Monday, September 10, 2012

Fingers at the Window (MGM, 1942)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Fingers at the Window, a 1942 oddball “B” from MGM that Turner Classic Movies recently showed in an all-day tribute to Basil Rathbone and made it sound in their schedule like an MGM attempt to poach on Universal horror territory: “A magician uses hypnosis to create an army of murderers.” Actually Rathbone played a mad scientist and was billed third — after the nominal leads, Lew Ayres and Laraine Day (Ayres made this movie just before declaring himself a conscientious objector during World War II; before that he’d been under contract to MGM to make the Dr. Kildare movies, but Louis B. Mayer was so incensed by his refusal to fight that he not only fired him but cut out all his footage from a recently completed Kildare film and had it rewritten and reshot to eliminate his character — and to add to the irony, Ayres agreed to serve in the war as a combat medic, thereby becoming in real life what he’d been playing in the Kildare movies.) The movie opens with a marvelously Gothic sequence that makes it seem like MGM’s model for the film wasn’t the Universal horrors but Val Lewton’s recently released Cat People from RKO; after a brief bit of exposition establishing that five people have been mysteriously murdered by ax-wielding killers who are invariably captured at the scene, but are mentally too far gone even to identify themselves, much less explain their motives, we see a shadowy sequence of yet another murderer stalking yet another victim, while out-of-work actor Oliver Duffy (Lew Ayres) comes along in the nick of time to keep Edwina Brown (Laraine Day) from becoming victim number seven — though, natch, she misunderstands his intentions and thinks he’s trying to pick her up. 

The sequence is directed by Charles Lederer (usually a screenwriter, but in the early 1940’s after Preston Sturges’ directorial debut, The Great McGinty, was a box-office smash, a number of long-time studio writers got chances to direct; some of them, like John Huston and Billy Wilder, did so well they made a permanent career change from writing to direction, but others, like Lederer and Ben Hecht, bombed as directors and went back to writing) in shadowy Gothic style with such Lewtonian trademarks as spooky sound effects and ironically used source music (a choir from a Salvation Army-style mission) instead of a tacky background score, and even a cat (Edwina loses her pet black cat and barely finds it in time to scoop it up and get it and herself into her apartment before the killer can strike — a scene Suzanne Collins used seriously in the third Hunger Games novel, Mockingjay). Alas, the movie goes downhill from there, hamstrung by a weak story and script by Rose Caylor and Lawrence P. Bachmann (Caylor wrote the story solo and they worked on the script together) — one wonders if Lederer, who might have been able to fix the holes in the script if he’d been allowed to rewrite it himself, was instead handed the script and told to shoot it come scritto. Rathbone is billed third but is barely in the film at all; there’s a brief scene in the opening in which he’s giving sotto voce hypnotic instructions to his latest killer (he’s recruiting them from a mental hospital where he works as a psychiatrist), then another in the middle and he reappears about 10 minutes before the end for the final climactic confrontation. The writers also err by making Laraine Day’s character utterly stupid; had they made her spunkier and braver, as well as smarter, they could have had a better and more suspenseful movie. As it is, it’s one of those films that keeps the characters in total ignorance of what’s going on while making us, the audience, all too aware — we may not know all the details of Rathbone’s plot or his motives, but we know he’s the bad guy minutes into the film.

There are some pretty basic plot holes in this one, including the insistence of the police that the six ax murders are totally unrelated crimes that just happen to be occurring consecutively — one would think that somebody would notice that all the arrested killers were being treated for schizophrenia at the same asylum, just as one would think the cops would investigate the backgrounds of the victims looking for connections — which provide the motive for the killings, though we don’t learn that until the end. It seems that Rathbone’s character is a doctor named Caesar Ferrari who lived for years in Paris, where he dated and ultimately proposed to Edwina Brown (we know that because even though in the main part of the movie she’s slowly falling for Oliver Duffy, she’s got a picture of Rathbone in a small suitcase in her room), only to break off with her when an announcement of an upcoming wedding appears in a newspaper. Anxious to flee Paris and also to get his hands on a multi-million dollar inheritance, he murders one Dr. Santelle and assumes his identity, then travels to the U.S. and sets up shop in Chicago — and brainwashes inmates of the asylum where he works (all of whom seem to have last names beginning with “B” — we find that out when Lew Ayres’ character infiltrates the asylum and notices all their file cards in the appropriate drawer for that letter) to kill anybody in Chicago who knew him when he was in Paris and could therefore expose his money-making imposture as Dr. Santelle. There are quite a few good scenes in Fingers at the Window — including a really funny one in which Oliver fools Dr. Kurt Immelmann (Miles Mander) into thinking he’s crazy so he can rifle through the doctor’s files with impunity, and another gag scene in which he and Edwina infiltrate a medical meeting to try to find Santelle, then have to leave in a hurry when Immelmann is about to recognize him — but the fact that this film has as many laughs as chills is in itself an indication of what’s wrong with it: yet another example of a movie imbalanced against itself and not sure whether it wants to be a serious drama or a spoof.

Rathbone is properly chilling in his scenes — especially the one in which he administers Oliver an unnecessary injection of insulin to kill him in the hospital (where he’s resting after Rathbone caught up with him on the El and pushed him into the path of an incoming train — fortunately Oliver was able to save himself by grabbing onto one of the cross-rails, but he was injured when he lost his grip and fell to the street) — and there are other clever scenes, including one in which Rathbone keeps up his imposture by introducing someone else as Dr. Santelle and Edwina tells Oliver (rightly) that she hasn’t seen that man before, as well as a gag scene in which a montage of newspaper headlines details the impact of the murders on Chicago’s economy and the last is a headline in Variety explaining in Variety‑speak that the murders have had a devastating effect on Chicago’s theatre attendance (this is the way the writers introduce Ayres’ character — dressed throughout in top hat and tails because that was his costume in the play he and his troupe were performing until the company closed because nobody was going out anymore — though it also calls up yet another plot hole: at one point Ayres is shown giving his last money, a nickel, to a newsboy to buy a paper containing an account of the latest murder, but later on he has the money to hire Edwina a taxi to take her home when “unforeseen circumstances,” we’re never told precisely what, force him to break a date with her; that’s the sequence in which she’s being stalked and nearly doesn’t get inside her building in time because her cat runs off and she won’t go in without the animal) — and Lederer directs with a real flair for Gothic horror and suspense but at the mercy of a script that trips him up at several plot points and turns Fingers at the Window into a creaky melodrama instead of the horror-suspense thriller we were expecting and for which we were hoping.