DANGER AT NIGHTFALL!
Quirky little films are usually rather amusing. Such is the case with 1942’s Fingers at the Window, a would-be suspense film starring Lew Ayres in the lead role as out of work actor Oliver Duffy. His leading lady here is Laraine Day as Edwina Brown. Sadly, the allure for this viewer, Basil Rathbone, is third billed in an important but relatively minor role as Dr. Santelle.
The action opens with a high suspense in the dark and shadowy streets of Chicago. A serial axe murderer is on the loose and the streets are deserted as the populace fears for its life. The first reel is by far the best of the entire picture as a severe and tense atmosphere is created quickly and effectively.
Oliver spies someone following Edwina home one night and fears that she’s about to be the next victim. He gets her safely secured in her apartment only to have the murderer enter through an unlocked bedroom window. Oliver subdues the intruder and in short order the police come and take him away. However, Oliver knows that Edwina’s likely to be attacked again.
Oliver pieces things together while falling in love with Edwina and determines that the murders are all related. Going to the police, Oliver manages only to incriminate himself as the authorities don’t buy into his theories.
Finally in the last twenty minutes or so we are introduced to Basil Rathbone in the form of Dr. Santelle. Granted, he has appeared in a few extremely quick sequences prior, but it isn’t until the finale that we really get that hallmark Rathbone effect. It turns out the real Dr. Santelle died quite some time ago after 20 years in Paris and Rathbone has assumed his identity to inherit his estate. He’s returned to Chicago to claim the estate but is hypnotizing dullards into killing anyone who knew him in Paris so as to secure the fortune.
If it sounds weak it’s because it is. It is hard to call Fingers at the Window as a real thriller as after the first few minutes is devolves into a mishmash of light comedy filled with plot holes. For starters, Rathbone simply isn’t present enough to create any thrills or suspense and though he’s good in the final reel, it doesn’t make up for his absence for the bulk of the picture.
Lew Ayres, though he has great chemistry with Laraine Day, hurts the picture by his almost constant mugging for the camera detracts from the proceedings. The romantic them with Laraine works and works well, but seems too hammy to fit into the context of what could have been a greater picture.
Day, on the other hand, is a true shocker. Her character Edwina is either stupid or the most naïve person on the planet, though perhaps that is part of the joke as even in the finale Dr. Santelle says to her, “Not even you could be so stupid!” This is Rathbone at his best, reaching into a suit pocket several times to pull out a pistol with which to kill Edwina, only to get more perplexed at each attempt as it’s met with an increasingly ridiculous exclamation from her.
At almost every turn, poor Edwina’s gone ‘big eyes’ in surprise at some tidbit from mundania. Yet she isn’t put out or perhaps even aware that Oliver sleeps on her fire escape or lets himself into her apartment unannounced after their first meeting.
Great production values and a fairly strong cast somewhat go to waste here as the plot gets way too thin after about the first half hour. There’s a few good shots early and a wonderful shot looking straight down a stairwell late in the picture which would be perfectly set in a noir or even a Hitchcock picture. Though clinically incorrect the mental health angle is interesting and was a hot-topic for Hollywood at the time.
After the facts are in, it becomes pretty clear that Fingers at the Window likely wasn’t prepped as a thriller at all and it is this viewer’s error to put what’s likely an erroneous label on it. Even when putting on the light comedy glasses however the picture fares little better.
Perhaps jaded by the dearth of Rathbone (just prior to assuming the mantel of Sherlock Holmes for Universal) and the unbearable silliness of Laraine Day it just doesn’t work for me. Probably best reserved only for Rathbone completists.