Carlton Rood (David Bauer) is a hot-shot lawyer who always gets his clients acquitted – even when they’re obviously guilty. His latest client, Joe Sholto (Bill Nagy), burnt down his own warehouse in order to collect the insurance money (in the process, a policeman was killed in the blaze and his cleaning woman, Agnes Yarrow, was blinded).
Agnes (Margaret Vines) confirmed that Sholto was present at the scene, but under Rood’s remorseless courtroom questioning she wilts. Sholto therefore walks free, but the Saint isn’t prepared to let it rest there. Instead, he dishes out his own unique brand of justice ….
Apart from popping up in the pre-credits sequence, Simon doesn’t do a great deal during the first half of the story. But he’s not really missed, as his absence allows the plot to be nicely set up, with Sholto’s ruthless character brought to the fore. Ruthless he might be, but clever – hmm, maybe not. It possibly wasn’t the wisest move for him to have torched his own warehouse (surely he could have hired someone to do so?) And if he had brought in some outside thugs, then Agnes would have struggled to connect them to her employer.
Taking Willis Burnham (Robert O’Neill) along to assist him wasn’t too clever either. From the moment the pair enter the warehouse, fire on their mind, Burnham wears a perpetually worried expression (he seems such an obvious weak link).
The New York setting of The Element of Doubt is convincingly realised. Stock footage is kept to a minimum whilst the use of American-born actors such as Alan Gifford and David Bauer is a plus (with the British cast essaying fairly credible American accents).
It’s a pity that Alan Gifford, appearing again as Inspector Fernack (following his turn in The Careful Terrorist) didn’t become more of a regular. Fernack, a creation of Charteris’, is essentially the American equivalent of Claude Eustace Teal. Both might have a low opinion of the Saint, but every so often they’re forced to admit that his unorthodox approach does produce results. Fernack has a nice comedy moment when he welcomes the glamourous insurance agent Mary Hammond (Anita West) into his office. He doesn’t quite slobber all over her, but he comes close!
Earlier the same year, 1962, Anita West had left Blue Peter after presenting just sixteen editions (she had decided that her imminent divorce from Ray Ellington might prove an embarrassment for the show).
David Bauer gives a solid performance as Rood. He may be well aware that his clients are often guilty, but he doesn’t overplay the sleaze – instead Carlton Rood radiates an air of solidity and respectability. At least until he steps into court, which is when he’s prepared to use any dirty trick at his disposal in the service of his clients. The way he reduces Agnes to hysteria is slightly chilling (even if Margaret Vines does overplay the moment somewhat).
So with Sholto now free, Simon elects to go undercover – sporting a pair of glasses and a not terribly convincing Texan accent – in order to sow discord between Rood and Sholto (he hints to Sholto that Rood’s planning to double-cross him). As with some of Moore’s other accents, I’m not sure whether it’s deliberately supposed to be bad, or whether that was the best that he could do ….
Although Sholto is quite ruthless in the teleplay – locking Agnes in the burning warehouse – this is nothing compared to his behaviour in Charteris’ original story. There he shot and killed Mr Yarrow (a character absent here) and blinded Agnes with acid fired from a gun.
Simon remains in the background until the last fifteen minutes or so, but since the story culminates in a well-acted tale of double-cross (orchestrated by the Saint, gleefully playing Rood and Sholto off against each other) it merits a score of four halos out of five.