past within a span of a few years—must’ve been an environment conducive to good ideas and an eye-catching, moody style.
Although the wry, purring George Sanders created the role of the Falcon, after just a few movies he moved on to more prestigious gigs and bequeathed the title to his equally wry and purring real-life brother Tom Conway. Years before, in 1937, when starting out on acting careers, the Russian-born, British-raised brothers had flipped a coin over who’d get to keep the family name. (The self-destructive genes in the family had already been split between them.) Well, George won the Sanders name, but Tom comes out the clear winner in the Falcon series.
Sanders might ooze deadly charm when playing bad guys, but he makes a less convincing ladies’ man on the right side of the law. By contrast, when Conway’s Falcon flirts with ladies, they stay flirted. (Warning: buckle up for fangirling, folks. This is a Tom-centric article and I feel no shame for it.)
Probably best known for his turn as the spectacularly unethical Dr. Judd in Cat People and The Seventh Victim, Conway delivered some fine performances, but didn’t possess the ample dramatic gifts of his younger brother. However, he proved much more adept at sustaining the Falcon series. As Kim Newman observes in The BFI Companion to Crime, “Conway was less sullen with material his brother clearly believed beneath him.”
Whereas much of Sanders’s star image depends on his disdainful aura of boredom, Conway’s less caustic brand of sprezzatura gave the Falcon persona a much-needed infusion of curiosity and energy. Over the years I’ve acquired a great deal of respect for actors who can play the same static character over and over while still making him amusing and engaging. Conway bore this onus brilliantly.
Conway’s work in the Falcon deserves the Errol Flynn Prize for Formulaic But Consistently Awesome Performances. I’d also award him the Ronald Colman Cup for Fine Moustaches. If anybody ever looked more badass holding a teacup, I’ve never seen it. It’s not difficult to understand how the Falcon series—which RKO initially planned on cancelling soon after Sanders left—actually grew more popular once Conway took it over.
Sanders and Conway appeared together in just one film, The Falcon’s Brother, and their collective swoon-worthiness might cause temporary blindness in certain scenes. Gay Lawrence (Sanders) begins the investigation when his brother, Tom, is falsely reported dead. In an interesting reversal, by the end of the movie, Nazi spies have killed off Gay, leaving Tom to inherit the mantle and seek out further adventures as the Falcon.
If taken out of context, audiences’ first glimpse of the future-Falcon Tom Lawrence wouldn’t seem out of place from any purebred noir. As policemen load into a car in pursuit of Gay Lawrence, a cut shows a presumably nearby alleyway—in almost total darkness. An indistinct movement, the sound of a match striking a wall, a spurt of flame, and there he is: coolly lighting his cigarette, the contours of his face flickering in the smoky glow.
In the initial installment of the series, The Gay Falcon, the other Lawrence brother was introduced to us as a mischievous, easily distracted white-collar socialite who works in an office but shirks his duties to go off hunting killers. By contrast, Tom Lawrence strikes the viewer from the first as a less frivolous sleuth, a slightly shadowy gentleman slummer with one foot in the noirverse.
Adding to the more hard-boiled qualities of the series, a number of actors better remembered for their work in iconic films noirs—including Jane Greer, Elisha Cook Jr., Martha Vickers, and Sheldon Leonard—bring a darker acting style to individual movies. However, to take the edge off of that intensity, RKO drafted in a number of recognizable comic character actors, like Don Barclay, Edward Brophy, and Cliff Edwards, to play the Falcon’s sidekick.
The Falcon movies feature many classical noir plot tropes, such as psychotically jealous spouses, mercenary femmes fatales, and gangsters living under assumed identities. The better installments mesh noir elements more or less seamlessly with their high quotient of comic relief. For instance, in The Falcon and the Co-Eds, my favorite of the series, an idyllic school for girls offers plenty of opportunity for giggly hijinks, but the façade drops to reveal a roiling undercurrent of repressed passion and neuroticism.
The Falcon in San Francisco, with its urban environment and preponderance of thugs and baddies, channels the noir atmosphere the most distinctly, but even The Falcon in Mexico and The Falcon Out West manage to cull a noirish aesthetic out of atypical settings. The Falcon in Hollywood wins my personal recommendation as the series installment that most elegantly fuses incongruous elements of dark visual textures with pervasive light comedy.
Speaking of comedy, the main running gag of the Falcon series consists of bookending almost every film with glamorous ladies begging the sleuth for help with some conundrum or other. As the detective quips in The Falcon in Danger, cornered by a distraught stunner with a ransom demand for her father, “Why is it every beautiful girl I meet is in distress and has a note?” A Falcon movie usually finishes by opening the door for the next movie; just as the Falcon has cracked the case, a woman runs up to him and pleads for his help. Although these teasers seldom relate to the plot of the following film, they end the films on a high note of, “Here we go again!”
It’s a miracle that the Falcon can get any detecting done at all, what with the sundry dames clamoring for his attention. In one typical scene, from The Falcon Strikes Back, the sleuth tries to deter perky reporter Marcia Brooks (Jane Randolph) from meddling in his case by bestowing a generous smooch. The ploy works a little too well, because he then has to revive her from the resultant reverie with a snap, like a hypnotist!
I always used to wonder why men carried handkerchiefs in their pockets. After watching a few Falcon movies, I finally understood the reason: to wipe away bright traces of lipstick left on their faces by amorous ladies—or that was the hope, at any rate. Yet, as the films make clear, the Falcon is at heart a gentleman, not a playboy. For instance, when trapped among a coatrack of costumes in a dressing room full of chorus girls during The Falcon in Hollywood, he surreptitiously reaches from his hiding place to put in place a sagging shoulder strap and thus protect the young lady’s modesty.
I find the incessant flirtatiousness in the series somewhat refreshing because, just as much as the Falcon eyes women up, they eye him up right back. Cigarette girls, hotel maids, and random broads sitting around bars look him up and down and express their approval with an enthusiastic “mmm!” of delight. When a mysterious lady bails Lawrence out of jail in The Falcon in San Francisco, she immediately pulls him into a liplock with nary a word of introduction. In The Falcon and the Co-Eds, Lawrence has to contend with classrooms full of googly-eyed maidens who instantly crush on him as hard as I do.
All the pretty girls that populate the Falcon’s universe are clearly furnished to satisfy the gentlemen in the audience, but you can’t mistake a robust female gaze implied in the series. I mean, how else can you explain the scene in The Falcon’s Alibi where Tom Conway is shirtless for about five minutes—freshly oiled from having a massage and wearing nothing but pajama bottoms? Sleuth that I am, I can detect no narrative rationale for this shirtlessness, apart from unabashed eye candy. (Then again, I lose consciousness whenever I watch that scene. Smelling salts must be sent for.) At the risk of rationalizing my guilty pleasure, I would argue that there’s something healthy about the equal-opportunity checking-out that the Falcon movies heartily encourage.
Like many programmer mystery series, the Falcon movies ride high on a breezy stock company ambiance. You can discern the sense of camaraderie and ease between performers who worked with each other practically every week. Keep your eyes peeled for repeating players, including Jean Brooks, Jane Randolph, Rita Corday, Barbara Hale, and, most frequently, Cliff Clark and Edward Gargan as the flatfooted policemen consistently flummoxed by the Falcon.
Raymond Chandler once wrote, “The ideal mystery was one you would read if the end was missing.” I believe this statement applies equally to movies. Now, I’m pretty damn sure that Chandler wouldn’t have expected that statement to relate to the Falcon movies. Especially since the first film adaptation of a Chandler work was the mutilation of Farewell, My Lovely into The Falcon Takes Over. Needless to say, the already cranky author felt trivialized. I admit that the Falcon movies lack the dramatic architecture and emotional tension that supports a great screen or literary thriller, regardless of the conclusion.
But there’s a very different quality at work that would make me tune into a Falcon film even if the ending had been spliced away. It’s the cozy charm of the situations and the rapport of the characters that brings me back to these movies. The series invites you into its world and makes you feel right at home with a cluster of familiar tropes that grow more amusing with each Falcon movie you watch. You get in on the in-jokes and experience the vague feeling, when each film is over, that you’re expected at the cast party. In the end, try as I might to analyze why I find the series so appealing, I can’t get much further than to conclude, well, they’re darn fun to watch.
And apparently they were fun to make. Conway, often typecast as villains or tortured souls, relished his chance to play a witty detective and found the series cathartic. As he told Hollywood magazine in 1943, “every now and then I get a breather like one of the Falcon series, which acts as a purifying agent. Then I’m ready for a fresh dish of dastardly doings.”
I guess that when I need a break from noirdom, the Falcon movies are my “purifying agent,” too.