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 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 suppress 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 suppressing 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 the 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 of 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 seen 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 feels like one straight from a horror picture with his distinctive, eerie voice. Isopod is a disgraced priest of whom Randall disguises as a practising 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 the 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.

Continental Divide (1981)

The Continental

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Early during Continental Divide as I was gradually enjoying the film more and more and becoming emotionally invested in its two characters (very emotionally invested I might add), storm clouds began forming over me. I came to the realisation that at some point the movie was going to pull of my least favourite movie cliché, the liar revealed. You know, the woman finds out the man isn’t what he claims to be, after a big monologue about how betrayed she feels, they break up, cue the sad montage music but 20 minutes late they forgive each other and live happily ever after, the end.

Thus it was a huge sigh of relief when Blair Brown’s (not the former British government cabinet) Nell Porter discovers John Belushi’s Ernie Souchak (a name which sounds like it’s taken from a 1930’s newspaper comedy) is secretly writing a news piece on her after he agreed not to during this early point in the film. They don’t argue about it, she happily accepts it. How about when Ernie discovers Nell has been meeting a man in the wilderness purely for sexual intercourse and not for a passionate relationship, does he freak out? No, he has no problem with it and that’s the way it should be! That’s one of the things I loved most about Continental Divide, it was like a big middle finger to the inane and contrived clichés which plague modern-day romantic comedies.

Continental Divide is one of my favourite man and woman alone in the wilderness type movies, in this screwball comedy for the 1980’s; which at the time advertised Belushi and Brown as the next Hepburn & Tracy. With the likes of His Girl Friday and Libeled Lady, Continental Divide has the underlying theme that long-term romantic relationships and careers in journalism are an apparent impossibility; only the typewriters are out in favour of computers. Although I do have to ask how many journalists have the levels of a celebrity among the populace as Ernie Souchak has, in which he is constantly recognised in the street. Likewise, Ernie Souchak’s employment of the Chicago Sun-Times is the paper film critic Rodger Ebert writes for, although there is no cameo or mention of him in the film, likely due to a conflict of interest.

Nell Porter is a woman so reclusive she lives in the mountains while attending to her study of Eagles. She has a desire for peace and quiet and I get the impression she is disenfranchised with civilisation, partly due to her dislike of the media. Having a female character like this is one of the reasons I’m so attracted to a love story like this, since weird girls are my thing. Plus speaking of the wilderness, does this movie look good! Filmed atop of actual mountains in Montana and Washington State, It just shows you that Planet Earth is the greatest movie set of all.

It is evident from both Continental Divide and his final film Neighbours that John Belushi was trying to escape typecasting. Continental Divide proves he had what it takes to be a romantic leading man, however, his time left on this world was short at this point but the legend lives on.