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,The Finger Points

The Finger Points

The Finger Points (1931) is a perfect example of the direction Warner Brothers was taking under studio chief Darryl Zanuck in the early 1930's. Instead of the glossy, stagy musicals that had been the norm during the early talkie period, Zanuck proposed a new style for an audience made cynical by the second year of the Great Depression - lurid stories ripped from the headlines and turned into fast-paced, hard-bitten movies.

The headline that inspired The Finger Points concerns a crooked newspaperman at the heart of Al Capone's criminal empire. As Carlos Clarens recounts it in his book, Crime Movies (Norton, 1980), Alfred "Jake" Lingle, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, was shot to death June 9, 1930, the day before he was to testify against Capone. Subsequent investigation revealed that Lingle had been on the take from the Capone mob, suppressing stories in exchange for a $60,000 a year supplement to his income supplied by Capone.

After these revelations, Zanuck handed the story over to two of his top writers, W.R. Burnett and John Monk Saunders. Burnett was the author of the novel Little Caesar and Saunders had been a reporter before his experiences flying in World War I led him to become an author. They provided the story that was given a final polish into screenplay form by Warner's staff writer Robert Lord.

The writers had two jobs: how to make a crooked reporter into a sympathetic character and how to alter the story enough to avoid lawsuits. In the final draft reporter Lingle became Breckenridge Lee, a newsman from down South who gets a job on a big-city paper in a crime-ridden city. His boss expects him to expose corruption without fail, but when he is beaten and hospitalized by gang members, his boss refuses to lend him a dime to pay his hospital bill. With no other choice, Lee is forced to accept the mob's graft money. Has he become corrupt or is he playing the gangsters to find out more about them?

For the cast, Warners chose Richard Barthelmess as the lead. Best known for his earnest American roles in the silent classics Way Down East (1920) and Tol'able David (1921), he became an emblem of the American down on his luck during the early 1930s. Fay Wray, still two years from being hauled up the Empire State building by a gigantic ape in King Kong (1933), was brought in as the love interest, probably at the insistence of her husband at the time, writer John Monk Saunders. To play the chief enforcer of the mob, Warner turned not to its large stable of villains, but instead imported MGM's current specialist in slick gangster roles, Clark Gable. The actor would mostly be stuck in such roles until 1934 when the gangster craze died out and hits like It Happened One Night (1934) and Manhattan Melodrama (1934) turned him into MGM's leading star.

Audiences in 1931 did not buy the convoluted reasons for the reporter hero's acceptance of graft money but The Finger Points now seems a fast-paced and immediate view of Capone's crime reign at a time when Chicago's gang lord was still running around murdering people at will.

Director/Producer: John Francis Dillon
Writer: Robert Lord, from a story by W.R. Burnett and John Monk Saunders
Cinematographer: Ernest Haller
Editor: LeRoy Stone
Art Director: Jack Okey
Cast: Richard Barthelmess (Breckenridge Lee), Fay Wray (Marcia Collins), Regis Toomey (Charlie Russell), Robert Elliott (Frank Carter), Clark Gable (Louis J. Blanco), Oscar Apfel (Ellis Wheeler).
BW-85 min. Closed captioning.

by Brian Cady



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