Not really, of course. Joseph Losey’s pseudonymously-directed 1956 mystery was released as THE INTIMATE STRANGER (great title, and apt!) in the UK, and FINGER OF GUILT (sappy, generic title) in the US. So I’ve simply combined the two titles into one SUPER-TITLE. Richard Basehart plays the titular finger.
For its blacklisted director (working as “Joseph Walton” in the UK version, using producer Alec C Snowden as a front for the US release) and writer (the celebrated Howard Koch, writing as “Peter Howard”) it was a payday and a chance to establish themselves in the UK film industry. Koch dismissed the result as entirely undistinguished, but it led to better things.
I’d never taken notice of Richard Basehart much before except in IL BIDONE, where he’s dubbed. Here it was a shock to hear him sounding like John Huston — since Basehart played Ishmael in Huston’s MOBY DICK the same year, I’m assuming this is a deliberate impersonation, decades before Daniel Day-Lewis made off with Huston’s gravelly purr for THERE WILL BE BLOOD.
One thing that’s fascinated me about all the Losey films I’ve run recently is the element of autobiography. From Michael Redgrave’s alcoholism in TIME WITHOUT PITY to the tortured father-son relations in THE BIG NIGHT, each Losey film seems to declare some personal significance. Most blatantly of all, FINGER-STRANGER deals with a blacklisted filmmaker driven out of the US and targeted by a conspiracy in a British studio. The atmosphere of paranoia and persecution must have been something both Losey and Koch could relate to.
STRANGER-FINGER begins with an eye examination, the bright light being something which will return at the climax:
At the start.
And at the end.
Basehart begins to tell his life story and we delve into flashback, and eventually wonder “Hang on, why is he sharing all this guff with his OPTICIAN?” then we realise that the eye-man must actually be a head-shrinker only the film just kinda forgot to mention it. The framing structure is wholly unnecessary anyway, but as with Losey’s earlier THE SLEEPING TIGER, it takes us back to that innocent ’50s faith in psycho-analysis — a lot of the lefties who got drummed out of Ho’wood had the same trust in Freud they showed in Stalin, but then Freud was huge all over tinseltown, where the Big Lie is what business is founded on, and all the couch-space in town is eaten up by rich fruit-loops.
The story gimmick — young exec is tormented by mysterious letters, recalls the opening of Altman’s THE PLAYER, but this one develops differently: a young woman writes to Basehart and his wife (daughter of studio boss Roger Livesey) claiming to have had an affair with Basehart. He has no memory of her, yet she’s insistent, and seems sincere.
Alas, the first half is quite unbelievably stately, with the editor lingering on every scene after the protagonist has left. Maybe the movie was too short? Losey’s filming is fluid, but rarely provides the flash of Hollywood excitement he brought to the best bits of SLEEPING TIGER.
All that holds the attention during this opening trundle is the central question — who the hell is this girl and what is she all about? — OK, two questions — plus some spectacularly inappropriate and loud stock music. All early British Losey films seem to feature scenes where women put on loud records then attempt to talk. At times the score here is effective, as it must be: if you play tender moments with CRIME JAZZ and suspense bits with Liberace schmaltz, it WILL WORK at times, and when it does it’ll be better than if you did it the sane way round. Half the time here it doesn’t work at all, and drunkenly pulls you out of the film, but there’s one romantic clinch where the timpani freak-out accompaniment fairly gets your pulse going and you think, “Golly, THIS IS CINEMA!” for maybe the only time.
So, the police attempt to cherchez la femme fatale, but she keeps her cool and doesn’t change her story, and they wind up doubting Basehart. For a moment it looks like her long recitation of her imaginary past life with Basehart is going to lead into a flashback, which would give us a flashback within a flashback within an opticians, but she cuts it short and saves us the detour.
There’s a heavy spoiler alert now, because if I give away the ending then there’s no real reason to see this underwhelming effort, which might be a good thing, but it’s your choice, OK?
Basehart finds out that the whole thing was a set-up. His boss’s assistant, played by diminutive Welsh house-elf Mervyn Johns, resenting Basehart’s ascendancy, has hired an actress to destroy his life. That’s studio politics for you.There’s a tiresome false ending where Basehart thinks Livesey was behind the frame-up, then Johns gives himself away by repeating the whole plot in a dubbing booth with the mic on and broadcasting his (finger of) guilt to the whole sound stage — oops! Then Basehart persecutes his nemesis with an arc light (like all Celts, he instinctively fears bright illumination) before clubbing him to the studio floor with his powerful Richard Basehart fists. Regrettably, a climax where a muscular young man beats up an elderly, out of shape guy half his height into a tiny, defenseless Welsh pulp is not exactly a nail-biting suspenser.
Now the film pauses yet again to admire sultry Mary Murphy (from THE WILD ONE), who has been enticingly cool throughout, then reunites Basehart with his estranged wife, who somehow got the news he’s innocent before anybody else knew.
Not a great film, but a great central enigma, and the blacklisting angle (not explicitly political — Basehart had a fling with a studio boss’s wife) is enticing. At the end, Basehart furiously calls Johns “an informer”, and the rage in that scene feels… personal.
The producers would like to thank Fiona Watson for the phrase “tiny, defenseless Welsh pulp.”