Uh-oh

An epidemic of axe murders grips Chicago! Victims found with heads split open! Killers found beside bodies in state of catatonic schizophrenia! And so, the above is not an encouraging thing to find in your hotel.

FINGERS AT THE WINDOW is a rather delightful comedy-thriller from MGM, with poor old Lew Ayres as a crime-solving out-of-work actor and Laraine Day as a dumb dancer (“She hasn’t the brains of a pancake!”) and, all too briefly, Basil Rathbone as the Mabusean mastermind who hypnotises his incurable subjects and sends them forth to kill! Kill! Kill!

Always with the pleasure, a little malaise: the cops speak of rounding up every “derelict and moron” in the city, a mission later referred to as a “moron hunt.” At a conference on psychiatry a paper is read about insulin shock therapy, the brilliant and human procedure whereby the mentally ill were deliberately overdosed with insulin to put them in a coma, for weeks sometimes. All of which adds an uncomfortable tincture of historical nastiness to a basically light-hearted yarn.

In one amusing scene, Ayres must use his powers of dramaturgy to fake madness, convincing a Viennese quack played by Miles Mander, the only man wirier than his own hair. This kind of scene ALWAYS works, folks. It works when Cary Grant does it in NORTH BY NORTHWEST, and it works when Richard Carlson does it in Siodmak’s FLY-BY-NIGHT ~

Mr. Carlson shows of his collection of wedding bands in FLY-BY-NIGHT.

Mr Ayres serves as role model for the chimp in the end credits of Police Squad. “He’ll stop when he’s tired.”

And it certainly works when Ayres does it. He’s more convincing here than as a shrink in THE DARK MIRROR. And in fact he also gets to impersonate a head doctor here, adopting the name of Dr. Stephen Dedalus — perhaps the only James Joyce reference to appear in an MGM noirball? It’s part of a run of Irish gags, which extends to making all the cops in the film exceptionally dense.

This seems to be the only screenplay by Rose Caylor (playwright and wife of Ben Hecht) working with Lawrence P Bachmann, a specialist in medical subjects who reprised elements of this idea for Otto Preminger’s WHIRLPOOL. But this one is better! Director is Charles Lederer, better known for co-writing The Front Page with Hecht. Only an occasional director, Lederer does a good enough job here to make me wish he’d done more. The movie isn’t as ambitious as Hecht’s co-directing efforts, but it hits its modest targets more frequently.

Hear Your Heart Beat.

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27 Responses to “Uh-oh”

  1. Any film with the majestic Basil Bathbone (aka. the sexiest man in screen history) is unmissable for me. Why on earth did Garbo walk out on him in ANNA KARENINA? I still can’t fathom it.

    A week or two ago, I found a book in a ‘charity’ shop dedicated to the great man and his films. Alas, they wanted £15 for it. Have these people no shame?

  2. Don’t they realise charity begins at home?

    There’s not as much Baz as there might be in this one, but he still adds the expected suavity and purr.

  3. Lew Ayres had the misfortune of administering that insulin shock therapy in one of the Dr. Kildares. Watching it, I thought it one of the most barbaric treatments outside of lobotomy.

  4. Christopher Says:

    Couldn’t they give Ayers a break from Laraine Day for just one Day?..I miss the Doc Kildare series.Its been ages since I heard Dr. Gillespie grumble the death sentence on some poor patient.
    I wanted to like Whirlpool but ultimately found it too far fetched.

  5. Wow. Well, Ayres gets an insulin overdose from evil Basil in this, so payback was achieved. Very tense scene, actually. “Coma therapy” was very popular in the 30s, along with lobotomies and a lot of other nasty stuff.

    Whirlpool has many merits, but a convincing plot isn’t among them.

  6. Hey, just the Kildares? How about the Dr. Gillespies, where Lionel gets to ham it up big! That said, I like Ayres’ perpetually drunk brother in Holiday, too.

  7. Having just this second finished watching “Burn After Reading” (Finished far sooner than I was expecting. Crikey that was that was abrupt) I’d like to nominate it for the hall of Screwball Noir… partly I just feel I have to write about it! It wasn’t the film I was expecting at all. It was sad and angry and brilliant. It was like reading Conrad. So yes I nominate “Burn After Reading”.

  8. I don’t think it has the stylistic elements of noir (and noir is at least as much style as genre) so I don’t think it can qualify. Black screwball, certainly.

    Although, I guess McDormand’s character is very much a noir corruptor, a femme fatale served up in screwball style. So it inverts the noirball formula by telling an essentially dark story in a screwball tone. Screwnoir?

    Do you think it’s angry? What is it angry about? I mean, it seemed unpleasant, but I was looking for political resonance and I couldn’t find it.

    Pitt made me laugh with his little dance. JK Simmons’ last scene was very nice. Otherwise I didn’t laugh at all, and sort of hated the experience. Which is sort of like reading Conrad, in a way.

  9. Yes, stylistically it was – well barely stylistic at all. But I really felt for these shlubs and that’s not something I was expecting from a Coens film. These weren’t the dimwits I was expecting. They behaved stupidly, but because they were upset, and it’s the specific nature of what upset them that communicated an anger to me I guess. This wasn’t simply a blanket, black-comedy nihilsism, it seemed to me rather a specific misery about a culture of surveillance, of watching and judging – not from shady black ops but from all of us as consumers. The one middle-aged figure not affected by this, not constantly keeping one eye on a park bench and another on their figure, is Pitt, poor sod. Honest communication is made impossible, and it’s the idea that this is news to at least some of its protagonists that gives this film its heart.

    (Before watching this I was going to nominate – somewhat coincidentally given the shared emphasis on mid-life crisis – “Manhattan Murder Mystery” but it probably doesn’t count if it’s a noirball on purpose.)

    Oh and The Secret Agent – the work I specifically had in mind (a bunch of low-paid, horny schlubs out of their depth in an international non-incident plus some butchery) – did actually make me laugh a lot. As did Clooney taking an axe to his sex chair.

  10. When Clooney raised the axe I was sure this was going to be funny. How can you hit a sex chair with an axe and not have it be funny? And yet, I dunno, when the axe came down, no interesting physical effects occurred at all. I didn’t laugh.

    The Secret Agent does seem the best comparison, and would even work as an alternative title.

    I’m not sure MMM counts as noirball. It’s a comedy thriller, and there’s quite a bit of screwball, but despite the Lady from Shanghai reference it doesn’t feel like it has anything in common with noir. There were plenty of comic murder investigation movies that weren’t noirballs (highly recommend The Mad Miss Manton, and The Kennel Murder Case). What Rathbone is up to in Fingers at the Window is so horrible, I think it counts, especially with the Whirlpool connection.

  11. The Kildare movie in question was Dr. Kildare’s Strange Case (1940).

  12. Thanks! Of course, MGM were the most conservative studio, so it doesn’t surprise me they’d endorse such treatments.

    Interestingly, Fingers is also MGM, but it hardly works as an ad for the therapeutic benefits of insulin OR psychiatry.

  13. Actually Fingers was a pick-up by MGM of a film made for BRUT productions — Cary Grant’s stinkum company that briefly ventured into film production.

    A shame Toback wasn’t able to coax Cary out of retirement for that one.

  14. Oh, I meant FIngers at the Window, I’d been avoiding abbreviating the title until now to avoid just that confusion.

    I like the idea of Cary being in the Toback! When Harvey met Cary.

    Just saw A Single Man, which continues the artistically profitable conjunction of fragrance-making with cinema.

  15. Thanks, Daniel! I burned that one when it was on TCM, but I didn’t really want to seek it out (ugh).

  16. Well Tom Ford has always smelled good. And Matthew Goode (“Goody” to his intimates) smells even better!

  17. The casting is wild in that: Colin Firth playing English as usual, Julianne Moore also English, and the English Matthew Goode and Nicholas Hoult as Americans. And everyone totally convincing. JM even has an English laugh.

    Scene on couch with Goode and the dog is the best in the film and the sweetest evocation of marital bliss in years.

  18. david wingrove Says:

    A SINGLE MAN was a visually gorgeous and profoundly moving film – even though everyone in its looks several notches richer, younger and more glamorous than they come across in the nove. Still, it’s a great antidote to the Ken Loach/Mike Leigh aesthetic (or lack thereof).

  19. There’s a problem inherent in the idea that American movies will always move characters up the social scale in order to give them more opportunities for visual splendour. I’d love to see a Hollywood filmmaker who could find beauty in the genuinely everyday. This is one of the themes of A Single Man, the idea of the ordinary made beautiful by an intense fascination: Ford could have taken on an even greater challenge by starting from a less glamorous position.

    It’s a similar tendency to the one which makes the family home in The Box look so pretty, even though the characters are supposed to be struggling financially. I remember Mauritzio Nichetti saying that Hollywood needed more realism and Europe needed more fantasy…

  20. ISTR Jonathan Demme finding charm in the everyday early on in Citizens Band and Melvin and Howard, and even Something Wild has Jeff Daniels willingly going down the socioeconomic scale. I’m sure there must be other commercial directors who have done this, but I just recently watched Melvin and Howard.

  21. The thing is Ford took the house out in Santa Monica Canyon (where Don still lives and works) and recapitulated it into a slightly upscale version of itself.

    He’d been to the house years before when he thought of becoming an actor with his then-boyfriend Ian Falconer (who he got on the rebound from David Hockney.)

    Don has a cameo in the film, BTW. He’s sitting in the teacher’s lounge.

  22. I spotted one of his drawings too.

    What worried me a little is that the character in the film is a teacher: no mention of him being a successful writer as well. So there seemed no way he could afford Isherwood’s house, let alone the scaled-up version. But it was a quibble: the social observation and period detail are otherwise lovely. And the character’s immaculate surface made for a good alibi for the film’s own obsession with symmetry and gloss.

  23. david wingrove Says:

    As a part-time university lecturer (and struggling writer) myself, I’d be more than happy to afford so much as the bathroom in Colin Firth’s onscreen house. Alas, even one of Julianne Moore’s throw pillows is probably beyond my reach.

  24. I’d be lucky if I could stretch to a pack of pink cocktail cigarettes.

  25. Any film that name checks perfumes is tops with me. “Ah, Arpege…”

  26. Of course, Tom is no slouch in the fume department himself.

  27. “The man who smells is the man of tomorrow.” – or words to that effect, Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife.

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