Somewhere between the Technicolor explosion of Hammer Gothic circa 1957 and the murkier, browner depths of ‘exploitation’ (a term not in common usage this side of the pond until at least 1966) lurks a half-forgotten monochrome netherworld. And in this financially constrained yet aesthetically striking place, ‘mongst scattered Butchers thrillers, lurid Poe adaptations and all sorts of unclassifiable nonsense (a lot of it starring Michael Gough) dwells The Hands of Orlac.
Largely unseen, even by devotees of 60s Brit horror, and a major project of its time (a French-British coproduction between Pendennis Films and Riviera International, and shot in two versions with differing casts and scripts) its rarity would suggest the possibility of a lost classic. Sadly, this is not the case- whilst by no means a bad film (Sydney J Furie’s Snake Woman, reviewed elsewhere in this book, has that angle covered) it’s simply an unremarkable one.
Whilst undoubtedly attractive in a visual sense, and of interest to lovers of ‘classic’ terror as a remake of an earlier picture (Mad Love), it contains, for a horror film, very little actual horror at all: as a psychological thriller, it’s neither thrilling nor particularly psychological, and whereas the melodrama of the 1930s film was part of its appeal, this version hovers uneasily between Grand Guignol theatrics and the grittier, pre-Social Realist tendencies of its director’s previous outing Beat Girl (1959), failing to successfully align itself with either approach. In fact, considering that a year earlier Michael Powell had made Peeping Tom in the UK, Franju had released Eyes Without A Face to much acclaim in Europe, and Alfred Hitchcock had helmed Psycho in the US, the film almost seems retrogressive- even with the plot shifted into a ‘present day’ setting.
With a cast that practically reads like a Who’s Who of seasoned Brit horror stalwarts (Christopher Lee, Donald Pleasence, Donald Wolfit, Felix Aylmer, David Peel, Arnold Diamond, Janina Faye, Anita Sharp Bolster, Gertan Klauber), two hot female leads (Dany Carel and Lucille Saint Simon) and a decent enough American expat (Mel Ferrer) in the title role, expectations were high- but such a cast can only work with the material they’ve been given, and somehow, the scriptwriter seems to have taken the constituent parts of Maurice Renard’s original story (which the film actually claims to be more faithful to) and removed all the most interesting bits, leaving us with the standard tale (old hat even at the time of Mad Love) of the pianist, injured in an accident, whose hands are replaced with those of an insane killer, but with no dreamlike sequences or supernatural content (imagined or otherwise) to move things along.
As the silent 1924 version by Robert Weine has so far eluded me, I cannot comment on its aesthetic content: however, anyone who has seen the 1935 MGM adaptation will be familiar with Peter Lorre’s iconic portrayal of Dr Gogol, whose jealousy of the pianist’s relationship with the beautiful heroine leads him to hypnotise his patient into thinking he is a murderer. Here, there is no Gogol (and thus no romantic intrigue) so we’re left to believe that Orlac thinks he might hurt his wife merely because he reads about the killer in a newspaper, while the surgeon that performed the operation (Wolfit) appears to have little or no ulterior motive and is thus almost superfluous to the plot. What we do get is a turn from Christopher Lee, at the height of his fame but obviously already eager to branch out from ‘Gothic’ roles, as the down-at-heel, unsuccessful magician Dr Nero, who “just happens to” live (alongside Carel, here cast as his tarty assistant) in the tawdry hotel Orlac checks into under an assumed name after going a bit loopy and leaving his wife “for her own safety”.
Clearly Lee is supposed to provide the Lorre angle, but whereas the German actor played Gogol like someone clearly in the grip of madness, Lee plays Nero like the out-and-out slimy charlatan he is, too financially motivated for us to believe he might possess any real mesmeric powers: after all, no true propagator of evil would shack up in a hotel room with an annoying ye-ye singer. Yet in thespian terms, he steals the show, out-acting the strangely uncharismatic Ferrer by a country mile and taking possession of the film as a result. Hamming with style, and delivering the type of dialogue he loves to deny ever uttering these days, such as “I couldn’t stop you, you were born a slut and you’ll always be one” he’s at his seedy best, a natural progression from his Beat Girl role, and after a while, you stop giving a damn about Ferrer and just want to see more of him- which is obviously not what Pendennis (no, me neither), Riviera or co-producers British Lion had in mind when they hired the American for a presumably large fee.
Still, they would insist on doing this back then. If we were to sell the film Stateside, we needed a Yank (fnarr): it’s just a shame that it often tended to be the wrong one. OK, Dana Andrews’ performance in Night Of The Demon may have been a masterstroke, Brian Donlevy had drastically improved by the second (and best) Quatermass film, and Paul Henreid, Robert Webber and Dean Jagger put in some admirable efforts, but a cursory glance through titles of the era will also unveil some contemptible duffers delivered by the likes of Gene Evans, Nick Adams, Marshall Thompson and Kerwin Matthews, (although the worst offender of all, Keiron Moore, despite a spell in Hollywood, was actually Irish).
Ferrer isn’t quite on that level of badness here, and he’d had a fairly distinguished career beforehand, but he still comes off somehow as an unbelievably bland lead, convincing neither as a square-jawed ‘hunka man’ or a tortured artist. They should have stuck their necks out and got an Englishman in (John Gregson would have been ideal) but things don’t work that way, do they? You also get the feeling that Ferrer wasn’t really interested in the film- and he’s not the only one either, with the dramatist’s plot meandering suspenselessly between one studio-bound conversation and another and Orlac’s arrival at the hotel more or less just ‘happening’ with very little prior dramatic build-up.
In the role of Mrs Orlac, Saint-Simon also seems a bit of a damp squib: one minute her husband’s got his hands round her throat, telling her she’s “not safe with him”, the next, he’s buggered off to the south of France, accompanied by some incongruously jaunty music, and she doesn’t even seem that perturbed- with at least another 40 minutes’ worth of plot (including a glittering yet pointless cameo from Donald Pleasence, who must have just ‘been there’ at the time ala Lee in Deathline twelve years later) elapsing before she even attempts to look for him. I mean, I’ve heard of ‘non-committal’, but this is stretching things a bit- unless, alternatively, this was Greville’s attempt at a realist depiction of marriage as opposed to the fairytale depicted in much Gothic fare, which I doubt.
If truth be known, it takes a long time for a lot of things to get going. Over an hour in, there still haven’t been any murders (except the unnecessary and rather gruesome offing of an innocent dog) and the ‘establishment’- Felix Aylmer, playing a sympathetic doctor in exactly the manner which makes you realise just why the likes of Ken Williams loved him so much, and avuncular copper Campbell Singer- has only just cottoned on (as has Saint-Simon) that the hands of hanged murderer Vasseur have been grafted onto the pianist.
Leaving this revelation, which the audience were well aware of from the start, till so near the end, is an admirable attempt at subtlety, but effectively robs the film of even more horror potential: as a result, the first remotely eerie moment (actually a ‘scooby doo’ involving Lee and a mask) doesn’t happen until 71 minutes in, the first ‘tension’ onscreen is only visible less than 15 minutes from the end, and the only ‘murder’ (of a character who was quite obviously going to get it all along), at nearly 90 minutes in, is nothing to do with Orlac at all!! I ask you, was there any point in actually including him in the film? They could have invented another plot entirely with Lee’s cackling magician in the lead and it would have been a whole lot better. And as for that theme tune…well, I’m quite partial to the odd chanteuse, and it makes a welcome change from “dun dun durrrr” I suppose, but whether it’s the right one is a matter of opinion.
Is it possible to make a horror film where you forget to put in any scary bits and just concentrate on the outward aesthetics? I think Greville’s pulled it off here, accidentally or otherwise. It looks beautiful, but so does the seafront at Largs in August, and I wouldn’t want to watch that for 95 minutes either. There’s a clever twist (no, not telling you) which almost redeems everything, but it still doesn’t stop you feeling a tad short-changed, or wondering what the likes of Lance Comfort, Montgomery Tully, John Gilling or even Val Guest might have done with it. None of them were cinematic auteurs, but at least something might have happened! Even the most atrocious plots of all time (James Kelly’s The Beast In The Cellar springing immediately to mind) are memorable, and worthy of reciting over a few pints among fellow buffs, but I can’t see many people’s conversations wandering toward this one, except maybe to consider how surprising the inertia of the whole affair is considering the commendable standard of the director’s other work.
As mentioned earlier, the highly professional finish Greville brings to the proceedings, and the fact that it works on technical and artistic levels, prevents it from being called a bad film, and therefore, it certainly wouldn’t qualify on a ‘worst of British’ list alongside The Comic, Disciple Of Death, Secrets Of The Phantom Caverns, The Last Night, Beyond Bedlam or The Fantasist: but its mediocrity, and inability to make usage of all the ‘right ingredients’, is in some ways worse. File under ‘one to watch if you happen to find it round someone’s house when they’ve gone to bed’.
NB: Apparently, according to at least one esteemed colleague, the French version (featuring Franca Bel as a prostitute not included in the British plot, no Janina Faye, and a full frontal close-up of Carel’s norks) is better. Though not necessarily for those reasons….