Douglas Wilmer as Professor Van Dusen in The Superfluous Finger by Jacques Futrelle
Adapted by Julian Bond. Directed by Derek Bennett
A top surgeon, Prescott (Laurence Payne) is perturbed when a young woman (played by Veronica Strong) asks him to amputate one of her fingers. Prescott refuses since there’s no medical reason to do so, but on her way out she deliberately traps her finger in the door – forcing Prescott to accede to her wishes. He later calls in Van Dusen (Douglas Wilmer) to untangle this strange mystery.
The Superfluous Finger was the second of two Professor Van Dusen stories to be adapted for series two of The Rivals. The original story, by Jacques Futrelle, can be read here.
The story has a strong Sherlock Holmes influence, especially since it opens with a puzzling mystery (why should anybody wish to have a perfectly healthy finger amputated?). Some of the other Holmesian touches were added by Julian Bond’s adaptation – such as Van Dusen being able to deduce that the woman recently travelled from America (due to her clothes) as well as his assertion that whilst he has many acquaintances he has very few friends.
Of course, having Douglas Wilmer in the lead role (a notable Sherlock Holmes himself) also helps to connect Van Dusen and Holmes. But though there are some similarities between Wilmer’s portrayal of both characters there are also some fairly major differences. Wilmer’s Holmes tended to be somewhat abrupt and humourless, whilst Van Dusen has a more light-hearted and ironic air. Van Dusen seems to breeze through life in a rather detached way, rarely exhibiting strong emotions.
What connects the two is the delight they take in keeping their deductions to themselves. Both are disinclined to share their initial thoughts with others (Holmes with Watson, Van Dusen with Prescott) for pretty much the same reason. The others have seen what they’ve seen, so if they can’t draw the same conclusions from the evidence why should it be spelled out to them?
Van Dusen is aided in his investigation by the reporter Roderick Varley (Mark Eden). It’s odd that Nicholas Courtney didn’t return as Hutchinson Hatch (especially since Hatch is featured in the original story) so I can only assume that filming dates for Doctor Who clashed with this recording. But Eden is a more than adequate substitute and enjoys a decent part of the action.
This starts when he tails the mysterious woman in a film sequence which clearly had some money thrown at it. We see hansom cabs with horses (one previous episode had a cab in the studio – but no horse – with a stage-hand clearly shaking it about to create the effect of motion!) as well as several extras walking up and down the street. It’s a welcome moment of fresh air that does help to open out the story.
Varley later seems to find the woman murdered and is arrested by the police (in the form of Mallory, played by Charles Morgan). Van Dusen has to go and effect his release, this he does in a wonderfully comic scene which showcases Douglas Wilmer at his best. Charles Morgan was no stranger to playing Victorian policeman (thanks to his role in the long-running Sergeant Cork) and is just as good here.
William Mervyn (as Sir Hector Drummond) turns in the sort of eccentric performance that he possibly could have done in his sleep, but is amusing nonetheless. And Laurence Payne is dependable as Prescott, the man who invites Van Dusen to investigate but finds it hard to hide his exasperation with the Professor’s unorthodox practices.
Although the story opens with an intriguing mystery it’s probably not too difficult to work out what the solution is long before Van Dusen tells us (the pre-credits sequence, added by Julian Bond, does tend to give the game away somewhat). But whilst it’s not the most interesting story, Wilmer is once again good value as the eccentric Professor.