Thursday, October 04, 2018

THRILLER Thursday: The Fingers Of Fear

Fingers Of Fear

The spider web fills the screen, it's Boris Karloff's THRILLER!

Season: 1, Episode: 22. Airdate: February. 21, 1961

Director: Jules Bricken
Writer: Robert Hardy Andrews (based on a story by Philip MacDonald)
Cast: Nehemiah Persoff, Robert Middleton, Ted DeCorsia, Thayer Roberts, Terry Burnham.
Music: Pete Rugolo.
Cinematography: Benjamin Kline.
Producer: William Frye.

Boris Karloff’s Introduction: “No one will wake that little girl ever again. She was the victim of the most reprehensible type of criminal. The child murderer. So long asx he stalks the streets unnoticed or lurks in the shadows near the playground, no little one is safe. He preys on the innocent and trusting child. Tonight we tell the story of a community in the clutches of just such a monster. All terrified of the fingers of fear, that’s the title of our play. Our leading players are: Mr. Nehemiah Persoff, Mr. Robert Middleton, Mr. Kevin Haven, and Mr. Thayer Roberts. Join us now for a desperate manhunt, a race against time where a lost hour or wasted minute might result in another vestial senseless killing.”

Synopsis: The story begins with a bunch of kids at recess playing volleyball, but one kids hits the ball too hard and it bounces across the street and into the bushes of the city park. The teacher Miss Spencer tells the kids that she’ll get the ball, because crossing the street might be dangerous. While searching the bushes for the ball, she finds a little girl’s shoe... then finds the little girl. Dead. Murdered by some fiend.

The newspaper headlines scream that this is the fifth little girl murdered, and has a sketch of some fat creepy dude who was seen in the park the night before. That creepy dude looks just like Ohrback (Robert Middleton) the dish washer in a greasy spoon diner. The cook Sid (H.M. Wynant) teases Ohrback about having a double...

At the scene, Detective Wagner (Nehemiah Persoff) and his team examine the evidence. They find a strange piece of curved porcelain with some blood on it.

Back at the police station, Wagner wants all of the forensic tests done ASAP. Meanwhile the Commissioner (Ted DeCorsia) pulls him aside and tells him they need this case solved yesterday because Amity is a tourist town and tourist season is coming up. (Okay, all of that is true except this isn’t Amity... but it’s the whole JAWS scenario for no real reason... when a madman is killing little girls, I guess that isn’t bad enough.) They discover the new victim had two different blood types on her body: hers, and a very rare blood type they believe belongs to the killer. All of the little girls have been killed with a very sharp knife...

Ohrback drives his beat up old black car to the lake, pulls out his knife and scabbard, and throws them both into the water... not knowing that a little boy is just out of sight fishing. The boy sneaks a look at the man and the car and then hides as Ohrback gets into his car and drives away. Then the boy dives into the water and recovers the knife.

Meanwhile Detective Wagner has a new witness, an upper middle class married businessman, who was at the park and saw the fat creepy dude who is on the front page of the newspaper... while he was, um, waiting for a friend. Oh, and he got the plate number of the creepy dude’s car and it’s...

Ohrback’s beat up old black car has the same license number. Ohrback paints his car a lighter color, drives it to a used car lot and swaps it for another car. Then he goes to a cinema where his pal Zimmer (Dick Wessel) works as a projectionist and tells him he was playing hooky from work and needs an alibi for his boss. Zimmer agrees to help him.

Detective Wagner finds out who sold the knife and that gets him to Ohrback at the diner... where he beats the living hell out of Ohrback. This is the killer of all of those little girls, and Detective Wagner has a little girl. After more than enough punches, Wagner’s men pull him off of Ohrback.

They do a line up for the boy and the businessman... and both ID Ohrback.

But here’s the problem: Ohrback does not have that rare blood type. The Commissioner (and everyone else) says forget the details that don’t fit... we’ve got the killer.

Wagner goes home, hugs his daughter Kathy (Betsy Hale) and then forbids her from going to the park with her friend Joan (Terry Burnham). He’s afraid they may have arrested the wrong man. In fact, he decides to go back to the police station...

Detective Wagner and little Joan leave the house at the same time. Wagner gets in his car and drives to the police station... and Joan walks to the park, where a man in a car asks her if she likes dolls... he has a doll that is a princess, and she even laughs (when you pull a string). Joan is fascinated by the laughing doll... and gets in the car with Merriman (Thayer Roberts) the *real* serial killer of little girls.

Wagner takes that strange piece of porcelain they found at the crime scene to a doll store, where it perfectly matches the foot of a very expensive imported doll that laughs when you pull a string on its back. They have only sold 3 of them... one was sold to the parents of the first little girl murdered. From here the story cross cuts between Detective Wagner tracking down clues and Merriman in the park with little Joan and the doll.

Wagner takes a doll and a police psychiatrist to the jail to interrogate Ohrback. Ohrback says he hates little boys because they make fun of him, but really likes little girls because they are kind to him... but has never had a doll like that. He had a teddy bear... but a man did something terrible to his teddy bear... and that made him cry. Ohrbach did see a man with a doll like that at the park the night he was there...

Is Ohrback a *witness* rather than the killer? The police psychiatrist thinks that’s possible.

Meanwhile, in the park, Merriman is getting really creepy with little Joan... he's watching her eat hot dogs, pushing her on a swing, and other things that just plain wrong.

Detective Wagner goes to Mrs. Salerno’s (Nina Varela) Doll Repairs and gets the clue to who brought in the expensive imported doll with the broken foot... not a man, but a little girl. They go to the little girl’s house, where her mother says they don’t own a doll like that... but the little girl says that the man across the street Mr. Merriman has a beautiful doll like that, and when the doll was hurt, Mr. Merriman asked her to take it to the doll hospital for him. They get the call little Joan has been reported missing by her parents, and Wagner says that she was at his house just a few hours ago! She’s his daughter’s best friend!

Just as creepy Merriman is getting ready to do really nasty things to cute little Joan, and is walking with her into a wooded area of the park... School Teacher Miss Spencer leads a class out of the wooded area on some sort of field trip, and Joan runs away from Merriman to say hello to the teacher. When Joan explains she’s here with an adult man who has a very pretty doll, Miss Spencer decides to check this guy out... and Merriman and his doll run the heck away.

Detective Wagner and his men go to Merriman’s house and find him talking to his doll... and they arrest him. He has that rare blood type, and he’s the real killer.

Review: A pretty good episode, and kind of shocking subject matter for a TV show. Even today it’s kind of rough to watch the scenes with the child killer and the little girl. There’s some real suspense built in the cross cutting between Wagner trying to find the clues to the killer and Merriman and Joan in the park.

Ohrback is played by Robert Middleton, who stars in my favorite THRILLER episode GUILLOTINE, which we will get to in a few weeks. He specialized in huge creepy guys, and played the most violent of the escaped convicts in THE DESPERATE HOURS... and the police chief in THE BIG COMBO. One of those character actors who was in everything, and has at least *fifteen* other credits in the year this episode was made! The great thing about Middleton’s performance is that you really feel sorry for this guy... even though you also are pretty sure he’s killing little girls. Being able to play both creepy *and* sympathetic seems almost impossible, but he does a great job of making us hope he isn’t the killer (even though we’re pretty sure he is).

Nehemiah Persoff is interesting casting: he’s a serious actor in films like ON THE WATERFRONT and THE HARDER THEY FALL and Hitchcock’s THE WRONG MAN... so playing this Dirty Harry like relentless and violent cop is kind of shocking. I’m sure as an actor, he loved getting the chance to totally lose it and beat the crap out of the suspect. As an actor, he’s great in the role (he’s great in everything).

One of the elements of the episode that is interesting is the focus on the procedural aspects of police work, parts of this show would seem at home on CSI. Even when they match the broken piece of the doll to the discarded doll leg at Mrs. Salerno’s Doll Repairs the camera focuses on how perfectly they fit together. The episode is filled with detectives looking into microscopes at blood samples and even the police psychiatrist (whose analysis is kind of lame) is all about the use of science to capture criminals... and works in contrast with those moments where Detective Wagner goes ape shit and starts beating on someone.

I also like how our prime suspect, who acts suspicious as can be... is innocent. Other nice touches are that married businessman who was waiting for his, um, friend in the park in the middle of the night (you wonder how many people back in 1961 wondered if the friend was male or female) and even the cook in the diner who just verbally tortures Ohrback is a great throw away character. He makes you feel sorry for the big guy... who may be a child killer.

This is a big cast, and all of the characters get their moments to shine. In two scenes the actress who plays Mrs. Salerno makes an impact. The movie projectionist character who is just an alibi is well written and well played (Guys like us are always getting into trouble) and you get a picture of his life outside the story. The teacher is in two scenes and seems like a real person. The actress who plays Joan was also in the MARK OF THE HAND episode as the kid who may be a killer does a better job here with probably less to work with. Hey, she was a few months older.

Though this isn’t one of those great episodes that everyone talks about, it’s a solid entry in the show. You wish it had been expanded into a feature (because there are places where they could have stretched the suspense even further). You could colorize this and slide it into the CSI rotation and no one would guess it was made in 1961.


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