Maurice Level classic horror novel Les Mains d'Orlac (1920) is not as well known in English as it is in French, except among horror afficionados.
But it certainly is well known through its various cinematic adaptations & stories it influenced about hand transplants or vengeful crawling hands or one's hands simply turning against the barer thereof with their own sentience.
Atmospheric as all get-out is the silent film adaptation Orlacks Hande (Hands of Orlac, 1924) by the German Expressionist director Robert Weine, best known for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).
Though not Caligari's equal, Orlac has an even larger position in the history of horror for its influence on later films & on written horror literature. Conrad Veidt plays the pianist Stephen Orlac whose destroyed hands are surgically replaced by the hands of the killer Vasseur, by the gifted but unstable surgeon Cerral.
In the silent version both Orlac & Vasseur before him are eventually revealed to be innocent men, & the surgeon Cerral is the only psychopath. Orlac's suffering belief that his hands possess hiim & make him a killer are, thus, merely a psychological obsession, with no underlying supernatural event whatsoever. Remakes to varying degrees play into the psychology of the horrific events.
Of the remakes including even films the theme inspired, the hands-down-best (so to speak) is Mad Love (1935).
Peter Lorre is the Parisian surgeon Dr. Gogol in this spectacular horror film. It had some trouble with distribution in Europe & was badly hacked up by censors. The studio eventually shelved it as not worth the fight & for decades it was just never shown.
If it had remained in the public arena, it would certainly ahve been as famous as Karl Freund's other great horror film The Mummy (1932) which it far exceeds in grandeur of his appalling vision. Though Freund only personally directed ten films, he was one of the original German Expressionist cinematographers who lensed Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1931).
Having put himself in front of the camera as director, Freund needed the best Hollywood could provide him behind it, none other than Gregg Toland, who lensed such moody-gloomy stuff as Les Miserables (1935), Wuthering Heights (1937), Grapes of Wrath (1940) & the incomparable Citizen Kane (1941). It's no wonder then that Mad Love is the visual wonder that it is.
It is tragic that the film was a financial bust in an environment wherein money alone talks. Mad Love was to be the last film Freund directed, though he was to remain fully employed as camera man & helped define the look of film noir through the 1940s, & ending up on television in the 1950s on of all things the I Love Lucy series.
Colin Clive is Stephen Orlac the pianist whose hands are replaced by those of a slasher killer. Frances Drake is his wife Yvonne Orlac, famed actress of the Grand Guinol theater.
Dr. Gogol becomes obsessed with the actress, attending all her performances, watching her with lascivious delight night after night as she re-enacts a tale of medieval torture.
She is quite rightly revolted by his devotion, & his ilk may well be part of the reason she plans on retiring from the stage after the present show, & travel to London with Stephen, following him in his concern career.
But when Stephen, the great concert pianist, has his hands crushed in a train accident, she turns to the horrifying Dr. Gogol for the requisit miracle that will restore her husband's career.
Alas, the weird doctor obtained the replacement hands from a maniac (Edward Brophy) freshly guillotined.
When the surgery succeeds, Stephen discovers his new hands too clumsy for the piano keys, but he does have a definite new talent: extreme accuracy in throwing knives. When the mysterious murders begin, Stephen is easily convinced that his hands possess him to unknowing commit horrific crimes.
Dr. Gogol's shocking machinations are all aimed at obtaining Yvonne Orlac for himself. Since she is married, her husband must be destroyed, & having him hauled away for murder would be quite pleasant. Since she could never actually love such an appalling fiend of her own free will, she must be turned into a veritable zombie of obedience, as a kind of reverse-Pygmalion.
In the meantime Dr. Gogol keeps a wax figure indistinguishable from Yvonne, & bestows his diseased love upon the maniquen.
No description can quite convey how effectively excessive Peter Lorre's performance really is. Dr. Gogol is truly one of the great screen monsters. An incredible sequence has Dr. Gogol in fetish braces & mask, purporting to be the surgically restored Rollo who has lost his head & his hands. It couldn't be any weirder if a head had been sewn back on.
Mel Ferrer plays Stephen Orlac, Lucile Saint-Simon is his wife Louise, & Christopher Lee steals the film as the sinister magician Nero who blackmails Orlac, in the British/French co-producton of The Hands of Orlac (1961).
The jazz score probably seemed a novel update in 1961, yet it must've been a bit campy even to contemporary audiences; it's downright annoying now. Whenever the soundtrack stops for one of its long silent pauses, it's like the lights went out in Georgia.
A mediocre script is hard for these actors to save, but Mel Ferrer tries his best. A witty cast of character actors livens it up it in places, though it isn't easy to tell if they're intentionally being that funny, or, if the actors did it intentionally, whether the director ever caught on.
It's hard to believe the story coudl be done any worse, but imagine if you can this 1961 version sans character actors of interest, & you'll have an idea of what the 1962 American version is like.
Hands of a Stranger (1962) opens with a classic-feeling film noir sequence, shadowy black & white cinematography on a gloomy nighted street, drain pipe dripping on garbage can lid, motel neon in the background, culminating in a drive-by gangster shooting.
But after that impactful opening, the rest of the film seems to have been completed after firing the entire lighting crew for the opening shots. It's mainly very flat brightly lit interiors, void of that first few minutes of artistry.
Neither is it the gangster film that seems likely to follow that inititial sequence. It's a weird tale of an unknown dead man whose hands are transplanted onto the arms of a concert pianist (Paul Lukather) whose own hands were mangled in a car accident.
We're never explicitely told who the man gunned down in the street was; we can assume probably a gangster, perhaps a killer, but no one really knows. If he wasn't such a bad guy, then the story that unfolds is psychological exclusively, & not about the criminality of the dead man's personality lingering in the transplanted hands.
The one strong sequence is the first moment we see the taxi driver after the accident that cost the pianist his hands. It packs a tragic & unexpected punch.
Yet as the pianist turns psychotic & begins killing people, including the taxi driver's sweet young son who had shown promise of himself being a great pianist someday, the film manages with each tough scene to sabotage its own chances at suspense or horror.
Sappy melodramatics are amusing but a poor substitute for mood, drama, or credible dialogue. The script, heavy with tedious jabbering, is so convinced that the transplant surgery itself is such a super-dramatic science fiction idea that too much of the story focuses on the emotions & professional life of the surgeon (James Stapelton) who did the "horrific" operation. He was totally the wrong character for this story's dramatic center with the psycho pianist having so much more potential for interest.
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