Simon, back in Rome, becomes aware of an odious protection racket targeting the city-wide population of beggars. They’ve been forced to give a percentage of the money they collect to a mysterious figure known only as the King of the Beggars. A young actress, Theresa (Yvonne Romain), has gone undercover in order to identify the “King” and Simon, suitably disguised, quickly takes her place (after all, he’s got much more experience of tangling with the ungodly than she has). But events take a sinister turn after Theresa is kidnapped …..
The King of the Beggars touches upon a theme previously raised in The Charitable Countess, specifically the divide between Rome’s rich and poor. As before, Simon shows sympathy towards those who have nothing, especially when one of them is brutally mown down before his eyes.
There’s plenty of familiar faces in this one – Oliver Reed (more of him in a minute), Ronnie Corbett (credited more formally as Ronald) and Warren Mitchell, who was making his third and final appearance as Simon’s Rome-based helper, Marco. Moore and Mitchell slip easily back into their bantering partnership (Simon offers Marco a drink – he asks for a large whisky, but receives a small coffee instead!). Marco is again partly present to give us the opposite view about beggars – he regards them as a workshy nuisance, whilst Simon is much more forgiving about the plight they’ve found themselves in.
Oliver Reed’s imposing physical presence is immediately evident. As Joe Catilli, a member of the protection racket, he glowers splendidly and it isn’t long before he and the Saint come to blows. Their bout of fisticuffs may be brief, but it feels quite convincing. They tangle on several later occasions as well, with the most entertaining being when the Saint uses Catalli as an unwilling guinea pig in order to demonstrate to a group of impressively bearded vagrants the best way to defend yourself from unwanted street attacks!
Last time, I raised an eyebrow (in tribute to Roger of course) at the Saint’s previously unheralded skill with disguises. Remarkably he’s at it again today – a pair of dark glasses, a little bit of stubble, mussed hair and he’s instantly transformed into a blind beggar. It’s ever so slightly awkward though that he’s then approached by Catilli, who doesn’t seem to connect this blind beggar to the young chap who had earlier duffed him up. I mean, it’s not that great a disguise.
Marco and Simon are teamed up for several very enjoyable scenes. One of my favourites sees them interrogating an uncommunicative member of the gang. But never fear, Marco has a pair of pliers in his pocket and attempts to give him an instant spot of rough dentistry!
Who could the King of the Beggars be? We’re introduced to Stephen Elliot (John McLaren), a philanthropic American who appears to share Simon’s distress at the plight of Rome’s displaced citizens. But everything points to the fact that this upstanding man will later be revealed to be the “King”. Or will there be a twist? Hmm ……
John McLaren seems a little stiff, although this may be due to the character he’s playing and not a lack of acting ability. More naturalistic is Maxine Audley as the Contessa Dolores Marcello. Dolores and Elliot first encountered the Saint when he was wearing his beggar disguise and when they all meet again at a swanky party she quickly makes the connection (which is more than Elliot did).
But it seems that Catalli eventually did twig as well, as Simon finds himself drinking a cup of drugged chocolate at the flop house run by Maria Calvetti (Jessie Robins). As Simon slumps to the floor, Catalli pops up in a typically menacing fashion. Maria and Catalli then team up to interrogate the kidnapped Theresa. A shame that Robins’ role isn’t larger as Maria’s got a nice line in threats. “Miss Mantania, don’t get rough with me. I can knock you right through the wall”. I believe her ….
One of two novellas from the 1948 book Call for the Saint, Charteris’ story was set in Chicago, with Simon’s regular sidekick – Hoppy – assisting him. Marco performs a similar function in the teleplay (and is considerably less irritating). Many of the characters are essentially the same, although the names have naturally been changed to rather more Italianate ones.
John Gillings’ teleplay retains all the essential story beats of the original, including the chess piece left behind by the abducted Theresa (which gives Simon a vital clue). The identity of the “King” is a decent twist and together with the strong guest cast, headed by Reed and Mitchell, it helps to make this another very solid story. Four halos out of five.