Intimate Stranger (1956) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film

Finger-of-Guilt-posterRichard Basehart plays a Hollywood movie maker who, after being run out-of-town, heads to a UK studio but continues being persecuted. Also known as Finger of Guilt, it’s hard not to see autobiographical connotations in this modest but entertaining blackmail thriller from director Joseph Losey and screenwriter Howard Koch. They were both in exile after being blacklisted, Koch having to be credited as “Peter Howard” while producer Alec Snowden acted as a ‘front’ for Losey, though in some prints the director is credited as the fictitious ‘Joseph Walton’. Is it any good?

The following review is offered as part of Todd Mason’s Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme at Sweet Freedom.

“Is it possible for a person to have, well, like two selves, with one of them not knowing what the other one does?”

Originally produced under the title ‘Pay the Piper’ (Koch may even have published a tie-in novel under the title though I haven’t found a copy), the story is told mostly in flashback. The point of view is established with the opening shot, a close-up of Basehart’s eye with a light shining on it as he is examined by his doctor (Basil Dignam) – that it might be a questionable perspective is also raised right away when he starts asking the physician if his mind could be playing tricks on him. This is quite a neat intro, at least intriguing  enough to keep us watching as we then start to hear his story …

Intimate-Stranger-01

Basehart plays Reginald Wilson, a Hollywood film editor who is also a bit of a ladies’ man who came a cropper after dallying with his boss’ wife. He headed off to the UK and made good – he got a break and successfully moved into producing, delivering a hit and marrying the daughter of the studio head (the latter played by the wonderful Roger Livesey). Things seem to be going swimmingly and he has even got movie star Kay Wallace, an old girlfriend from his US days (played by UK-based American actress Constance Cummings, who according to some sources was apparently having an affair with Losey at the time), to star in ‘Eclipse’, his most ambitious picture yet.

“You look like you’ve been doubling for a ghost”

Kay clearly still yearns for him but Reggie says he is very happily married. But it all goes wrong when he starts receiving letters and phone calls from Evelyn, an American woman working in Newcastle who says she is his mistress. Given his reputation this is not hard to believe but he insists that she is a complete stranger to him. But is Reggie’s past catching up with him?

Intimate-Stranger-03

Reggie thinks that the whole thing may be a setup, a ploy by Kay, who has been awkward ever since she found out he is not going back to her and who recently visited some family in Newcastle – but she swears she is innocent. As the letters start to pile up and start being sent to his wife Lesley (Faith Brook) and take on an ominous quality with references to desperate acts, Reggie decides to go see her – but only if Lesley comes along.

“Reggie, can’t we forget the past?”

It all goes disastrously wrong – in her room Evelyn has a signed photo of Reggie and when she turns up (a great performance from second-billed Mary Murphy), she clearly knows far too much about him to be dismissed as a mere ‘fan’ or stalker. He eventually calls in the police (a nice cameo from David Lodge) but she insists that they met 3 years earlier while he was in New York after being forced out of Hollywood and has been carrying on with her ever since, off and on. She is utterly unshakeable so it is Reggie who starts to question his own sanity – but why can’t he remember her? After all she doesn’t want any money and won’t be bought off – she seems to be genuinely in love with him, neither a crank nor a crackpot or gold digger. He even takes her out for a drink, but is spotted by Lesley, who drives home to Daddy. Very quickly Reggie loses his wife, his film is cancelled (Kay wants to get out of her film commitment and go home anyway) and it is clear that his job at the studio is pretty much over. Reggie, his life in tatters, even considers jumping from the window of his office – but then sees someone who shouldn’t be there. A pursuit through the studios unfolds and a surprise solution is offered …

Stranger-01

This movie is not even remotely in the same league as Billy Wilder’s Oscar-winning classic Sunset Boulevard but has a sly wit and is handled with his usual tight control by Losey. He and Koch have great fun exploring the lines between the real and the imagined, which is usually the rationale for setting a movie in a film studio beyond pure economy (Losey can even be glimpsed at one moment playing … a film director). The climax is in fact all set at Shepperton Studios, where the film was made, and makes excellent use of the surroundings. Highlights of this section include the moment when Reggie gets into a fight in the studio’s dubbing theatre, his own life and struggle literally put up on the big screen when his shadow is cast by a fallen light. In another sequence he uses a movie spotlight to chase an individual around the studio – the artifice of moviemaking seen here ultimately coming to his rescue following a series of revelations on a movie set.

Stranger-02

Basehart gives a very decent performance, one equivocal enough for us to doubt his actions as we should but still with enough charisma to make his amorous pursuits plausible. At heart this is a film about a man having to come to terms with his own past actions, so in a sense it really doesn’t matter whether Evelyn’s claims are true or not. Basehart also adds to the fun by doing a great John Huston impersonation throughout – he had just finished playing Ishmael in the director’s long and arduous production of Moby Dick, which not coincidentally was also made in the UK and at Shepperton, adding yet another level of movie vs reality ambiguity to the proceedings.

To read more about the film and its relationship with the period of the blacklist (albeit in a spoiler-heavy analysis), see the excellent article by David Cairns at Shadowplay. It also tracks the film’s trajectory by rightly pointing out how at the beginning a light is shone into Reggie’s eyes and the fact that by the end it is he who is pointing the light to illuminate the truth – or at least part of it. Treating the plot mechanics with a light touch, Losey is much more interested in exploring the way people sometimes wilfully ignore how they behave and in coming up with ways to make them face up to their responsibilities, a theme he would return to time and again in his more ambitious films in collaboration with Harold Pinter such as Accident and The Go-Between. But this a a decent little movie of its own – shame it’s not on DVD yet …

Finger-of-Guilt-posterDVD Availability: None that I am aware of other than it’s appearance of YouTube in a decent and apparently complete print … It has however been illegally posted (it’s taken from a broadcast on TCM) so I don’t suppose it will be there very long. The picture quality is better than average and it would be nice if it did get an official release at some point. In the mean time, you can view it on YouTube.

Intimate Stranger aka Finger of Guilt (1956)
Director: Joseph Losey (as ‘Alec C. Snowden’ or ‘Joseph Walton’)
Producer: Alec C. Snowden
Screenplay: Howard Koch (as ‘Peter Howard’)
Cinematography: Gerald Gibbs
Art Direction: Wilfred Arnold
Music: Trevor Duncan
Cast: Richard Basehart, Constance Cummings, Mary Murphy, Roger Livesey, Faith Brook, David Lodge, Mervyn Johns, Basil Dignam,

***** (2.5 fedora tips out of 5)

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36 Responses to Intimate Stranger (1956) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film

  1. Kelly says:

    That shot with the shadows on the movie screen looks pretty cool. Is the movie stylish elsewhere, or is that scene the only one?

    • Hiya Kelly – the climax in the movie studio is the most patently ‘expressionistic’ shall we say, but it’s also the longest section of the film so it’s worth emphasising – but this is a well-shot little B-movie that doesn’t otherwise go overboard for visual signicance though it is well above average. Hope you get a chance to see it.

  2. Thanks, Sergio – It does sounds like a solid piece of work even it it’s nowhere near Sunset Boulevard’s quality. Glad Mary Murphy does such a good in it; I like her.And I have to say the theme of blacklisting intrigues me – always has. It led to some innovative approaches to getting creative work ‘out there,’ and there are some memorable stories of friendships formed (and broken) over people helping to ‘cover’ for blacklisted artists.

    • Thanks Margot – sooner or later the blacklist will end up being used as the backgrounf for a decent mystery (sadly The House on Carrol Street wasn’t it) and inherently a more oblique approach seems more plaiusible given the subterfuge involved. A truly shameful period though if you look at what just happened when an American network had the temerity to suggest they would make a series about Hilary Clinton it doesn;t seem like we;ve come that far sometimes …

  3. Colin says:

    Very good reading of the film Sergio. In many ways it’s a modest little thriller but there’s also plenty of subtext should anybody wish to look for it – as you pointed out, the allusions to the blacklist, the use of the studio setting to examine ideas of reality and illusion.

    Basehart is just fine in the lead but Mary Murphy really is outstanding as the woman who may or may not be a former lover. For me, the most interesting aspect of it all was the way the standard movie ploy of a woman being stalked and driven to question her own sanity is neatly inverted. I’d buy this on DVD in a heartbeat.

    • Thanks for that Colin, it does reverse that more standard woman-in-peril convention (and I didn’t even notice) – one of the things I should have said that is that it does have three strong roles for women, which was also not the norm for a modest mystery. The one really odd thing about the version being screened on TCM (ahem, and YouTube) is the title music which doesn’t feel right at all, especially at the beginning.

      • Colin says:

        Yes, the women fare very well in this one. Mind you, I wasn’t that impressed by Faith Brooks’ part – she played it OK but the role is a bit weak I think.

        • Can’t argue there – I do like her in general (she was a great PM in North Sea Hijack too) but I suppose she acts more passively as a contract to the two much stronger women – I do wonder, given that the TCM version on YouTube is apprently missing about 10 minutes compared with the UK version (credited to \Joseph Walton’) if she was in more scenes, perhaps with Livesey?

          • Colin says:

            That’s an interesting theory. It would be great to get to see the full length version at some point.

          • And I amy have to get the Kino edition of Eva as it seems to be the only way to see the alternate linger cut though it was said that the BFI did have a version that Losey preferred – we shall see … (or not as the case may be). I do also need to get hold of a copy of the book – easy on Kindle but expensive on paper by the looks of it …

          • Colin says:

            I’ll have to confess I’ve never seen that one.

          • Eva is based on a James Hadley Chase novel but got severely mucked about by the Hakim brothers in post-rpoduction – Leahy (who I will continue to quote occasionally because I’ve met him a couple of times and because he really does know what he’s talking about) thought it was probably the director’s best film (but then he’d had access to the longer cut).

        • Been reading David Caute’s book on Losey – he describes a long sequences of a screening at Livesey’s house in which her and Reggie discuss the possibility of changing the ending of the story as well as details of a another scene where Reggie tells his wife about the letters and phone calls so these were certainly axed – brook would also have been in the screening room sequence so her role has certainly been reduced in the US print.

    • PS and I should point to the very nivce review over at Vienna’s Classic Hollywood for getting the ball rolling.

      • Colin says:

        Indeed, that’s where I became aware of the movie myself.

        • And you had told me that but I only belatedly remembered – I had seen the film ages ago and probably in Italian but it was great to see it again actually – I’ll be reviewing several more Losey titles as he made lots of great psychological thrillers (in fact i was actually surprised how many could be classed as genre films if truth be told). Blind Date coming soon, followed by The Criminal, then Eva (though I wish it was the restored edition I had a copy of), The Prowler, which i’ve been meaning to re-watch for ages ever since that great special edition DVD was released, Figures in a Landscape and maybe Time Without Pity if I can bear to watch it again – and then probably Sleeping Tiger, though I remember being less keen on that one.

          • Colin says:

            Some great stuff to look forward to there. I need to watch Blind Date again as my first viewing was when I was very tired and I reckon a lot of it just washed over me.
            Frankly, Sleeping Tiger didn’t work that well for me, and Bogarde seemed too “nice” in his role.

          • Not a half measure kind of person when it comes to aspirations for Fedora – let’s see what actually gets posted … I remember your excellent review of Sleeping Tiger but as the first Bogarde and Losey movie it has its special place I suppose. Blind Date is more conventional but again it’s the cast that makes it – the Renown disc is perfectly decent I found but need to watch it again as it’s been a while.

          • Colin says:

            Without ambitions we’re nothing!
            Thanks for the link there too. I agree that the Renown release of Blind Date is just fine – at least that’s how I remember it too – but it’s been maybe two years since I last saw it and, as I said, I may not have been giving it as much attention as I should have.

          • Look forward to watching Blind date just becasue I particularly like Hardy Kruger in it and of course it was Losey’s first film with the great Stanley Baker – as I recall the plot is a bit like francis Durbridge really ,,,

  4. mike says:

    someone did say to me it was made at Merton Park Studios i watched this film only last week
    mike

    • Hello Mike – thanks for that. I think you are right about it being basically Merton Park film (just the presence of Jim O’Connolly as production manager gives the game away) and it is credited as such by BFI. However, the reason I think it’s partly filmed at Shepperton at least is that James Leahy makes a point of it in his book on Losey and he’s a fairly trustworthy bloke (Losey helped with the book) and indeed I just thought that the studio insides looked just too big to be all Merton Park – but I would certainly bow to superior knowledge on this and other sources don’t mention it so I could definitely be wrong here …

    • PS I notice now that Shepperton is also mentioned as a location on IMDb and Wikipedia too, but I wouldn’t want to put to rely too much on either of those necessarily …

    • PPS I just checked David Caute’s book on Losey and, annoyingly, he lists Elstree as well as Merton Park! So I think it is definitely MP plus one as it were but am unsure which …

  5. Patti Abbott says:

    I wish TCM would show this sort of film more often,. I will add it to my LOCATE list.

    • We can’t even get the TCM you get here in the UK but a cut down version with a minuscule repertoire by comparison. But at least this US version (alleged to be 10 minutes shorter than the UK version, whcih was originally screened at 95 minutes) Finger of Guilt is all on YouTube so …

  6. TracyK says:

    Sounds like an interesting movie and worth watching if I ever get a chance. I am never going to run out of movies to watch or books to read.

  7. Yvette says:

    Sounds mighty intriguing, Sergio. I’ve never seen it and I like to think that years ago I saw just about everything of this sort that showed up on nightly television movie channels. B-movies were all the rage on black and white television once upon a time. They would repeat the film usually twice in the same week so you had double the chance to see it. (This was before recording devices.)

    This might also have been a film that I’d see as the second half of a major studio release. Back then you’d get the main film and a B-film companion + 10 cartoons.

    Come to think of it, a lot of the movies that show up on ‘Forgotten’ Tuesday would qualify for the same slot. :)

    • Thanks for that Yvette (and have I mentiuoned how great it is to have you back?) – inevitably I suppose the B movie is going to come to promonince with that Overlooked / Forgotten soubriquet – this film was a bit unlucky in that it was one of those RKO titles that probably got caught up with the collapse of the company circa 1957. The version on YouTube looks pretty good and the only irritant is this seeming lack of about 10 minutes from the original UK running time but I have no idea what’s missing.

  8. I’m with the ladies, Sergio, except in my case Richard Basehart and Mary Murphy don’t ring a bell. That said, these are the kind of films I like watching too. That bit about director Joseph Losey and screenwriter Howard Koch upfront was interesting.

  9. Pingback: Joseph Losey’s crime movies | Tipping My Fedora

  10. Pingback: Blind Date (1959) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film | Tipping My Fedora

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