The Finger Points (1931)

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In order for gangsters to thrive,three forms of corruption are required; the corruption of politicians, the police and finally the press. Unlike the newspaper in Warner Bros’ Five Star Final (also released in 1931) the paper of The Finger Points known simply as The Press are proud to be socially responsible and even calling themselves “the world’s best newspaper”. However the paper’s employee’s don’t entirely relish in this corny mentality as seen when the editor gives a speech at the end of the working day on what he calls the paper’s crusade, yet afterwards the employees just laugh it up. Likewise we also discover that reporters for The Press often just avoid on reporting on the activity of gangsters in order to avoid the consequences.

Breckenridge Lee (Richard Barthelmess) on the other hand goes on step further and takes bribes from gangsters in order to supress stories. The plot of The Finger Points was inspired by the true story of Alfred “Jake” Lingle, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune whom had been supressing stories for $60,000 a year from Al Capone. Lingle was shot to death on June 9th, 1930 – a day before he was to testify against Capone.

Richard Barthelmess was an actor with a gentle and sensitive nature that had a lot going on behind his deep set brooding eyes. I don’t think any other actor could have performed the role of the naïve but eager go-getting southerner Breckenridge “Breck” Lee. At the beginning of the film he gives a letter to the managing editor of The Press from his former editor of the Savannah Constitution,calling Breckenridge Lee “one of the best reporters I’ve ever had” and “He’s got the stuff. All he needs is a chance to show it. Give him a break into the big league”. Breckenridge mentions he only did general reporting although can I assume Savannah isn’t as tough as New York City in a movie which showcases the divide between northerners and southerners. Likewise Breck’s group of friends along with Marcia (Fray Wray) and Charlie (Regis Toomey) really make for a fun trio.

I’ve read a number of reviews calling Breck’s transition to corruption unconvincing – I must disagree. I find the film makes this transition convincing in several ways; the pressure he’s under from the hospital bills he has to pay, his general naivety plus it is evident from his previous journalistic success that the recognition is slightly going to his head.

The Finger Points opens with an impressive, showy shot of a moving train as the camera pans from one side of it to another, once again disproving the notion that films from the early 30’s where largely static. This is also exemplified with a number of long panning shots of the expansive and busy newspaper office with the sound of typewriters going on non-stop in the background; I never tire of classic atmosphere of a newspaper office.

My main reason for seeking out this obscurity was for a certain Clark Gable in an early supporting role while on loan to Warner Bros from MGM. Along with Warner’s Night Nurse released the same year, Gable is the show stealer. He is nowhere near as overtly evil than his role in Night Nurse, instead playing a sympathetic but still manipulative gangster in The Finger Points. He is also given more screen time than in Night Nurse, in this one of his best early screen roles.

The crime boss in The Finger Points is simply referred to as “Number 1” and during his one scene in the movie he is only scene sitting from behind a desk with his back to the camera with a face which is never seen like Dr Claw from Inspector Gadget.There is even a shot which visualises the title of the movie in which we see a close up of Number 1’s hand holding a cigar and pointing his finger towards the camera. I love this whole sequence as it leans towards being a live action cartoon but doesn’t take away from the serious nature of the film.

The Finger Points has never seen the light of day on home video. As I’ve said before, no other decade seems to have as many hidden gems as the 1930’s; a real archaeological site of cinema.

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Five Star Final (1931)

The Scum

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Five Star Final is 85 years old yet nothing has changed in that the public still has an appetite to read about filth in newspapers. The themes here would be looked at in many newspaper comedies throughout the 1930’s, however this is no screwball comedy – it’s deadly serious. I guess we can’t say “back in my day journalists had ethics”. The real life inspiration for Five Star Final came from a New York tabloid called New York Evening Graphic. At the time of the film release the Evening Graphic was losing circulation because its new editor was attempting to make it a more respectable paper, just like the character of Randall played by Edward G. Robinson the editor of the fictional tabloid newspaper The Gazette.

Randall is an editor who is not without ethics. Despite the objections of the paper’s management, “Randall won’t print pictures of girls in underwear in the pictures section” and prints cables from The League of Nations. The pressure is on him to stop printing “actual news” and more sensationalist stories and gossip. When Randall gives in we see the full sleaze of Edward G. Robinson; after all nobody could do sleaze better than him.

The stealer of the show however is Boris Karloff as Isopod. This isn’t a horror movie but his performance feel like one straight from a horror picture with is distinctive, eerie voice. Isopod is a disgraced priest of whom Randall disguises as a practicing priest to go undercover and do the paper’s dirty work; a creep who is full of crap and as Randall puts it “You’re the most blasphemous looking thing I’ve ever seen”. The name Isopod in Greek means ‘even footed’ but more commonly is the name an unpleasant looking order of crustacean parasites so I guess it works.

The Gazette has a number of shady practices; they bully retailers and vandalise their stalls for not putting their papers on top. Likewise they employee a pretty girl played by Ona Munson to do dirty work for the paper although the main reason they’re choosing her for the job is that she’s not flat chested, as evident by the shot in which Aline MacMahon is clearly looking at her rack (even Isopod enjoys checking her out).

In order the increase the circulation of The Gazette, Randall unearths a 20 year old murder case for the sake of a sensational story later titled, “Famous Killer’s Girl to Wed Society Man”. Today with this internet thing we’ve got going on it would be highly unlikely someone could hide the fact they were once tried for murder while Isopod could just get a photograph of the murder’s daughter on Facebook. But the fact remains the same: sensationalist news stories can affect the lives of innocent associates.

The film has a truly superb cast with everyone having their moment in the sun and this being a film set in the world of journalism, the dialogue flows at a rapid fire rate; a form of acting which is truly a thing of the past. Marian Marsh’s breakdown at the end is hair raising melodramatic brilliance, even if her husband just happens to walk in as she pulls out a gun in a delightfully improbable turn of events.

The production values are excellent helmed under the great director Mervyn Le Roy (such an impressive back catalogue). The use of sound in the opening credits with boys shouting “extra!” and the noise of the printing press sets the atmosphere while it’s evident the studio strived for this production to have authentic sets. Many shots in Five Star Final have an impressive level of depth such as that of George E. Stone with his feet up in foreground as he sits back while on the phone.

Five Star Final contains innovative use of split screen as Mrs Voorhes (Frances Starr) in the middle of the frame is trapped between paper employees who go about their business as usual and try to ignore her but also shows the paper as voyeuristic spies. Yes, the filmmakers sure love their symbolism here. Throughout the film Randall is constantly washing his hands (“50 times a day” apparently) while the paper employees going to the bar and drink in order to deal with their conscience. Likewise Randall’s closeted love interest Miss Taylor played by Aline MacMahon has feelings towards him but objects to his job and the paper; she is symbolic of his conscious. To top it all off, the film ends with an image of the paper lying in the gutter like the filthy rag it is; a final powerful image to stick in your mind.