Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Beast with Five Fingers (1946)

Director: Robert Florey                                  Writer: Curt Siodmak
Film Score: Max Steiner                                Cinematography: Wesley Anderson
Starring: Peter Lorre, Robert Alda, Andrea King and Victor Francen

Ah, Curt Siodmak, he of the autonomous body part horror story. This one is an old dark house mystery written during his brief tenure at Warner Brothers and just before he began writing more for television. Unlike Donovan’s Brain, which was trapped in a jar and had to wreak havoc through telepathy, this time we have an actual hand operating on it’s own to seek revenge on the dead owner’s enemies. Siodmak certainly had a gift, and wrote some remarkable works at Universal like The Wolf Man and Son of Dracula, but for me his science-fiction works strain credulity. Granted, this story was not originally his, concocted by British author William Fryer Harvey in 1928, but The Beast with Five Fingers is right in Siodmak’s wheelhouse, no doubt inspired by his novel Donovan’s Brain, published four years earlier.

The setting is an odd one, in a tiny village in the Swiss Alps. Robert Alda, decked out in jet-black hair and a pencil moustache, plays a con man working tourists to the village. He is friends with a famous concert pianist who lives in a large villa. Victor Francen is the pianist, the victim of a stroke who only has the use of his left hand. Alda is apparently a skilled musician himself and transcribed a number of works for the left hand for Francen. Also living in the villa are Francen’s secretary, Peter Lorre, obsessed with astrology and certain he can learn some important secret found in the books of Francen’s library, and his nurse Andrea King, in love with Alda and wanting to leave the employ of Francen. One night Francen wakes up, agitated, and heads out in his wheelchair, accidentally falling down the stairs and killing himself. When the relatives show up, Charles Dingle and John Alvin, they’re more than a little shocked and angry to learn that Francen has left his entire estate to King. It’s at this point that people begin dying, apparently at the “hand” of Francen.

This is definitely a flawed film. Warner Brothers never really had much success in the horror genre, with the exception of Michael Curtiz’s Mystery of the Wax Museum. When Siodmak adapted the story he had Paul Henreid in mind for the part of Francen’s secretary but the actor, who saw himself only as a leading man, flatly rejected the idea. Director Robert Florey was so insulted at being given the project that he boycotted the film and stayed away from the studio for three months without pay. When he returned, however, he was still expected to film the project. Both Florey and Peter Lorre hated the script and wanted to do the film in an expressionistic style, all from the point of view of Lorre’s character. They were turned down by Jack Warner and saddled with the original script. Lorre had a hard time taking the film seriously and it shows in his performance, walking through the film as if he were in a trance. And while this might be explained by Florey’s attempt to shoehorn his original idea into the film, all of the overt suggestions of that attempt were edited out by the studio, and what remains is underwhelming.

Robert Alda received top billing in the picture but has very little to do. While he makes a decent red herring, he also brings very little to the plot. Andrea King, while not necessarily bad, is certainly no great shakes as an actress, and the bizarre hairstyle given to her by the makeup department defies explanation. J. Carrol Naish plays the local police commissioner and does a respectable job, that is, until the end. There the script has him inexplicably hamming it up directly to the audience and making a joke out of the whole thing. The film hangs on a delicate precipice as it is at that point, and this utterly destroys it. Charles Dingle brings his usual cunning to the proceedings, but in this context it seems entirely out of place. The special effects utilizing real hands are one of the highlights of the film, but when the rubber hand is used it falls flat. Easily the best aspect of the film is Max Steiner’s score, but even that is a little too vaguely reminiscent of Gone With the Wind at times. The Beast with Five Fingers might be considered a classic by many, but for discerning fans of the genre it is ultimately a let down.

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