Character actor William Finley passed away last week following a long illness. For many people his name and face will be unknown. And it is true that he made only a relatively small number of films, the bulk of which were in the seventies. For those in the know, however, his presence was always felt in a film.
His unconventional looks – he was well over six feet in height, wore thick glasses and was certainly not movie star handsome – perhaps tended to steer him towards quirky supporting roles. He had a supporting role in the Chuck Norris vehicle Silent Rage, an uncredited role in John Huston’s Wise Blood and appeared in The Funhouse and Night Terrors for Tobe Hooper.
It was under the direction of Brian De Palma, however, that he made his greatest contribution to cinema. Finley and De Palma met as students at Columbia University. In De Palma’s most celebrated short film, Woton’s Wake, Finley found his first screen role as the title character in a striking homage to the German Expressionist movies of the twenties. When De Palma graduated to feature films, Finley was there too, usually in supporting roles, occasionally starring. He played opposite a fresh-faced Robert De Niro in the light comedy The Wedding Party which De Palma co-directed. In the director’s first solo feature, the surrealistic comic thriller Murder a la Mod, he played the sinister and odd Otto as well as contributing the rather catchy theme song.
Under De Palma’s direction, he went on to appear in the split screen experiment Dionysus in ’69, which documented a unique production of The Bacchae by the Performance Group. This production blurred the lines between performer and spectator, performance space and audience space and was filmed with two cameras simultaneously with one focused primarily on the actors and the other on the audience. The footage from these two cameras was projected as a single, splitscreen image (a device De Palma would later master and use repeatedly) providing a uniquely fascinating, at times disorienting experience.
Sisters De Palma’s first fully-realised thriller, complete with Bernard Herrmann score, saw Finley (pictured above) playing the sinister Emil Breton. It is a testament to his skill as an actor than Finley was able to inject an element of slapstick into a scene involving the coverup of the vicious murder of a character the audience has grown to like.
In The Fury a big budget telekinetic horror-thriller starring Kirk Douglas, Amy Irving and John Cassavetes, he had a smaller role and for Dressed to Kill featured in a voice-only part. Finley is best remembered, however, for his dual roles as the wronged songwriter Winslow Leach and the Phantom of the title in De Palma’s stylistically most atypical film, the rock musical Phantom of the Paradise. In the role he was able play the gentle and naïve Winslow with a genuine sense of pathos and portray the damaged and vengeful phantom as both menacing and sympathetic. Phantom of the Paradise is a criminally under-rated movie. A parody of the music industry of the day (which has only grown more relevant with time) as well as a melding of the Phantom of the Opera and the legend of Faust, it was overshadowed in the UK by The Rocky Horror Picture Show with which it was at one time the b-feature of a double-bill. While neglected in general, the film did find its share of passionate supporters: in France it was a success and critically acclaimed (a special edition DVD of the film was released in that country a few years ago) and in the city of Winnipeg it seems to have captured the collective imagination of the population and is now the subject of an annual festival, Phantompalooza. Dario Argento also went on to cast Finley’s costar, Jessica Harper, in his horror masterpiece Suspiria after seeing Phantom.
Finley’s career seemed to slow down in the 1990s and 2000s. He did, however, become increasingly accessible to his fans, contributing to a Movie Geeks United show dedicated to De Palma and appearing at Phantompalooza. Fittingly, his last role was a small supporting part in his old friend Brian De Palma’s The Black Dahlia in 2006.
In an earlier period of cinema history, Finley could have had a strong career as a character actor in the way that someone like Edward G Robinson did. In reality he was criminally under-used. For his fans, though, he will be fondly remembered.
© Calum Campbell 2012