Richard 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 …
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?
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 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 Evelyn – but only if Lesley comes along too.
“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 …
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.
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 …
DVD 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,