That’s a heck of a title. An ax murder movie seems unusual as a ’40s premise, but there’s plenty of light touches to put us on more into ’30s crime mystery territory. Edwina Brown (Laraine Day) is an object of Dr. Santelle’s (Basil Rathbone’s) wrath. But she’s helped by actor Oliver Duffy (Lew Ayres).
We open with a fresh murder. Police nab a “gloomy Gus” who looks more confused than dangerous. Dr. Cromwell (Walter Kingsford) is on hand at the police station, expounding about the suspect’s “hallucinations” and an “epidemic” of ax murders. Oliver is seen leaving a closed theater. A pet shop owner is visited by Santelle who more or less orders the guy to murder a woman, and provides the ax, no less.
The target’s Edwina. Oliver sees the guy creep up on her, and intervenes; she thinks Oliver‘s just trying to pick up on her. The would-be murderer makes another try at her; Oliver comes to the rescue again. After inviting him in, she lets on that she’d been a dancer in Paris. That factoid will prove significant. Oliver seems to be ‘in character’ all the time.
He steals her keys. Letting himself onto the fire escape, he sits waiting. She gets a telegram–he’s canceled their date–but then sends a taxi for her; entering from the fire escape, he pulls her in. He’s stalking Edwina; under the guise of protecting her. Actually, though, the murderer does have his ‘fingers at the window’ and enters the bedroom. Thinking that the pile of dolls and pillows under the covers is Edwina, he takes the ax to it, but Oliver catches him in the act, so to speak.
At the police station, Inspector Gallagher (Charles D. Brown) asks very picayunish and bizarre questions, like how she “attracted” the killer. The police get her a hotel room; no sooner does she get there, though, than there’s another mysterious figure lurking about. Oliver chases him, but he gets away. Oliver correctly assumes that she’s being targeted. He asks her about her time in Paris. Something about her ballet teacher…Oliver thinks she’s not telling him enough, not too diplomatically, he just says “all girls are liars.”
The current ax-wielder calls on Santelle; but, as soon as he enters, we hear a shot. Back to the police station, the Inspector gives an impromptu press conference to announce that they’re going to round up ‘the usual suspects.’ But Oliver tells them they should smoke the killer(s) out, and not advertise their intent. The Inspector, for his part, berates Oliver for playing detective (I’d say for being a jerk, too). Since Oliver is good at pretense, he has no trouble faking his way into a hospital that he’s been clued onto “Are there any more schizophrenics out there?” says a doctor.
Once there, Oliver’s able to find all of the murders’ names in their files. He rightly concludes that a psychiatrist is masterminding the whole deal. That night there’s a psychiatric convention; more fakery gets Oliver and Edwina in. The moderator says that Santelle was the featured guest, but won’t be there. Edwina only identifies Dr. Cromwell. Oliver sees the guy that was recently after her, but Edwina doesn’t notice before the guy leaves. At least, from the handbill, they find out about Dr. Santelle.
He refuses to see them at first. Soon, however, he welcomes them; but wants to brush them off with pamplets. Actually, Santelle had someone stand-in for him, so Edwina didn’t really see him anyway. Oliver is pushed into the path of a train, though he isn’t hurt much. Now, Edwina tells her tale: she was engaged to Santelle (known to her as Caesar Ferrari), then he just disappeared, never to be seen…until now. Well, big deal. What’s that got to do with murder? She’s still not spilling the whole sack of beans. Thanks to their mutual interest in the finer shades of superficiality, Oliver proposes to her.
Santelle sneaks into his room and gives him a lethal injection. Come on, he can’t die. His condition is discovered quickly, and a ‘real’ doctor gives him the antidote. Edwards sees Santelle/Ferrari go by on his way out. She leaves the hospital. “She hasn’t got the brains of a bandage!” is Oliver’s tactful response. Now there’s something fairly funny. Dr. Cromwell tells the cops that Oliver must be the murderer mastermind, as his various ruses convince the doctor that he’s schizophrenic. Makes some sense.
Santelle/Ferrari finds Edwina, secreting her into his office. So, actually, there is no Santelle; Ferrari assumed his identity to get his inheritance. The victims are people from Europe who could identify Ferrari in Chicago–Edwina’s the only one left. Luckily for her, the police tail her to Santelle’s, but they’re also looking for Oliver. He gets in, but is immediately apprehended. Edwina leaves a note incriminating Santelle. Cromwell fills in the police. Santelle tries to flee, but he’s shot. Now, she emerges from a closet. The way is clear for the happy couple to get married, after all.
When I’m glad a movie’s ended, I’m pretty sure it means I didn’t think much of it. What Fingers does have is a cool premise, and a good-enough plot. The idea of using mental patients to commit murders is chilling. Most of the scenes take place in noirish night time, and/or cramped spaces, enhancing the atmosphere. The problem is that the two leads are almost completely unsympathetic characters.
Edwina is just not very interesting; she might as well hang out with the murderers for all the discretion she uses with Oliver. Her initial reaction that he’s taking advantage of her seems the correct one. It would’ve been more involving had she put two and two together and gone to the police herself. It would be a huge break in the case if the cops knew they were looking for a recent immigrant from France who knew all the victims, also fellow immigrants.
Oliver didn’t know any of that. Which really begs the question–why didn’t she tell him the whole deal about Ferrari the first time he asked? Her excuse (that Oliver wouldn’t want a lover who’d been jilted) plays directly into the misogynist creed by suggesting that she’s ‘tainted,’ and therefore unworthy.
Frankly, Oliver’s a creepy guy. Even in an era when misogyny was acceptable, he’s out-and-out insulting to Edwina throughout. An angle I’d like to see would make him the murderer; a manipulative narcissist who can’t take rejection. In other words, what’s nowadays a stock Lifetime Movie stalker premise. What’s worse is, he thinks he’s funny and clever. The plot almost eats him up, as he does seem to be the loose cannon.
Rathbone doesn’t get to do a heck of a lot. Also, I’d like to know more about the ax murderers. Because we spend so much time having to watch Ayres’ antics, we’re distracted from everyone and everything else. Comedy can weave into a crime mystery very well, but we’ve got to have something to play it against. In Fingers At The Window we’ve got a movie that never really builds its characters or gets enough momentum to sustain interest.
Farmermouse always likes those old DeSoto taxis, so he’ll give Fingers At The Window five hack stands. 5/10.