Tuesday, September 29, 2009

cinema obscura: Daniel Mann's "Five Finger Exercise" (1962)

A very needy Maximilian Schell begs his employers Rosalind Russell and Jack Hawkins to give him a second chance in Daniel Mann's film version of Peter Shaffer's stage play, "Five Finger Exercise"
Yet another of the many black-&-white Columbia films from the 1950s and '60s ignored by Sony's home entertainment division for decades is Daniel Mann's 1962 film version of the Peter Shaffer play, "Five Finger Exercise," adapted for the screen by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett.

The backdrop for the film is America (instead of Great Britain, the locale in the play), but that's not the only change introduced here by Goodrich, Hackett and Mann, all of whom toned down the uncomfortable erotic undercurrent of Shaffer's play. Still, there's enough queasiness here to make the piece compelling and definitely worth another look.

Rosalind Russell and Jack Hawkins play a well-heeled couple who hire a German transplant (Maximilliam Shell, fresh off his Oscar win for "Judgment at Nuremberg") to tutor their teenage daugher (Annette Gorman, in her first and last film role), much to the chagrin of their son (Richard Beymer, fresh off "West Side Story") who has a thing for mom and resents the attention she lavishes on the handsome, rakish German.

The film - the material - never had a chance at being great as a film, given the concessions made to the censors at the time, but it's another example of a well-made movie version of a pedigreed play.

"Five Finger Excerise" is one of three consecutive films responsible for making Russell a pariah among New York's Broadway community. She was the theater's darling when she was on the boards in "Wonderful Town" and "Auntie Mame," but all that goodwill was lost when it was construed Russell was "stealing" roles that belonged to other actresses.

In 1961, she took on Gertrude Berg's role in Mervyn LeRoy's film of the Leonard Spigelgass comedy, "A Majority of One" (opposite Alec Guinness), followed in 1962 by "Five Finger Exercise," in which she played the role originated by Jessica Tandy, and by LeRoy's film of "Gypsy," in which she dared to do Ethel Merman's role.

Poster art for the Broadway production of "A Majority of One"

Much of the bad press surrounding "Gypsy" at the time of its release, reporedly orchestrated by the vitriolic New York gossip columnist Dorothy Killgalen, had nothing to do with the completed film and everything to do with Russell's participation in it - and her recent history.

"Five Finger Exercise," incidentally, tried out at the National Theatre in Washington, D.C. before debuting in New York on December 2nd, 1959 at the Music Box Theatre, running for 337 performances. Aside from Tandy, the play starred Roland Culver (in the Hawkins role), Brian Bedford, Michael Bryant and Juliet Mills (as the ingénue). Sir John Guilgud directed. The play was produced by The Playwrights' Company, headed by Frederick Brisson - the husband, of course, of Rosalind Russell.

Was there any doubt she'd play the role in the film?


Molly said...

I like this film. Very stagey and the acting is appropriately artifical, the way it would have been played on stage. Somehow, it works. I am particuarly thinking of Mann’s direction of the scene when Schell discovers he has been betrayed by the family and that Russell might dismiss him. He gets down on his knees, wraps his arms around her and begs her to let him stay - i.e., love him. That sequence always stayed with me. Thanks for printing the photo from that scene.
I suspect there are other examples of Mann's superior work here, though in my senility they are not jumping into my mind right now!

Mable Margaret said...

Thank you for adding this post!

Morgan Sandberg said...

Lana Wood, who played a young Mary in Five Finger Exercise, is scheduled to appear at the 2014 Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention, Sept. 18-20, in Hunt Valley, Md., at the Hunt Valley Wyndham Hotel. Also scheduled to appear are Piper Laurie, Veronica Cartwright, Angela Cartwright, Lee Meredith, George Lazenby, and more. More information is at http://midatlanticnostalgiaconvention.com.