“You wanna know what movie scared me? That crazy picture where a hand chases Peter Lorre all over the house!”
This was the answer I received, circa 1967, from one of my parents' friends, who still shuddered as she told of her frightening movie-going experience. The question was sparked by my curiosity as to whether or not any adults could give me first-hand information about 1930/40s scary pictures – thus beating Scream to the punch by nearly twenty years (although sadly I didn't follow it up by brutally murdering them).
The movie, whose title eluded the defiantly non-horror fan, was the classic 1947 Robert Florey-directed chiller THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS, now available on DVD-R by demand from The Warner Archive Collection.
Peter Lorre, the movie's actual star, was relegated to third billing – a move by Warners to legitimize this type of film fare (more about that later); the faux leads are Robert Alda and Andrea King, each then recently contracted to the studio. I guess I don't have to gush on about Lorre. The role of Hilary – an astrology-obsessed manic personal secretary to a partially paralyzed, wholly crazed piano virtuoso fit him...well, like a glove. His expertise at villainy needs no further explanation. A former student of Freud, pop-eyed Lorre, when prompted, could bug out at the drop of a butcher cleaver – and as his voice shrieked to Kirk Douglas proportions – would systematically blow his costars off the screen. In short, if you had to have ANY human appendage chase someone around the room – you couldn't pick a better victim than Peter Lorre.
I want to devote more space to French-born Robert Florey – one of Hollywood's most interesting artists. Florey got his start in the biz by convincing Tinsel Town hoi polloi at an industry gala to look at his avant-garde short The Life and Death of a Hollywood Extra, codirected with Slavko Vorkapich. That was in 1928, and, apparently it was amusing and innovative enough (back when that sort of nonsense called creativity kinda mattered) to get him signed to Paramount. Always keen on the latest technology, Florey was assigned to direct the Marx Brothers' first talkie, 1929's The Cocoanuts. An odd choice, as Groucho recalled, since Florey really didn't understand English too well; thus, according to the comedian Joseph Santley was called in to codirect. Florey's fascination with sound nevertheless negated his hands-on participation, as his convulsive laughter at the Brothers' improvised antics forced him to be relegated to a specially constructed glass booth. When Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo saw him shaking and turning red in the face – they knew they had a take.
Florey's major interest was in the bizarre and the atmospheric. It's no surprise that in 1931 he was given the Universal plum assignment of directing Bela Lugosi in Frankenstein – the obvious follow-up to that year's earlier Dracula. Supposedly problems with the Hungarian actor's refusal to submit to the torturous makeup halted the production, which was then turned over to James Whale, who eventually recast Boris Karloff. Florey was given the consolation prize of Murders in the Rue Morgue, again with Lugosi. The movie is visual Poe-tic masterpiece; add the speed with which the director achieved his remarkable images...and voila – Florey's future was assured.
Florey's quick but inventive style made him the King of Paramount's B's; in fact, he made one of (in my opinion) the greatest B-pictures of all-time, 1937's Daughter of Shanghai, starring Anna May Wong. Despite the pulpy title, it's a harrowing look at the plight of illegal immigrants.
The Florey/Lorre story began in 1941 with Columbia's Face Behind the Mask – which chronicled a disfigured Eastern European refugee's downward spiral into crime. In effect, they did a lot with a little.
By 1947, Florey was firmly ensconced at Warner Bros. (excelling in film noirs like the underrated Danger Signal); whether he asked for Lorre or vice versa isn't clear to me, but they obviously felt confident working with one another...and the result shows.
The speed-necessity factor required for the emerging television format guaranteed a spot for post-war Florey employment. He remained in TV until the end of his life – helming some of the best episodes of Thriller, The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
For Warner Bros. horror was a four-letter word. They avoided the genre whenever possible. Their two pre-code classics Dr. X (1932) and Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) were actually done to use up a contract with Technicolor – a process the studio had initially high hopes for – but now were obligated to quota fill a feature-film schedule. Even later works such as The Walking Dead (1936) and Return of Dr. X (1939) were less horror than gangster-oriented, the latter being a genre they were infinitely more comfortable with.
When The Big Sleep wrapped in 1945, director Howard Hawks pressured Jack Warner about Dreadful Hollow, a gothic vampire thriller Hawks had co-written with William Faulkner. Warner, who had been waffling on the project since Hawks first suggested it (reportedly as early as 1943’s Air Force), finally lowered the boom and frankly told the director that “...we don't really do those kind of pictures here.” Hawks unceremoniously left Warners and Dreadful Hollow and began to prep Red River (the completed script to Dreadful Hollow still exists and warrants a reading as it's friggin' great).
I should mention that Jack Warner, or more precisely, Jack Warner's duplicitous ass, is renowned for coining the lip-biting comment “Never let that s.o.b. back here again – unless we need him!” His dissing of horror movies can be similarly adapted to his later curmudgeonly acquiescence to produce 1953's House of Wax; ironically, it became the highest-grossing fright flick in Hollywood history (bringing in the equivalent of nearly a half a billion 2013 dollars).
What Hawks and Faulkner thought of Warners releasing THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS in 1947 – the year when Dreadful Hollow would possibly have been completed – has never been recorded. Revenge may have reared its deadly head when the pair made Land of the Pharaohs for the studio in 1955 – one of the industry's most infamous flops (but a pic I love with a passion).
THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS was scripted by the reliable Curt Siodmak and was, in turn, based upon a story by William Fryer Harvey. For Lorre, hand jive was old stuff, having been palm-possessed in 1935's Mad Love, an adaptation of Hands of Orlac. This was even madder love, as the entire foreboding villa (wherein the Italian-set 1910 period narrative unfolds) is rife with greedy, seedy obsessive lunatics.
As indicated earlier, Lorre is in the employ of a sinister pianist – the outrageously unlikeable Victor Francen. As the wheelchair-confined musician Francis Ingram, Francen salivates over his hottie nurse Julie (Andrea King). He likes touching her with his good hand – but, also, much to his shock, genuinely adores and trusts her. That said, Julie is a virtual prisoner in the joint since, in addition to being a vindictive perv, Ingram is also a miserly bastard (nevertheless he evidently pays Julie enough to afford gowns by Travilla).
Lorre, too, worships Julia, to the extent that he later regrets having to kill her...but that's neither here nor there. Julie's true love is Bruce Conrad (Alda) – a brilliant composer and master of one-armed pianist arrangements – who nonetheless makes his living as a con man...selling worthless treasures to dumb American tourists.
Alda was really an unusual Hollywood leading man since, while extremely affable, he always played untrustworthy, dodgy characters...for instance, the shady resistance fighter in Fritz Lang's Cloak and Dagger, the oily nightclub owner in Raoul Walsh's The Man I Love and the evil genius George Gershwin in Rhapsody in Blue. Bruce's advice to lover Julie is to get the hell out, as whack-job Ingram “...draws his energy from your life.” As he earlier warned a vacationing couple of the dangers of salami, it's obvious that he's a man of great knowledge. Of course, perhaps as much he covets Julie, Conrad yearns for the kooky composer's dough, so the fact that he's the hero in THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS attests to the picture's high percentage of lowlifes. Add Ingram's dirt-bag relatives (Charles Dingle and John Alvin) and a scumbag lawyer (David Hoffman) and you have the perfect ingredients for the title character's recipe for finger food.
“I want your testimony that I'm not insane,” is the impossible dream Ingram demands. The fact that he's asking Peter Lorre for this affidavit instantly makes this a Catch-22 request (FYI, it isn't a good idea to ask anything from someone you had just throttled so viciously that it has left bloodied indents on his throat).
Alas, later amidst a terrifying thunderstorm, a bedeviled Ingram sees Caligari-esque visions which send him careening down a staircase as if pushed by a thousand invisible Richard Widmarks.
Soon there are lights in the mausoleum, which upon investigation by cheery local Police Commissario Castanio (J. Carrol Naish) reveal that Ingram's corpse has been tampered with – his good hand now missing and roaming the grounds for revenge.
Verification of the ghostly mitt is proven by its nocturnal strangling the ivory – perfect Ingram renditions of Bruce's Bach for One-Hand Dummies arrangements.
Even the skeptical commissario admits “In my mind there is no doubt – the hand is a-walking around.”
And not just walking: sprinting, choking, vandalizing – doing everything but snapping its digits to Mack the Knife.
This is one eerie, loopy movie – and, despite any Jack Warner's reservations may have harbored, ended up being one of the studio's top money makers for 1947 (along with Dark Passage and Life with Father).
It's the closest a rival Hollywood factory came to copying the RKO Val Lewton style; however, since this is Warner Bros. there's a sizeable injection of the one emotion missing from the Lewtons – humor, mostly from Naish, the ethnically inclined character actor who repeatedly played every nationality but rarely his own (Irish).
The movie became an entire cottage industry for comics, who based generations of Lorre impressions upon his characterization of nutty Hilary. The hand itself became a beloved quasi-celebrity, notably paid homage as Thing on The Addams Family TV series. The special effects also deserve a big nod – being amazingly graphic (rib meat marrow and bone stumps) and impressively high-tech and sophisticated – the thumbs-up labors of H. Koenkamp and part-time director William McGann.
The 35MM transfer looks terrific – the best quality I've ever seen on this title. So, for those BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS buffs, be prepared to be wowed. This ain't one of them murky B&W prints we grew up with throughout the 1960s and 1970s. It's a crispy critter – with rich contrast and relatively clean (meaning emulsion scratch and negative dust free – another annoyance from days of yore). Cinematographer Wes Anderson (oh, I so WISH it was the same dude) can at last rest easy. The music by Max Steiner is appropriately loud and onerous, and, indicative of the maestro – never subtle.
There's even the original theatrical trailer – which I had never seen, but is quite alarming in and of itself. “The most terrifying adventure ever HURLED from the screen!” it threatens making me happy that Warners waited another six years before entering the unhygienic hurl-friendly 3-D arena.
THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS. Black and White. Full frame [1.37:1]; Mono audio. CAT # 883316843062. SRP. $19.95.