Monday, October 17, 2011

Spotlight on The Devil's Fingers/Dead Ringers

By Gary Gerani

Okay, call me a wacky package.  From the “Likewise” credit to “Wings Like an Angel,” this episode is a genuine hoot, the nutsy culmination of everything BATMAN’s parody-happy producers wanted to do with the series.  Is this oddest of all Bat-tales better directed and photographed than other Season Two shows?  Not really.  But there’s a curious vibe at work here, a unique flavor, some intangible sense of ribald fun that seems to transcend logic itself.  Reflecting this, “The Devil’s Fingers”/”Dead Ringers” was the highest-rated episode of BATMAN – ever – at a time when the show’s numbers were beginning their steep decline.  It’s almost as if the public somehow sensed that this had to be the ultimate BATMAN campfest and simply couldn’t resist tuning in.  As twin brother Harry might say, go figure.

Long before Dozier’s perverse take on the Caped Crusader appeared on television, a certain piano-playing entertainer known as “Mr. Showmanship” embodied the very essence of mainstream kitsch.  Liberace is, well, Liberace; this individual can’t be described, he must be experienced, hopefully at a safe distance.  Turning Libby into a (double) Bat-villain was a stroke of Hollywood genius.  He can’t act and never could, but that’s part of the gag and everyone involved seems to know it.  You want “so bad it’s good?”  It doesn’t get much badder than this.  Check out that amazingly obvious split-screen containing both Liberaces, or Mrs. Cooper’s awful singing while trying to entrap Harry.  “Devil’s Fingers” not only pushes the endurance envelope, it gleefully tears it to shreds with a loopy smile on its deranged face.

We know this isn’t business as usual when the show’s rigid structure is shattered within the first few minutes.  Batman’s on vacation, forcing Gordon and O’Hara to face the unthinkable: they have to do their jobs themselves.  Writer Semple Jr. milks this dilemma for all its worth.  While the great pianist Chandell (secretly “Fingers”) and his cigar-chomping brother Harry are this week’s culprits de jour, actual criminal assaults are committed by Harry’s will-of-the-wisp henchbabes, a trio of exotic dancers who descend upon victims with mind-shattering bagpipes.  The attack on that lone cop early on is hilarious and weirdly suspenseful at the same time, climaxed by a devastating, picturesque explosion.  Meanwhile, our eventual introductions of Bruce and Dick are more than worth the wait.  Bruce happens to be off camping (listening to Chandell’s revealing concert at Gotham Town Hall, of course), while swooning Dick’s at the malt shop on a classic, gee-and-gosh teenage date.  Probably invigorated by the change of formula and some genuinely funny set-ups, West and Ward are at their best throughout both installments.  When they spot the seductive Threesome flapping their arms outside Wayne Manor’s window and then slipping away into the night, awestruck, almost mesmerized Bruce responds with a letter-perfect “Gone… like wraiths!”

Adding to the insanity of Liberace’s fruity persona is that, during his ‘50s heyday, he was viewed as a seductive heartthrob to little old ladies, who seemed hopelessly dazzled by his sophisticated, soothingly fey charm.  Alas, art imitates life in “Devil’s Fingers,” with Aunt Harriet scoring as a perfect representation of Libby’s female admirers.  His look of disgust when she turns her back probably mirrors the guy’s true feelings about doting fans.  And Mrs. Cooper pulling a gun on Chandell after a hand kiss reveals he’s twin brother Harry (“A girl can tell!”) is an episode highlight.

Inspiration in full-gear, Semple Jr. whips up two notable, fairly ambitious set-pieces: the player piano cliffhanger is audacious and clever, with a game B & R singing their fool heads off in order to survive.  Equally impressive is the instant recall sequence from “Dead Ringers,” with a performing Chandell supered over our heroes’ heads as they melodramatically conjure the memory of a recent recital.

But Semple Jr. and director Larry Peerce save the best for last.  In one of the funniest epilogues ever filmed for anything, all of this episode’s bad guys and gals find themselves in striped pajamas at Gotham City Jail.  Ever the elegant sophisticate, Chandell sings and plays serenely at a striped piano, even as incarcerated Harry, vowing to escape, spews tough guy clichés a few yards away.  We fade out delicately on the maestro’s final note, BATMAN’s pounding theme in the end credits prompting a visceral WTF? from stunned viewers.  

Billy Wilder couldn’t have crafted it better.     


  1. Here's a Liberace anecdote I'm sure you'll enjoy.

    Australia was a regular destination for Liberace. In the early 70s he appeared on a local current affair show, imaginatively titled “A Current Affair” to promote his forthcoming tour.

    However, he didn't know the host had prepared a surprise. Paul Jennings, a comedian famous for impersonating politicians appeared, dressed as Liberace. Few people enjoy being confronted by an impersonator, but Liberace took it great stride, laughing, and pointing out that his impersonator was a bit thinner than him, and asked for tips on how to lose a couple of pounds. He also invited Jennings to come along to a full dress rehearsal the following afternoon.

    Paul Jennings went along, dressed as Liberace. Liberace gave him a few tips, showing him how to walk to the piano, place the candelabra, and sit down. He then got Jennings to wear his glass bead jacket and practice the opening. Jennings staggered across the stage, plonked the candelabra down on the piano, and collapsed in the seat.

    Liberace smiled and said “That jacket weighs sixty pounds. It's not as easy as it looks, is it?”

    Glenn :)

  2. :)) That's perfect, Glenn... Thanks so much!

  3. Very engaging assessment of the unique qualities of this story. I also loved the ending. Do you think this was Semple's answer to the second season changes or his version of the second season style? (He wrote the first episodes filmed for the second year, but after that it was just this story and the one late Joker story.)

  4. "Billy Wilder couldn’t have crafted it better." Gary, I'm going to rein in your enthusiasm just a smidge: Billy Wilder not only could have crafted it better; he would have walked away from this without trying. But I'll hand it to you: This is BM at its loopiest, at a point of no return.

    Your spotlight reminds me, maybe should remind us all, that in 1966 Liberace wasn't yet The Vegas Reflecting Globe he'd later become. In the '50s he was more subdued, entrancing housewives with his elegant Steinway, candelabra, and whimsical references to his brother George (who, I guess, was Semple's prototype for Dirty Harry). There are lots of You Tube clips from that yesteryear that help put this show in perspective. I especially commend a vintage "What's My Line?" in which Lee was the Mystery Guest—and, when Arlene Francis asked, brother George actually popped out from behind the curtain and waved to the cheering audience.

  5. Okay, let me put it this way: If Billy Wilder had lost a bet and was forced to direct this BATMAN episode finale, he couldn't have done a better job. It may lack the legendary punch of "Nobody's Perfect" from SOME LIKE IT HOT, but it's fresh, audacious and irreverent in its own right, a sharp exercise in timing and camerawork. I love the fact that there's absolutely no background music to support Chandell's single piano, not even at the very end, which was standard practice for every episode. This proves someone had their creative thinking cap on. It's funny... More than once on those TWILIGHT ZONE commentaries have I mentioned how pleased I am when trailers and mid-breaks logos are retained in DVD collections. Here's a case where the opposite is true. I'd rather not have the "next week" still frame, as was probably presented in 1966 (I forget, but I imagine it was). No... For maximum satiric effect, we should go from the silence following that last piano note, to the booming BATMAN theme in the end titles. That's the way it's been seen by most fans for years (the TV Land versions, for example, now available on YouTube), and that's the way it works best.