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The unsung genius of film actor, William Finley.


The Phantom Genius of William Finley

William Finley, Murder a la Mod, ice pick

Written by Johan von Huff, Esq.

Originally appeared in the Autumn 2020 issue

One of America’s great, mighty geniuses of the movies, William Finley was an on-screen personification of lechery, idiot desperation and—above all—obsession. With erectile eyes bursting forth, he could also be considered director Brian De Palma’s notorious camera incarnate—always leering, ogling, watching from the shadows.

Yet Finley seems largely forgotten. In fact, worse: I would wager he was barely even noticed in the first place. Yes, many of the films are obscure. And it surely does not help that the academic jury is still out regarding De Palma, and thus close inspections of the director’s occasionally grand and often illusive body of work are rare and sporadic at best. But it is partly the thesis of this writer that Finley was so effective at what he did that you didn’t notice the man himself, being utterly subsumed by his roles.

Look closely. And see Finley develop his craft in tandem with De Palma.

Look closer. And see a vast and unique catalogue of marvels.

But on with the show: Finley’s work is and always was ripe for appreciation, and for cogent, rational evaluation.

William Finley, young Robert De Niro, Wedding Party movie
Finley's genius upstaging a young De Niro in The Wedding Party (1969)

We begin auspiciously with the De Palma short Woton’s Wake (1962), where we glimpse this director’s filmic obsessions emerging—to wit: voyeurism, murder, and spatial suspense, among others. But most importantly, we see Finley and De Palma inextricably linked from the beginning: De Palma’s camera is already infatuated with Finley, the film’s lead actor.

Then there is De Palma’s The Wedding Party (filmed in 1963, released years later). It’s a curiosity, and one for the Finley (and De Palma) completist. However, it is certainly essential if one is serious about Finleyan studies. The film is particularly noteworthy for Finley casually, and effortlessly, outshining a young Robert De Niro. Well, but of course. We already know he was unjustly—nay, savagely—overlooked from the start.

Released in 1968, though far more advanced than The Wedding Party, is De Palma’s Murder a la Mod. Just as Mod is the cheap, black-and-white proto-De Palma movie, Finley’s performance here is the proto-Finley role, full of deranged physicality.

He appears to be the now-unleashed id of the De Palmaverse, brandishing two alternate ice picks: one real, the other a ‘trick’ movie prop ice pick. Already we have De Palma’s self-reflexive games: the doubling, the filmic trickery and deception. His stylistic traits are all there in infancy.

The opening scenes are as unnerving as anything in De Palma’s filmography, with the director himself off-screen, ominously mumbling directions as the camera ‘auditions’ young models. Also, note the opening title song, written and performed by Finley: a would-be swinging ‘60s classic from some alternate reality. A vital work in the Finley Musical Canon—a canon which, I might add, is a potentially rewarding area for further examination by budding scholars.

After more Finley brilliance in De Palma’s Dionysus in ‘69 (1970; Finley plays the titular Greek god) we encounter Sisters (1973)—a great leap forward in De Palma’s technique, with Finley naturally rising to the occasion. Both show more control than in earlier work. It is De Palma’s own version of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960).

And just like that film, Sisters fractures and splits about forty minutes in, introducing a new main character and discarding the previous one. Hitchcockian tropes are not merely copied, however—they are twisted and stretched until they snap. You can almost hear De Palma snickering.

Finley's on-screen genius reaches boiling point in Sisters (1972)

Finley’s performance, juggling blatant evil with his character’s mad love for Danielle, is brilliant. He is complex and terrifying. Sisters’ climax is also the first of many truly ungodly Finleyan death scenes. His desperate, gyrating death throes in Sisters are unique and unmatched by anyone: once stabbed, he clambers and piggy-backs on his killer as if clinging to life. Pure virtuosity.

The following year we witness the godly splendour of Phantom of the Paradise. Finley plays bumbling and brilliant composer Winslow Leach, who is working for rich, infamous music producer Swan. Finley’s dazzling performance runs the gamut: singing, hysteria, madness, love, longing, loneliness, murderous rage. It is Finley’s magnum opus at thirty-four years of age. A proper Finleyan reading of this key text reveals a powerful allegory about a phantom Genius (read: Finley) going about his fine work while being generally unacknowledged by unenlightened hordes.

William Finley, Phantom of the Paradise, Paul Williams young, at the keyboards
A tour-de-force of Finley genius in Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

In any case, this was a peak cinematic performance for Finley, not to mention further proof he was a key building block of De Palma’s oeuvre. In this writer’s view, Finley was the cornerstone. Sadly, after Phantom, there is a strange absence of Finley from De Palma’s work. He begins to slowly evaporate from the De Palma catalogue, which becomes increasingly aimless without him. Obsession (1976) is obsessed less with Finley than with its own incestuous meanderings, to its own detriment. Finley appears briefly in The Fury (1978), literally skulking about on the outskirts of its unfathomable story, until he is truly all but a whisper in 1980’s Dressed to Kill (i.e. we hear his voice briefly). This prodigious collaboration had seemingly run its course for reasons unknown.


Johann von Huff is a regular contributor to the print and digital pages of Golem Quarterly Review. He is currently correcting proofs for his upcoming works, On the nature of “fun”: Towards a new nihilism for the 21st century, and Cancer: Musings on contemporary “bestsellers” and cultural degradation.

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