Monday, September 27, 2010

The Fingers of Fear: Season 1 Episode 22

Originally aired: 2/21/61
Starring Nehemiah Persoff, Robert Middleton, Kevin Hagen.
Written by Robert Hardy Andrews, based on the novel by Philip MacDonald.
Directed by Jules Bricken.

A child murderer is terrorizing the Universal backlot and the chief suspect seems to be troubled dishwasher Ohrback (Middleton). Police Lieutenant Jim Wagner (Persoff) and his partner Sgt. Spivak are hell-bent on developing a case against Ohrback when some new evidence leads to doubt in the Lieutenant.

JS: I'd like to take a moment to offer up a Thriller A Day public service announcement. Here's how to determine who's the killer in an episode of Thriller. Watch for a character that looks like Dr. Deadly from the old Aurora Monster Scenes kit. Observe how all the evidence in the world points to him. Police sketch. Murder weapon. Throw in a couple of eye-witnesses that place him at the scene of the crime. Then, and only then, can you be sure the killer is someone else that has not yet been introduced.

PE: What I want to know is why the director never thought to wake Persoff from his nap. Was the actor paid for his five days of sleep and mumbling? Through the first 22 episodes, I can easily point to this performance as the weakest of any "major" star to appear in Thriller. His idea of a punctuation to a delivered line is to get up from the table (sometimes while the other character is still talking) and walk out. To be fair, by the end of the episode, I could understand why Persoff kept nodding off.

JS: I was beginning to wonder if he thought they were still doing rehearsals when they shot his scenes.

PE: When a witness is brought in for questioning, he admits to seeing Ohrback in the park where a girl is found murdered, in the middle of the night, unsheathing his hunting knife, with a maniacal grin on his face. "There was something creepy about him." The man declares. Hmmm. Let's go over the checklist...

JS: Call me crazy, but I thought they were actually getting clever, and it would turn out that the witness was actually the killer, and he was setting up old double-ugly to take the fall. But no. Let's spend a few reels setting up the obvious suspect and worry about introducing the real killer later.

PE: How many times was the description "Big a monster in the movies" bandied about by different characters?

JS: In all fairness, if the shoe fits...

You've gotta love Ohrback's co-worker. The guy jokes about how Ohrback looks exactly like the police sketch, drives a car that exactly matches the description of the killer's, and yet he does not think to contact the police. He doesn't even say anything to the cops when they show up to talk to Ohrback!

PE: My favorite Thrillah moments: a kindly hispanic hunting knife sheath-maker is interviewed by the police. He admits to having made a sheath for Ohrback's mighty spear but doesn't want to get him in trouble because he's such a nice guy. Later, when asked to identify Ohrback, the man steps up to him and says "Yes, this is him. I SPIT ON YOU!" and does so, cursing Ohrback.

Later, Cathy (Lt. Wagner's daughter) comes home with a friend, Little Joan. (I think her name was just Joan. -JS) Cathy explains to her father that she was going to go to the park with Joan but she'd rather shoot the bull with the old man ("Have you busted any big, ugly, monster-movie dudes lately, pop?"). As Joan turns to walk out, she says goodbye to Cathy, the Lieutenant and his wife, and walks out the door with a huge "Next Victim" sign attached to her.

JS: That's not the worst of it—Wagner then proceeds to watch Joan walk down the street towards the park, turning away just as she stops to get into a stranger's car.
Might these be "The Fingers of Fear" from the title?
PE: I have to admit that, much like the previous episode, I was convinced I knew the true identity of the killer and was fooled again. In my defense, writer Andrews didn't really play fair since we're not let in on the true story until the final minutes of the show. Wagner, convinced of Ohrback's guilt, rides him constantly. Once we've seen the reveal though, the dynamic of the show changes. Wagner suddenly wants to look at every angle and becomes convinced he has the wrong man, despite a trip to Ohrback's cell where the dishwasher acts even crazier than he did before!

JS: Yeah. When Igor lies on his prison cot and drools as he talks about "liking little girls" and crying about his broken teddy bear—best let him spend his golden years behind bars, regardless of whether or not he's responsible for this specific crime being investigated.

I think my favorite bit was the one Spielberg (or Benchley) stole for Jaws. Aside from the fact that I couldn't figure out what the hell would draw tourists to his small town (Perhaps the Tram tour? -PE), I did chuckle when Persoff mumbled, "We better catch somebody and kill 'em before we lose the tourist trade." My wife was upset that he didn''t run his fingernails across the chalkboard, first.

PE: You gotta love those 1960s police labs where they're always boiling something in a beaker.

JS: If not for that new-fangled scientific evidence, they would have thrown out the other physical evidence that led them to the real killer.

PE: As much as Jerry Goldsmith's haunting score made a bad episode bearable ("Hay-Fork and Bill-Hook"), Pete Rugolo makes this bad show even worse with his annoying sounds. I would say the only highlight to this show is its bizarrely abrupt climax. It's a great scene but it's approximately 10 seconds in a 47 minute barrel of blah.



  1. Though I agree with everything said above(it's a wonder the police Lt. didn't fall out of the chair he was laying flat in), the child murder and possible molesting theme was probably very unusual for 1961 television. It's a puzzle that the sponsers or someone didn't pull the plug on this one.

  2. Here’s where I almost break character to take issue with the ratings system … but I won’t embarrass you with your past missteps, borne of natural enthusiasm, before Thriller’s woeful opening schedule wore you down. I’d hoped you had more grit.

    You have to remember that these stories took place on ANOTHER PLANET … specifically, one still recovering from World War Two, a pre-PSYCHO planet when killers were supposed to look like social mutants, by and large … a planet where everybody drank gallons of alcohol daily, yet still maintained a fa├žade of respectability … a planet where the socially-correct dressed to the nines to go to dinner … or “good” people supposedly always did the “right” thing … a planet bereft of wiseacres dissing plot points from an oh-so-enlightened 21st Century perspective. For every howler in Thriller, there are probably twelve similar hoots in the police work and coincidences in almost every crime story from men’s mags of the same period. Go back and actually read some of those issues of Manhunt, cover-to-cover.

    Point being: “Fingers” deserves props for tackling the heavy child-molestation theme as luridly as TV would allow in 1961; this is really a TV companion to NEVER TAKE SWEETS FROM A STRANGER, which Hammer did in 1960 as a feature — yet the Thriller take is actually stronger in some regards.

    Nehemiah Persoff is one of those “why bother” actors who should have been cast as the girlie-doll obsessive. You don’t for a second believe this guy has a standard-issue wife and child. (The romance must have been mind-boggling in its passion. Did he marry his high-school sweetheart? Picture Exmas at this guy’s house and you’ve got the makings of the driest sitcom ever.)

    H.M. Wynant is a considerably better actor … but not here, where you just want to shoot him in the face from Scene One. He’s the wacky loudmouth who would have spent his screen time peeling potatoes in some comedy designed to get you to buy more war bonds (you know, with his hat waayyy back on his head). As with the cop brigade in “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper,” the supporting players seem to have teleported in from 1949.

    It’s a good example of a slightly daring theme becoming victim to a conventional, TV-procedural treatment, because that’s the way these things were done prior to the age of “a-cop-on-the-edge-who-plays-by-his-own-rules; there’s just ONE problem …” When they similarly tried to “conventionalize” THE OUTER LIMITS during its second season, the episodes became harder to tell apart because they were staffed with dull-as-dirt detectives asking twilight questions and taking eons to arrive at conclusions the audience already knew.

    Granted, “Fingers” is no masterstroke, but your assessment makes me grimace anew at those big three honkin’ Boris heads for “The Guilty Men.” Off with those heads!

  3. I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw William Frye listed as producer on this one; WAY below par for him.

    I see Maestro DJS has already laid out the case for "Fingers of Fear"'s daring venture into taboo subject matter, which is noteworthy.
    But practically every other aspect of this show is abysmally bad. Nehemiah Persoff and director Bricken (whose work in "The Devil's Ticket" will redeem him) obviously took a big risk in allowing the thespian to do his "Actor's Studio" thing for this role; Persoff was an original Strassberg pupil, and clearly is working his Brando routine here...but the director, in allowing this, should have worked MUCH harder in other areas--- editing, pick-up of dialogue cues, etc to prevent this show from dying in its tracks. The pace is positively glacial in almost every scene in which the actor appears.

    Persoff, who has spent much time over the past decades touring as Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof", can deliver an incisive, brilliant performance (check "The Harder They Fall", Bogart's final film) or totally embarass himself (a couple of those "Naked City" episodes), but he's always interesting.

    When "Fingers" finally introduces the real sicko with his doll (yes, quite daring for its time), it's hard to really focus on it, since the majority of the screen time has gone to the plot's Robert Middleton red herring. A major re-balancing of the screenplay was needed, I think. Middleton was also one of the that great stable of character actors of the time-- warm and jovial ("Friendly Persuasion"), nasty and repulsive ("Desparate Hours")..and let's not forget him as Ralph Kramden's boss Mr. Marshall (" dirty bummmm..."). A standout "Thriller" performance from Middelton awaits us in Season 2.

    H.M. Wynant filmed his role as the annoying cook in "Fingers" about the same time he filmed his annoying role as David Ellington in TZ's "Howling Man"; he has done MUCH better work elsewhere. As always with these bad episodes, you end up looking for interesting trivia to preserve one's sanity while viewing--- here, Stooges fans will recognize Dick Wessel ("Chopper Kane" from Shemp's "Fright Night") as the rather-too-broadly-played film projectionist.

    "Fingers of Fear" ends up as an interesting experiment in TV psycho-drama whose dramatic potential is torpedoed by almost every other element of its production.


  4. Having read the other comments and thought a bit more about this episode, I realize once again how the unbalanced screenplay damaged what could have been a unique and powerful episode. The problem for me, again, is that, by the time we got into the "SECOND NARRATIVE" of the 48-minute teleplay, I found it difficult to readjust my emotional focus and get involved in it; I just said "save the kid, arrest the guy and END this thing!"
    My interest was still BACK with the Robert Middleton Narrative, which had been laid out in great detail for the past 35 minutes of viewing. Now that I think back on the "second narrative" APART from the first, I realize that the sicko dude was very well cast and played by Thayer Roberts, and the bizarre final scene in his home with the doll was both tragic and repulsive at the same time...and rather haunting at that. But---I just couldn't wait for the damned thing to end!

    Incidentally, I thought that the final scenes were effectively designed and directed, and there WAS one terrifically good shot, I thought, earlier in the show---when Robert Middleton was being interrogated, seated under the light, totally isolated, it seemed, by darkness. And I wonder why Ted diCorsia was cast in a role (the police chief) that had, I believe, only a single line.

  5. I watched the first half of this episode thinking, "oh no, here we go again." The whole plotline with Robert Middleton made very little sense. Why did he freak out? Why did he toss his knife in the lake? However, I really liked the last section of the show, with the creepy man walking in the park with the little girl, back from "Mark of the Hand." The cops were idiots as usual, and this episode really pointed out some of the changes from pre-civil rights policework to today. Persoff just beats up Middleton for no good reason, then they peer into the killer's apartment and watch him get weird for awhile before pouncing. Police brutality? Warrant? These are just hard words!

    Odd how cool the last section seemed, though.

  6. I've seen Fingers Once

  7. I've seen Fingers of Fear just once, found it extremely creepy. Maybe you've gotta have a memory of those early sixties, pre-JFK assassination days to fully appreciate it. Fingers was a shocker. Persoff struck me as low key, not sleepwalking. The quiet mood of the show combined with the child molestation theme made it spooky as hell, even when nothing was happening.

  8. Pershoff knows Little Joan was headed to the park, yet upon hearing that she's missing, does not go there next or send anyone else there....

  9. Wow, this is one time I wished i didn't ignore due to the words of our intrepid co-hosts. I read the review and put Fingers of Fear (a pretty lame title) aside... I just finally came around to it, moments after regretting the 49 minutes spent watching the Merriweather File, and was bowled over. It started out to be a basic procedural chase film, when and how were they going to catch Mr. Big and Ugly -- who for the first 15-20 minutes spoke not a word. Middleton, who after seeing his two thriller episodes, is someone who completely surprised me with his range and subtle deviations, when given some gravy parts. I found the pacing, while a tad scattershot, to carry the suspense to the next juncture -- which admittedly introduces a pesky new antagonist with little fan-fare (how so real-life of them!)... And while it seems almost unanimous the reviews on Persoff's performance, I'm bucking the trend again and saying his exhausted, agitated detective fit this puzzle well. Pressure from above and below to solve a truly gruesome series of crimes, there's no doubt this man was at the end of his fuse (but he was just as likely going to go 'pffftt!' as 'Kaboom!')... The best performance was by Thayer Roberts, who emerges late as the unlikely suspect with some strange quirks. He ventures from a strange but completely harmless fatherly escort to psychotic and vicious headcase within a few seconds. That final scene, where he's lavishing praise and milk to his doll, his eyelids suddenly carrying a dark, mysterious weight, to then the final shot -- that was powerful and unnerving. I agree with DJS, that the storytelling of this fairly for-then taboo topic must have caused some consternation from the producers. Why were people so quickly to turn on the main suspect? It seems perfectly common to me, survival instinct and the human tendency to change our opinions with one explosive reveal. The episode's payoff for me erased any minor quibbles I had about the story or performances. Dusting off the ol' Karloff heads, I give the poorly titled Fingers of Fear 7.5 K's!

  10. Thanks very much to Rockfish and all the other commentators who are adding to the Thriller a Day logs at this late date. John and I still check out the comments section every day.

  11. I agree that the child killer theme must have been a bit taboo 50 years ago. Actually I was getting pretty creeped out by this when the dude with the doll showed up. I felt like I was watching something dirty, like a Snuff film.

    Speaking of that dude, Thayer Roberts, he reminded me of Stanley Tucci from THE LOVELY BONES. Played the same kind of role and looked somewhat similar.

    That entire final sequence with Roberts and his doll with the little girl was quite weird. Unsettling, even for today. Unlike some who couldn't make the switch to the dollman part, that's when the episode became interesting for me. Too bad it took 30 minutes or so to get there. I had difficulty focusing on the first half. Probably since it seemed obvious that someone other than Robert Middleton was killing.

    I kept hoping the doll Roberts was feeding would suddenly come alive and start talking to him or something equally as creepy.

    "1 1/2 Karloffs" for FINGERS OF FEAR (such a stupid title). Considerably higher if that just left out the whole Robert Middleton story and focus on the doll loving killer.

    Don't know how you guys watched OUTER LIMITS right after all of this.

  12. Fingers of Fear is a hard one to rate. I agree with John and Peter about many of the shortcomings during the first half of this episode. Yes, it's obvious that our red herring monster, Ohrback, is not the killer and we the viewers are left watching a jumbled, poorly acted and not so engrossing action while waiting for the entrance of the real killer. When the real killer makes his appearance, things turn creepy and uncomfortable real quick. Honestly, once Thayer Roberts comes on the scene, the lameness of the preceeding events are somewhat forgiven and forgotten.

    In his posting, DJS nailed many of my thoughts on this episode, including Peter and John's 3 Karloff rating WTF of The Guilty Men. I kept thinking about how unfathomable the whole Chester the Molester role must have been at that time. It didn't help that Mr. Roberts played Chester with such stunning realism. The ending scene was disturbing, possibly more so than The Cheaters. I felt sick after watching that.

    So, how do you rate an episode, which spends more than half of it's time wading in dull and silly waters, but then swims out into parts of the sea that are dark and sinster? Hard call, but I'll put Fingers of Fear down for 2 Karloffs.

  13. I found Peter and John's postings hilarious, because after all, only the truth is funny. The problem with this episode is that it is just written poorly. And that is the understatement of the year. But for the trivia hounds out there, it the first episode in which the opening speech by Karloff does not contain the phrase "or my name's not Boris Karloff"? I could swear I didn't hear it in this episode. The next episode... it's back.

  14. Well, "Criminal Minds," it ain't.

    This would have made a great "Alfred Hitchcock" episode, assuming that Hitch's show-runners would have tightened it up, cleaned up the structure and gone for more natural performances. At times it seemed like an attempt to capture the minutiae of police work, but then the silliness would start. My bigest laugh out loud moment was the exchange with the psychiatrist: "What kind of man would cry over a broken doll?" "A psychopath." I suppose it's a reflection of gender roles at the time, but it seemed out of left field. Then again, they'd shown from his questioning that this wasn't exactly the world's best analyst.

  15. I agree with DJS on this, I think you guys are
    a bit too hard on it with only a half a Karloff rating,
    I say its 2 Karloffs, I only have it at around #41 or so
    out of 67, but there are many worse episodes, Robert Middleton is a pretty good although obvious red herring.
    Its kind of amazing the detective lets the little girl go
    off to the park even though at that point he's pretty sure
    Middleton isn't the killer. Luckily times have changed in that regard. When the killer destroys the doll at the end-
    its pretty disturbing.

  16. I'm on the opposite side of the galaxy on this one, perhaps because it indelibly scarred me as a child. I think Middleton's performance in the interrogation scene is brilliant, I appreciated Persoff's underplaying, and Thayer Roberts' genuinely demented pedo has been echoing in my darkest subconscious for over 50 years. Put this in the social context of 1961 and I think you have one precociously disturbing Thriller.

  17. With the dissenters on this one - gripping crime drama and ahead of its time. Absolutely bought Persoff`s performance, Roberts was truly disturbing and Middleton was a perfect red herring. Three Karloffs.

  18. o.k i'll jump in, what the heck was up with the "whack" job? was he possessed by the doll? was she the embodiment of a dead daughter,if so, how did she die, by HIS hand? why did he stab her, and not smash her to pieces, obviously she had DEEP meaning for him as her soiled clothes and broken foot,caused him much distress.and, where was the epilogue by either the characters, or by Karloff? never any wrap up of the crime.nice to see the some of the cast stop over from their work on "The Twilight Zone" Persoff,Morgan Britanny, Kevin Hagen, the little girl who played Joan, o.k episode but kind of a let down.

  19. I watched Fingers Of Fear again last night. It didn't play as well as I remembered, which is becoming increasingly the case for me with this (beloved) series I grew up watching.

    There's often a rough, almost unprofessional aspect to many eps even as the productions values are mostly good to excellent. I think that Thriller worked best in high concept mode. What do I mean by high concept mode? The Cheaters is a good example. We learn early on who made them, what they do, how they affect people. It's all about "veritas", but what's veritas to one person is b.s. to another. The ep plays with this, and the viewer is drawn in. The better horror episodes have this high concept approach that allows for a lot of suspension of disbelief, as the concept,--the larger theme--works its magic through the story.

    Alas, Fingers Of Fear has no concept as such. It's a crime story, and aside from its pedo aspect it's fairly routinely done. The dialogue is barely adequate; and there's no character development to speak of. It's a by the numbers episode that keeps the viewer's interest due to the horror of what is (or rather was) being done to the little girls, thankfully offscreen, which makes it compelling and creepy due to its subject matter (but that's not a concept). The scenes near the end with Mr. Merriman for me carry more menace than just about any horror ep due to what we know the old dude is up to.

  20. Since this show revolves around children . . . .

    1) The agents for these child actors must have been as asleep-at-the-wheel as Mr. Persoff. Not one of them gets any credit, even Terry Burnham, who played a very prominent role.

    2) The male child who fishes the knife out of the lake looks to be about 12 years old. Let's see, 1961 + 6 years makes him 18 in 1967, just in time for the peak of the Vietnam war. Good job, adults, congratulating him on "doing his duty" (reinforcing the Obey Authority meme).

    3) Persoff's daughter looked a bit like the young girl who was victimized by Michael Dante in Sam Fuller's "The Naked Kiss" (1964). And, continuing the trend of this episode, the 10-y.o. actress in that film was uncredited, too.

  21. For those contemplating a career in criminal justice, please do not conduct your future police lineups the way this Thriller episode does. If you have two witnesses (the lakeside boy and the man in the park) judging the people in a lineup, they must be brought in separately -- out of audio & visual contact/awareness of one another -- lest either of them influence the other when making their assessments.

  22. "...Pete Rugolo makes this bad show even worse with his annoying sounds."
    An early version of the "one-armed man theme" that the producers of "The Fugitive" rejected as not up to his other work for the series--as too annoying?

  23. Interesting bit of misdirection: The child killert's Middleton as Ohrback in a quasi-Peter Lorre in "M" type role, right? Not so fast, it's really kindly old Roberts in a much creepier turn channeling his inner Albert Fish, there in the park with "The Princess" and Little Markie, the girl they all think is his granddaughter. Those disturbing scenes really save this one from the scrap heap.

  24. Rugulo's music in the last scene does a great job in a tonal depiction of the killer's twisted mental state. Far from making the episode worse, it's actually some of the most memorable he wrote for Thriller.

  25. Fingers Of Fear may be second tier Thriller but its theme is a haunting one. Some of the casting is peculiar. Persoff and Wynant could have switched roles and the ep might have played better.The tension in in the final fifteen minutes (or thereabouts) is intense, making it a true Thriller.

  26. I'm with the dissent here. Notwithstanding the terrible plot holes and some mind-numbingly bad dialogue, I enjoyed it a great deal because I thought Mr. Roberts gave an amazing, terrifying performance -- probably the most impressive for me in the first 22 episodes. I also thought Robert Middleton was great. The poorly directed, wildly overacting short order cook who butchers his three scenes with Mr. Middleton did much better work later in his career; he was a regular in the parody movies that your colleague Larry Blamire made forty or fifty years later, and I thought he was terrific in two of them -- the Old Dark House parody and one of the Lost Skeleton movies. Maybe they could have saved him by telling him to play the guy as the real monster -- a heartless sociopath who is fully convinced that his mentally ill colleague is a serial killer of young children, calmly teases said mentally ill colleague, and stays quiet because of his love of monstrous evil. Or maybe they could have written some less stupid lines for him.

  27. Persoff's performance is too low-key, I agree (although I feel he never gave a TRULY bad performance). But both he and Middleton did their best with the material they were given. It was the usual Thriller mess of a crime tale, but in this case it was mixed with a genuinely disturbing topic that wasn't often approached in that era of television.

    There were two writers credited on the script for this one, and it feels like there was one guy doing the creepy child killer, and one doing the usual clumsy and badly-researched police procedural bits. None of it meshes properly, and it ends so abruptly that one just has to hope that Persoff's character remembers to bother telling anyone that poor Middleton can be let out of his cell and shouldn't be persecuted by the whole neigborhood for the rest of his life.