DEATH GRIP: THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS (1947)

October 29, 2013

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Society prefers death to be hidden.  Bodies are covered in sheets, buried in caskets. There are no morgues in malls, but they are cast into hospital basements, where even lost visitors are unlikely to stumble upon it. Our mortality is a fact of life we are abstractly aware of, but a mutual pact has been made to keep it out of public view. Horror films have exploited this reluctance by making corpses ultra-visible, re-animating limp flesh and exposing the viscera that once gave us life. Frankenstein is the model for this, its monster cobbled together from the remnants of other bodies. In a macabre subgenre, body parts are severed and gain life of their own, including one that involves, creeping, scampering, choking hands. The mangled classic in this strange sector is The Beast With Five Fingers (1947), in which Peter Lorre is convinced a severed hand is murdering the inhabitants of an Italian mansion. Other entries include The Hands of Dr. Orlac (1924), The Crawling Hand (’63), Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (’65) and, succinctly, The Hand (1981, an early Oliver Stone effort), but the Lorre film is the one that endures, and it has received a longer life in a DVD from Warner Archive,  released just in time for Halloween.

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No one WB assigned to the project had interest in making it. Director Robert Florey took a three-month suspension for rejecting the job, before finally acceding for a paycheck. Lorre was exhausted of playing shifty eyed weirdos, but did his contractually obligated duty. After reading the script Lorre told Florey, “Don’t worry. Since you are in trouble I’ll keep two Pernod bottles in my dressing room.” WB purchased the rights to the short story by W.F. Harvey in 1942, though a satisfactory script wasn’t completed until Curt Siodmak submitted his draft in ’46. Siodmak shifted the scenario from straight creature feature to a psychological thriller. In Harvey’s story the hand is a menace seen by all, but in the movie it’s a terror that may or may not be a figment of Lorre’s imagination. Lorre plays Hilary, the long-time secretary to ailing concert pianist Francis Ingram (Victor Francen), who lives in a crumbling mansion in the Italian village of San Stefano. Half of Ingram’s body is paralyzed, so he plays Bach’s Chaconne with only his left hand. The arrangement for this Bach one-hander is put together by Conrad (Robert Alda), an out of work composer who makes his money swindling tourists. After Ingram’s death, his family gathers at the mansion for the reading of the will – in which his entire inheritance is bequeathed to his lovely nurse Julie (Andrea King). Family members turn up strangled to death, and Hilary is convinced it is Ingram’s good hand, seeking vengeance on his money grubbing relatives.

Siodmak wanted Paul Henreid for the role of Hilary, but Henreid told the screenwriter he, “wouldn’t play opposite a bloody hand.” It was not a desirable project for cast or crew, although when Florey resigned himself to making it, he thought he struck on an exciting stylistic choice – to shoot the film entirely from Hilary’s point of view. Florey, who was the original choice to direct Frankenstein before James Whale took over, had a keen visual sense, and wanted to use the film as a late experiment in German Expressionism, using warped sets and POV shots to express Hilary’s deteriorating mind. It was likely during this period that Florey asked Luis Bunuel for some ideas on the project. Bunuel was in the U.S. for the third time, looking for work. Warner Brothers hired him to do some dubbing work. In his autobiography My Last Sigh, he recalls that he, “thought up a scene that shows the beast, a living hand, moving through a library. Lorre and Florey liked it, but the producer absolutely refused to use it.” Producer William Jacobs swiftly shot their  ideas down as “commercially unthinkable.” A version of the library scene does exist in the film, and Bunuel thought of suing WB because of it. Instead he stored the image of “the beast” away, which appears in The Exterminating Angel.

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Florey and Lorre had worked together before in 1941, in the disturbing gangster melodrama The Face Behind the Mask. In that more personal film, Lorre plays an impoverished immigrant who resorts to a life of crime to stay alive – a violent allegory of both men’s experiences hustling and debasing themselves in Hollywood. Florey was born in France, and came to Hollywood’s attention with his scathing experimental short with Slavko Vorkapich and Gregg Toland, The Life and Death of 9413, a Hollywood Extra. Reportedly made for $97, it mixes cut-out silhouettes and live action to depict two small town dreamers get crushed in the Hollywood machine. Now Florey was part of that same machinery. Saddled with an unsympathetic producer and a script he didn’t approve, he still manages to carve out scenes of disorienting menace.

Forget the love subplot between Conrad and Julie, or the bumbling Inspector (J. Caroll Naish) who camps his way through the movie – it is the scenes with Lorre where Florey’s original conception pokes through. Lorre is dressed all in black, his hair clipped short, and is always lit from below, with his head so isolated by the composition it looks decapitated. Florey presents him as an incomplete man who lives inside his own head. Hilary’s cause is astrology, he believes he has found the key that will unlock all its secrets, “the law that can predict unknown fate into predictable fact.” He skulks in the library with his occult books, clutching them like sacred runes. Then the murders begin, and the hand gropes its way closer into his consciousness. While an inveterate prankster on the set (he would hide the bloody prop hand all over Andrea King’s person), he was locked in once the camera started rolling. He gives one of his most moving performances as the beatific Hilary, lending him an air of saint-like calm despite his increasingly paranoiac actions. He plays things quiet and tentative, almost sleepy, as if he is the somnambulist from Caligari. 

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Florey is allowed a few experiments in POV shots when Hilary encounters the hand in the library, as it pokes its way out of a cigar box and onto the table. Through super-imposition, motorized models and old-school illusionism (it’s Florey’s hand poking out of the box), the hand becomes legitmately menacing, a physical remnant of Ingram clinging to his home and possessions. Hilary chases it into the stacks, tossing down leather-bound editions until he finds it creeping behind a row, seemingly wanted to page through one of its (his?) favorites. Then, in a gruesome example of Hilary’s deteroriating psyche, he nails the hand to a board. The sequence is punctuated by jarring inserts, to a mandolin strink breaking and distorted angles of Lorre’s face, that approximate what Florey had intended for the entire feature. It’s a totalizing vision of horror, that plucked string one of Hilary’s last nerves snapping, the world a clattering whorl of his inner and outer lives collapsing in on each other. The hand then performs a haunting solo version of the Bach Chaconne, its rotting stump more in tune with human frailty than the supposed heroes of the tale.Later, when he throws the hand in the fire – only for the ember-hot appendage to crawl up and curl its digits around his neck – it’s become clear that this severed limb murder is much self-inflicted as an act of supernatural outrage.

All of the tantalizing enigmas in the plot are cheerily resolved in the studio-shot ending, which replaces Florey and Lorre’s self-annihilating horror with glib irony. It ends with J. Carroll Naish laughing into the camera about the gullibility of the audience, attempting to brush all those thoughts about mortality away. But the images that Florey constructs aren’t so easily dispatched. The bloody stump that plays Bach in an abandoned mansion is both rotting flesh and emotive spirit, expressing in one uncanny scene our damned impermanence and dream of immortality through art.

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