Romance and ruthlessness, murders and maniacs in this mystery-packed
thriller. So read the tagline for Fingers at the Window.
Fear has gripped the city of Chicago. A series of grisly, yet apparently
random, murders have been committed by different killers. And the killers
who have been caught by the police are clearly insane. Because of the
murders, people are staying home and off the street. This of course has an
adverse effect on the theatre, and the play in which actor Oliver Duffy (Lew
Ayres) was appearing closes. Now unemployed, he is able to focus his
attention on figuring out who is behind these murders, and winning a $25,000
reward. We find out early in the story that Basil Rathbone's character is
behind the murders, using hypnotism or the power of suggestion on a weak
mind to get mentally ill people to commit murder. What we don't know is
why he is doing this. Oliver Duffy is the first person to figure out
that the murders are not random, but are targeting specific individuals. He
notices a suspicious-looking man following Miss Edwina Brown (Laraine Day),
so he follows her home, sets a trap, and catches the would-be killer. After
delivering the killer to the police, Oliver escorts Edwina to a hotel for
the night. When he spots another would-be killer near Edwina's hotel room,
he realizes that someone wants her dead; she's not a random victim. Edwina isn't able to shed any light
on the mystery. She has no idea who would want her dead.
This video clip (from Turner Classic
Movies) shows how Rathbone's character persuades a lunatic to commit
Oliver Duffy continues his investigation. He learns that all of the
killers were at one time patients at an insane asylum, and he figures out
that only a psychiatrist would have access to the patient records. Even
though Edwina says she doesn't know any psychiatrists, Oliver is sure that
there is a connection. He takes Edwina to a local conference at which nearly
all of Chicago's psychiatrists have gathered. She looks over the faces in
the crowd, but doesn't recognize any of them. Next, they go to the home of
Dr. Santelle (Basil Rathbone), a prominent psychiatrist who was absent from
the conference, although his paper was presented. When his housekeeper tells
him who is at the door, Santelle keeps them waiting. He knows that if Edwina
sees him, she will recognize him. To avoid that happening, he gets his
manservant to pretend to be Dr. Santelle. Oliver and Edwina are completely
fooled, so they leave, wondering where to go next.
Even though Oliver feels as much in the dark as ever, Santelle feels that
Oliver is getting to close to the truth. He must be stopped! Two attempts
are made to kill Duffy, and the second one (an overdose of insulin) very
nearly succeeded. Through a series of misunderstandings, the police come to
believe that Oliver Duffy is the murderous criminal, and Dr. Santelle's life
is in danger.
Meanwhile, Edwina has followed Dr. Santelle to his home. She caught a
glimpse of him at the hospital and recognized him. It turns out that Edwina
knew Santelle when she lived in Paris, but he went by a different name then,
Cesar Ferrari. She confronts him at his home and he explains that the real
Dr. Santelle died in Paris. Cesar stole Santelle's identity in order to
claim a huge sum of money that Santelle inherited. No one in Chicago
knew what the real Dr. Santelle looked like. The only people who could
expose Cesar as a fraud were the handful of people who knew him in Paris.
And so he arranged to have them murdered by ax-wielding lunatics. Of course.
It all makes sense now.
In a panic, Edwina tries to leave, and Cesar knocks her out cold. Before
he has a chance to kill her, the police knock at the door. He quickly stuffs
Edwina into a closet and answers the door. The police are there to warn him
that a lunatic named Oliver Duffy is after him. Santelle thought he had
killed Oliver, so he blurts out, "That's impossible!" but quickly covers his
faux pas. Sure enough, Duffy shows up at Santelle's house and the police
grab him. As they are about to leave with Duffy in custody, one of them
notices something that indicates Edwina Brown has been in Santelle's house.
Realizing that the jig is up, Santelle pulls a gun out and shoots at the
police. At this point the police realize they were wrong about Santelle.
They return fire and kill him. When Edwina is rescued from the closet, she
insists that she must marry Duffy right away. But why? he asks. She is so
shaken by her ordeal that she doesn't want to spend a single night alone
Santelle has Edwina trapped in his home.
The murders end with Santelle's death.
The film is certainly enjoyable to watch, combining light suspense with
light comedy. The biggest complaint I have about this movie is that we don't see much
of Basil. But what we do see of him is wonderful. He is sinister and scary.
Variety reported, "Rathbone makes an elegant menace, cold, bitter, determined to kill all
who might cause him to lose his stolen riches."1
Reviews for the film were mixed. The New York Times called it
"soft and lukewarm," saying the story was implausible.2Film
Daily reported that it was well-made, well-acted, and exciting.3Motion Picture Daily reported, "Here is a thriller which should keep the youngsters on the edge of
their seats most of the way along, and at the same time should be found
entertaining by those of the patrons who like their films with action of
the murder variety, plenty of suspense, and a dash of romance."4Showmen's Trade Review,
however, described the film as "average mystery fare."5
Charles Lederer was a noted screenwriter in the 1930s. Fingers at the
Window was his first attempt at directing a film. His directing was
adequate, but nothing special.
This was the last film that Lew Ayres made before being drafted for the
Army. After Pearl Harbor was attacked, the majority of Americans recognized
the threat and were united in their support of the war. Anyone who wasn't
willing to fight was viewed as unpatriotic or cowardly. Shortly before the
release of Fingers at the Window, Lew Ayres announced that he was a
conscientious objector. Public opinion turned against him and some of the
movie theaters cancelled their bookings of all films in which Lew Ayres
starred. According to Motion Picture Daily, "All films starring Lew Ayres, including the 'Kildare' series, were
banned yesterday in all Balaban & Katz theatres in Chicago and vicinity
and the Great States downstate circuit, totaling 100 houses."6
Other theaters realized that canceling Lew Ayres' films wasn't fair to the
rest of the cast. During the war Ayres served in the Medical Corps as a