Mad Love/The Hands of Orlac (1935) ***
It has frequently been observed that Hollywood horror in the 1930ísó and Universal horror especiallyó was disproportionately the province of German immigrants. Universal bosses Carl Laemmle and Carl Laemmle Jr.; Dracula cinematographer and The Mummy director Karl Freund; The Black Cat director Edgar G. Ulmeró all hailed originally from Germany, while such notable silent-era German scare specialists as F. W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, and Conrad Veidt would also end up in the US by the mid-30ís (although the latter men made few if any horror pictures on this side of the Atlantic). So I find it interesting that it was not Universal, but their competitors at MGM who produced the first direct American remake of an older German horror film. Mad Love/The Hands of Orlac had been filmed in 1924 as Orlacs Hšnde, which had featured Veidt (often but erroneously described as the first horror movie star) in the central role of the dedicated musician who loses his hands in an accident, gets them replaced with those of a recently executed murderer by a brilliant surgeon, and eventually comes to believe that the transplanted hands are trying to turn him into a killer like their original owner. MGM didnít go to Veidt to reprise the role, despite the fact that the actor had been working in Hollywood for some years by 1935. Nevertheless, the new movieís cast would indeed include a German actor with strong genre credentialsó Peter Lorre, the serial killer from Fritz Langís M, for whom Mad Love was his big break in the US movie industry.
Lorre plays an accomplished but unbalanced surgeon and medical researcher named Dr. Gogol, and when we meet him, he is in Paris, indulging in his favorite leisure activity. Gogol has spent each of the last 47 evenings in a private box at the Grand Guignol-like ThŤ‚tre des Horreurs, watching actress Yvonne Orlac (The Invisible Rayís Frances Drake) as she portrays an adulterous noblewoman on the receiving end of a daunting array of medieval tortures. This is the last night for the play in question, and after the show, Gogol finagles his way backstage to pay his compliments to Miss Orlac directly and in person. And as one might surmise from the wistful look on the doctorís face while he was gazing at the wax statue of Yvonne out in the lobby, or from his almost orgasmic reaction to the sight of her squirming on the rack onstage (just you try to watch this scene without thinking of Pee Wee Herman sitting in a porno theater with his dork in his hand), the real reason why Gogol is so eager to talk to Yvonne is because heís in love with her. Unfortunately for him, Gogol has erred in assuming that ďMissĒ is the appropriate honorific for Yvonne Orlac; not only is she married, sheís married to wealthy, world-renowned pianist Stephen Orlac (Colin Clive, from Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein), and now that her engagement at the ThŤ‚tre des Horreurs is over with, sheís hanging up her spurs and moving to London to be with her husband. This makes Dr. Gogol a sad panda. At least he can console his twisted little self by buying that wax effigy of his beloved from the movers who come to collect it when the theater closes down.
Meanwhile, Stephen Orlac has been in some other city, knocking peopleís socks off with his piano-playing. On the train back to Paris, Orlac ends up in the same compartment with some fat guy who didnít get his name in the credits. This fat guy has ďplot deviceĒ written all over him; heís an autograph collector, and as soon as he overhears that among the other passengers on the train are the policemen transporting a convicted murderer called Rollo (Edward Brophy, whose casting may be a little inside jokeó he had previously played one of the circus-owning Rollo Brothers in Freaks, and his current character once worked as a sideshow knife thrower) to his execution, he rushes off to get the condemned manís signature. A needless and faintly ludicrous contrivance involving the fat manís dog puts Orlac in Rolloís compartment for long enough to see the killer use a pen to demonstrate his deadly knife-throwing technique. The real point of all this is to introduce Rollo, and to make sure Orlac knows about him too, but for now weíve got something a bit more important to worry about. The train jumps its tracks a few miles outside of Paris, and Orlac is among the injured when the authorities come to the rescue; his hands have been crushed, and Yvonne is simply devastated.
As for Rollo, he survived the wreck with barely a scratch, and he proceeds as scheduled to his date with the guillotine. There are two noteworthy witnesses to the execution, as it happens. One is the inevitable comic relief reporter, an American journalist named Reagan (Ted Healy). The other is Dr. Gogol. Officially, the doctor is there to serve as a medical examiner, but really he just likes watching people get their heads chopped off. When the two men meet, Reagan begins pestering Gogol to write articles for his newspaper, which the doctor refuses to do. But apparently securing his agreement is a big part of Reaganís assignment, because heíll spend the rest of the movie prowling around Gogolís place, first on a continued quest to cut him a publishing deal, but later in order to get to the bottom of all the weird shit that starts going on around the surgeonís home.
That weirdness begins when Yvonne learns that Stephenís doctor intends to amputate his now-useless hands. Remembering that Gogol, no matter how icky he may be, is among the top surgeons in Europe, and realizing that she of all people is in an ideal position to pump him for favors, Yvonne goes to the doctor and begs him to save her husbandís hands. That simply isnít possible, but Gogol has what he thinks is a workable Plan B. Getting on the phone to Police Prefect Rosset (Henry Kolker, from Black Moon and The Black Room), Gogol talks him into releasing Rolloís body into his custody. Then he lops off the dead killerís hands, and uses them to replace the ones he saws off of the pianist. Gogol understands that this is going to sound way creepy to anyone he explains it to, however, so he keeps his mouth shut about the transplant when Orlac comes out from under the anesthetic. The doctor dismisses his patientís observation that his hands no longer look or feel like his own by saying that they were badly crushed, and that thereís only so much that even the best surgeon can do.
But even with new hands, it can scarcely be said that Orlacís life is back to normal. For one thing, itís going to take a long and arduous course of physical therapy before Orlacís manual dexterity will be anything like what it was before the accident. Long and arduous courses of physical therapy donít come cheap, either, and while Orlac has plenty of money socked away, he wonít have any income at all until after he is sufficiently recovered to play the piano at the professional level. Naturally, the money runs out before the therapy has run its course, and the Orlacs fall into dire financial straits. Even that isnít nearly as worrisome as something Orlac picks up on whenever he finds himself getting angry or frustrated, however. He may not be able to play the piano like he used to, but somehow or other, heís learned to throw knives with unerring accuracy. Whatís more, he has the odd impression that his hands want to use that new skill to kill people.
Concerned, Orlac goes back to Gogol to demand an explanation. The doctor feeds Orlac some quasi-Freudian horseshit about delayed wish-fulfillment, and sends him on his unsatisfied way. Gogol tells his assistant that to learn the truth in his agitated state might very well make a real killer out of the man, but itís obvious that wheels are turning in the surgeonís head in ways that can only bode ill for somebody. Eventually, the two currents of anxiety in Orlacís life come together when he finally bites the bullet and goes to see his estranged father (or maybe stepfatheró the script canít seem to make up its mind) at his antique shop about a loan. The two men just end up fighting, and in a fit of pique, Stephen grabs a convenient knife from the counter and hurls it, missing his fatherís head by inches. And because the elder Orlacís stock clerk is on hand to see the altercation, there will be someone in a position to tell the incriminating story when the police find the old man dead the next day. What might be even worse than that is what confronts Stephen when he obeys a mysterious summons to a downtown inn, which promises to open Orlacís eyes to the truth about whatís happening to him. When Orlac enters the room identified in the note, he meets a man in a trenchcoat, Stetson hat, and dark glasses, with metal hands and a heavy brace around his neck. The man introduces himself as Rollo, and claims that Dr. Gogol not only grafted his hands onto the pianistís wrists, but reconnected Rolloís severed head as well! The resurrected killer (if indeed thatís who the steel-handed man is) also informs Orlac that he himself, acting on impulses from the transplanted appendages, is the culprit in his fatherís murder. And now that Rollo mentions it, Stephen realizes that he canít seem to remember what he was up to the night before, when the crime took place.
Over the years, Mad Love has developed a reputation as something approaching a work of forgotten genius. Really, itís nowhere near that good, but it is highly entertaining, and by watching it, youíll get to see Peter Lorre in the role that would haunt him for the rest of his career. This is honestly one of his best performances (no actor Iíve seen has ever captured the emotional state of Lunatic Dejection better than Lorre does here), and whoever it was who came up with the characterís look made absolutely optimum use of Lorreís physical appearance, but this is still the role that Lorre never lived down, in much the same way that Bela Lugosi never lived down Count Dracula. The flipside of that is that this too is a movie that really belongs to the villain, and the rest of the cast is not so memorable (except, that is, for the comic relief reporter and a second comic relief character whom I just didnít have the heart to talk about in the synopsis above). Those whose primary memory of him is as the title character in Frankenstein will be amazed at how unremarkable Colin Clive is in Mad Love, no matter how desperately tormented his character is supposed to be. Frances Drake, meanwhile, is as dull as just about any 30ís-vintage horror movie heroine, and thereís a good chance the only impression of her that youíll take away from the film will concern the travesty the makeup department made of her eyebrows.
The people behind the camera, for the most part, do a better job. Karl Freund has made great strides as a director in the three years since the rather musty The Mummy, and Mad Love is much livelier than is typical for American horror flicks of its time. Some of the tricks he employs look a little dated today, but at least heís bothering to employ tricks this time around. The film also has a very distinctive look to it, as atmospheric as any of the more popular Universal horrors, but without their reliance on moldering castles, foggy graveyards, and the like. The one serious fault I can find with Freundís work here has to do with the pacing, although Iím sure screenwriters P. J. Wolfson and John L. Balderston should shoulder an equal share of the blame in that department. Mad Love shares much of The Mummyís methodical character for most of its length, but it is nowhere near long enough to maintain that measured pace all the way through and still get around to all of the necessary plot developments. Nor does it gather momentum gradually, jumping instead from second gear directly into fifth. The result is that the final act seems rushed, with not enough time given to Orlac facing the possibility that his new hands have made him a murderer before everything is resolved. Indeed, it almost seems as though Mad Love has mislaid its middle somewhere, and is trying to make do with just a long beginning and a staccato end.