Sunday, July 7, 2019

(Allied Artists Pictures, 1955)

Nobody loves the finger man, least of all his government contact.

“I had a choice. Life in prison, or the very good chance of a bullet in the head.”

Just the Facts
Dismissed upon its release by The New York Times as “another tired little crime melodrama,” and virtually forgotten today, this blunt excursion into crime and punishment wears its B-movie pedigree with pride. Finger Man is an early example of the “one man against the mob” sub-genre, depicting a pitiless world in which violence is likely to be emotional as well as physical, and inwardly as well as outwardly directed. It may not be the most flamboyant gangster film of the fifties, but its harsh narrative and compellingly flawed characters make it one of the most satisfying.

It’s the day before Christmas, and crime partners Casey Martin (Frank Lovejoy) and Lefty Stern (Lewis Charles) await on a stretch of country road their pre-dawn present—a ripe-for-hijacking truck loaded with booze. No sweat for these pros: Casey stops the truck at gunpoint, Lefty pistol-whips the driver unconscious. But Casey, just released from prison, is rusty and sloppy. He not only lets the driver see his face, he also discards an empty pack of cigarettes smeared with his fingerprints. Sure enough, the law comes calling later in the day as he unwinds at a local piano bar. Not regular law, but Treasury Department agents, who haul Casey downtown to meet their boss, a hardcase named Burns. Casey feigns innocence, but Burns produces the concussed truck driver to make a positive ID, and the incriminating cigarette pack—the aptly named Pickerel brand, as Casey is well and truly hooked. A three-time loser, he now faces the rest of his days behind bars.

But Burns dangles an out, albeit a dangerous and, from an underworld perspective, dishonorable one: If Casey agrees to infiltrate the bootlegging/gambling/prostitution syndicate run by Dutch Becker (Forrest Tucker) and uncover evidence that will put the mobster away, he can walk—assuming he doesn’t get killed in the process. Turning stool pigeon is a bitter pill for Casey to swallow, but Burns has him boxed in. Casey finds additional motivation when he learns that his sister Lucille, whom he hasn’t seen in years, used to turn tricks for Dutch until the customers stopped buying her wares. Kicked to the curb by the callous crime boss, she’s become a suicidal alcoholic saddled with an illegitimate young daughter she is unable to care for. Personal animus is now added to Casey’s sense of self-preservation.

Casey auditions for a job in Dutch's syndicate.

Leveraging his standing in the underworld, Casey schemes an introduction to Dutch through another former syndicate prostitute, Lefty’s girlfriend Gladys Baker (Peggie Castle). Casey plays it cagey with the mobster, copping an attitude and playing hard to get. Dutch is intrigued by Casey’s reputation as a talented independent, but wary of the sizeable chip on his shoulder. He especially doesn’t approve of Casey’s violent antipathy towards Lou Terpe (Timothy Carey), Dutch’s bodyguard-cum-torpedo with whom Casey once shared a prison cell. Says Dutch, “Spirit I like. Trouble I don’t like. If you’re gonna work for me there’s one thing you gotta learn. There’s no percentage in us fighting among ourselves….I’m a very mild man, Casey. Violence I don’t like, unless it’s necessary.”

Violence, of course, is necessary to deal with internal and external threats to the syndicate. Whether it’s a greedy prostitute cutting into the take or an undercover cop caught snooping, Dutch’s retribution—meted out by Terpe and fellow payroll killers Carlos and Walters—is swift and merciless. Casey takes note as he worms his way into Dutch’s confidence, treading a fine line between antagonizing Terpe at every opportunity and making a show of fealty to his new employer.

Casey’s no Paderewski, but Gladys likes how he tickles the ivories.

At the same time, he lets himself become emotionally involved with Gladys; their previously platonic friendship has always held a “what if” sexual undertone. Each recognizes in the other a kindred spirit, Casey remarking: “You never got a break, I never asked for one.” Circumstances cast a pall over their affair, however, and neither one is particularly optimistic about the future. Their instincts prove correct, for both, in different ways, will pay dearly for challenging Dutch’s dark empire.

Gladys is the first to incur the mob’s enmity when the eavesdropping Terpe hears her in Casey’s apartment threatening to put the finger on Dutch. The finger man puts the kibosh on that idea, bids her goodnight and watches from his window as she walks off into the darkness, unaware that Terpe is also tailing her. The next day Casey is summoned by one of the treasury agents to a secluded spot in the country to identify something stuffed into a wooden crate. Casey now has another retributive motive, and soon thereafter deals rough justice to the unloved Terpe,.

Matters come to a head when Casey sets up a bogus bootleg deal for Dutch, wearing a wire for the treasury boys in hopes the mobster will give himself away. But Dutch knows a rat when he smells one. Casey’s increasingly suspicious behavior, plus Terpe’s sudden disappearance, convince Dutch that something’s rotten in the state of Crimedom, and out come everyone’s guns in a blazing finale. When the smoke clears, Casey has fulfilled his mandate, but he’ll be playing “Blue Christmas” next time he sits down at the piano.

Slimeball Lou Terpe's charms are lost on the opposite sex.

Summary Judgment
Although informing is the narrative fulcrum of Finger Man, it doesn’t dwell overtly on issues of guilt and betrayal, unlike, say, On the Waterfront (1954), in which the stool pigeon thematic was at the heart of the film. Casey internalizes rather than externalizes whatever moral conflict rages in his heart of darkness. But he isn’t the only transgressor against an underworld code. Dutch is also revealed as a serial backstabber. He reminds his underlings that he requires complete honesty and loyalty, yet he doesn’t hesitate to discard those who have outlived their usefulness to him—like Casey’s sister. “I own men and women, Casey,” he says at one point. “All over the country, I own ’em. Some of ’em like to gamble, some of them like to drink, but I own ’em, body and soul.”

However, a contrast of sorts is drawn between the two. Dutch’s betrayals are professional, not personal. He acts simply from an objective need to ensure the syndicate’s survival. Casey is also a pragmatist, but he’s much more emotional in that he allows personal revenge to become his prime motivation to take Dutch down. What’s interesting is that Casey’s ostensibly more humane impetus doesn’t position him within the narrative as a more sympathetic figure than the mobster. Casey may tell himself that he’s acting on behalf of his sister and his gal, yet he neglected the former when she was losing her battle with the bottle, and he selfishly takes Gladys’ affections for granted. His sexism is pronounced and off-putting, even by mid-fifties standards. It’s a sign of Gladys’ resigned cynicism and despair that she puts up with Casey’s insensitive treatment. A case could be made that Dutch—who genuinely likes Casey and who can be loyal in his own fashion—is more deserving of empathy, if not admiration.

The creative architects of these intriguing dynamics are director Harold D. Schuster and screenwriter Warren Douglas, dependable craftsmen who were comfortable in any genre. Schuster was an editor for a ten years before turning to directing in 1937. His camera expertise, flair for visual rhythm and skillful direction of actors helped him create tight, gritty crime films like Loophole (1954) and Portland Expose (1957). Douglas also excelled in the hard-boiled milieu, having written Loophole and another great noir, Cry Vengeance (1954). He was also an actor, and drew upon that experience to craft naturalistic, layered dialog.

Man in the middle: treasury agents give Casey the stink eye.

Man in the middle: Dutch’s boys give Casey a beat down.

While there’s nothing expressionistic about Schuster’s use of the camera, his visual conceptions often prove effective, as when he deftly contrasts and links two crucial scenes that find Casey the reluctant center of attention. The first occurs during his briefing at the Treasury Department, where he’s surrounded by a group of taciturn lawmen in Burns’ office. It’s a cordial meeting, but the way Schuster groups the men around Casey in the tight, constricted space lends the scene an uneasy undertone, and speaks to the separation between those who uphold the law and those who break it. This scene foreshadows one later in the film when Casey meets Dutch at the mob’s warehouse. Once again, he finds himself encircled by a handful of unsmiling men, only this time they’re pointing guns at him, a reflection of Dutch’s encroaching mistrust. The gulf this time is between those who uphold the code of the underworld and those who would transgress it. Schuster’s subtle staging underscores the fact that Casey isn’t welcome among either the good guys or the bad guys.

Another thematic linkage occurs when Candy, one of Dutch’s play-for-pay girls, is brought to his office after being caught with her hand in the syndicate till. She pleads innocence, but Dutch isn’t buying. He orders Terpe to take her off the payroll, and for good measure adds, “Better muss her face up a little bit so she can’t work anyplace.” Terpe, whose repulsive appearance and brutish manner ensure that no sane woman will sleep with him—and whose previous advances to Candy were arrogantly rebuffed—is only too happy to carry out the order. Grabbing a handful of Candy’s peroxide hairdo, he drags her into the next room and, as her terrified screams attest, sublimates his sexual frustration through a more unpleasant form of physical interaction.

Dutch pronounces sentence on a working girl caught skimming the take.

No sooner has Candy exited than a new B-girl wannabe is ushered into Dutch’s presence, introduced as Mary Smith from Akron, Ohio and claiming to be 21. Dutch clearly understands that she’s much younger, but he’s gentle and polite with the nervous girl as he openly sizes up her moneymaking attributes. Mary is excited by the prospect of what she imagines to be a glamorous, big city lifestyle, but probably doesn’t realize the full implications of this particular career path, or the possibility that she may one day end up in a situation similar to Candy’s. It’s a beautifully understated scene that chillingly delineates the sexual commodification of women, and also hints at the codependency that can exist between exploiter and exploited.      
Finger Man is filled with such nuanced yet revealing vignettes, as when Gladys confesses her feelings for Casey while sitting next to him in his local bar as he plays piano for the indifferent patrons. (“Paderewski” one wag derisively dubs him.) As they talk, “Oh, Come All Ye Faithful” suddenly blares from the jukebox, drowning out Casey’s tune. Gladys watches, perplexed, as Casey angrily unplugs the machine and storms out of the bar. Cleary unsettled by this reveal of his psyche, she plays a few notes of the same Christmas carol before swiping the keys discordantly as the scene fades out. From her expression it’s obvious she long ago abandoned dreams of Prince Charming.

Schuster stages the savage with equal aplomb. When the treasury agent tailing Casey calls in his report from the phone booth in Dutch’s club, he doesn’t realize Carlos is listening on a party line a short distance away. Dutch is instantly informed and instantly issues orders. In the very next shot we see Dutch’s goons dragging the bruised and bloody fed down a dark street, then throwing him under the wheels of an oncoming truck. Schuster cuts to a POV shot to emphasize the visceral effect of the four-wheeled juggernaut without showing any of the gore, letting viewers conjure the horrific outcome. 

What's in the crate? Casey would prefer not to know.

While Finger Man belongs to the less-is-more school of screen mayhem, the threat of violence is ever present in its settings and characters. The focus is clearly on the latter—how they size each other up, play their angles, run their schemes, dole out punishment, receive comeuppance. That’s as it should be, since it’s the performances that really distinguish this film. Frank Lovejoy, his name notwithstanding, made a career of playing hard-boiled characters, but he was never harder or more unlikeable than as the porcupine-prickly Casey—surly, sensitive to criticism and liable to fly off the handle at the slightest provocation, real or imagined. His antipathy to Terpe is almost psychotic. Even with Gladys, he’s tender one moment, sociopathically domineering the next. Lovejoy invests Casey with just enough humanity to keep the audience more or less on his side, but it’s a close call.

As usual, it’s the bad guys who flash the most charisma. Forrest Tucker’s imposing build and looks made him a natural for playing heavies, but he was a more sophisticated actor than he was generally given credit for. He plays Dutch soft-spokenly while leaving no doubt of his essentially ruthless nature. There are more baroque mob bosses in fifties films, but few as intimidating. He was similarly impressive in another underworld film Hoodlum Empire (1952), but more frequently appeared in westerns. Intriguingly, Tucker shared the same name as a notorious real-life criminal and escape artist who was active during the actor’s lifetime. Art imitating life, or vice-versa?

Also making his presence felt is Timothy Carey, whose persona was so outsize and outrĂ© it not only upstaged fellow actors, but entire films. Even when Carey is doing nothing, his unsettling facial tics, death’s head grimace and strangled utterance of even innocuous lines communicate otherworldly malevolence. As Lou Terpe (the very name evokes something rotten), he’s Dutch’s attack dog—snarling at everyone around him, pawing at women, his bite always ready to back up his bark. No wonder Dutch keeps him on a short leash. He even whimpers like a dog when Casey nearly beats him to death. But even a rabid dog that has to be put down engenders more sympathy. We never see Terpe interact with his fellow hoodlums; he’s a pariah even within his peer group. Schuster underlines this in a nightclub scene by isolating Terpe at a table apart from Dutch and his entourage. Carey’s feral performance in this film caught the attention of the up-and-coming Stanley Kubrick, who created another memorably twisted role for the actor in The Killing (1956).

Other standouts include Evelyn Eaton as Casey’s soused sister, who evokes in a couple of brief scenes a state of complete moral, physical and emotional collapse. And then there is B-movie bad girl Peggie Castle—unfairly dubbed “the poor man’s Claire Trevor”—who had few peers at playing sexually dangerous women who were usually killed off before the final reel, as in I, the Jury (1953) and 99 River Street (1953). Gladys Baker is arguably her richest incarnation of this luckless noir trope. She’s no femme fatale, just an unsentimental romantic who’s been around the block enough times to realize that harboring dreams of a happy ending is a luxury she can’t afford. Like most of the film’s luckless ones, she eventually finds herself trapped in the shadows where the bad things run wild.

Killers gotta kill.

Fingering the Fifties
• Flattops and fedoras.
• Casey reads Modern Detective magazine during a clandestine meet with a treasury agent.
• Bar patrons getting pickled at midday.

CASEY MARTIN: “I had that all-gone feeling right in the middle of my stomach. The feeling that the roof had caved in and there wasn’t much use in trying to dig my way out.”

AGENT JOHNNY COOPER: “You’re getting a break, Casey. Don’t throw it away.”
CASEY MARTIN: “You call getting myself killed getting a break?”

CASEY MARTIN: “I met Dutch—seemed to like me.”
AGENT JOHNNY COOPER: “Make him love you.”

LUCILLE MARTIN: “I used to be the prettiest girl ever worked for Dutch. I used to be proud. Now I got no pride.”

DUTCH BECKER [speaking of Casey]: “You know him, Lou?”
LOU TERPE: “Yeah. I saw him every day for four years in Atlanta…I don’t like him.”
DUTCH BECKER: “You don’t like nobody.”
LOU TERPE: “Nobody.”

GLADYS BAKER: “You’re two people, aren’t you, Casey?”
CASEY MARTIN: “Who isn’t?”

Casey finally fingers his man.

Director: Harold D. Schuster; screenplay: Warren Douglas; producer: Lindsley Parsons; cinematography: William A. Sickner; editing: Maurice Wright; music: Paul Dunlap

Frank Lovejoy (Casey Martin); Forrest Tucker (Dutch Becker); Peggie Castle (Gladys Baker); Timothy Carey (Lou Terpe); John Cliff (Johnny Cooper); William F. Leicester (Jim Rogers); Glen Gordon (Carlos Armor); John Close (Walters); Hugh Sanders (Burns); Evelyn Eaton (Lucille Martin); Charles Maxwell (Fred Amory); Lewis Charles (Lefty Stern)

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