As disembodied hand movies go, The Beast with Five Fingers (1946) is all aces. A very atypical project for Warner Bros., a studio hardly known for its horror movies, the picture is a middling A-production whose higher-than-usual budget helps in some ways and hurts in others. Max Steiner's occasionally bombastic but otherwise wonderfully eerie score is terrific, while the film's European (if backlot generated) exoticness is pretty superfluous and Robert Alda and Andrea King are tepid leads at best. Third-billed Peter Lorre, however, working off the last film in his Warner Bros. contract, delivers an unforgettable performance, one that, more than any other film he did before or after, solidified his somewhat misleading reputation as a horror movie star, even though he wouldn't make another out-and-out horror movie until 1962's Tales of Terror.
Though frequently shown on television during the 1970s and released to VHS, this Warner Archive release marks the film's DVD debut. The scuttlebutt is that the original film elements, particularly the audio, were in poor shape. The video transfer here shows a fair amount of wear (scratches, splices, a softer than usual image here and there) but the presentation as it exists now is perfectly acceptable. An amusing trailer, one that mostly avoids showing he-of-the-five-digits, is tossed in as an extra feature.
Based on W. F. Harvey's short story, the movie somewhat pointlessly sets the film in an isolated Italian village in the early 1900s. Pianist Francis Ingram (Victor Francen) lives in the large Villa Francesca but the musician, having suffered a stroke, has lost the use of one side of his body, and with his good hand practices Bach's Violin Partita in D minor, a left-handed-only arrangement by Brahms. (That's pianist Ervin Nyíregyházi's hand performing the piece.)
Also at the manor house live his nurse, Julie Holden (Andrea King), and Hilary Cummins (Peter Lorre), an obsessive astrologist who works as Ingram's secretary, and who has come to regard Ingram's massive library as his own. Musician-turned-minor confidence artist and genial ne'er-do-well Conrad Ryler (Robert Alda, born Alphonso Giuseppe Giovanni Roberto D'Abruzzo) is among the reclusive Ingram's few friends.
Ingram, bound by his wheelchair, awakens one night and accidentally falls down a flight of stairs to his death. In his will, Ingram has left the bulk of his estate to Julie, but Ingram's only living relatives, Americans Raymond Arlington (Charles Dingle) and his son, Donald (John Alvin), conspire with Ingram's lawyer, Duprex (David Hoffman), to contest the will, and also plan on evicting the possessive Cummins.
A light appears in the mausoleum where Ingram is entombed, and later the Bach arrangement, performed in Ingram's distinctive style, is heard played on the grand piano. Duprex is murdered, strangled, and when Ingram's body is exhumed, it's discovered that the good hand has been severed, with evidence suggesting it's now creeping about the estate. Police Commissario Ovidio Castanio (J. Carrol Naish) is called in to investigate.
The nearly 90-minute film, unusually long for a 1940s horror movie, is all build-up for the first hour or so, but once the disembodied hand makes its appearance the picture becomes an almost surreal mini-masterpiece. Partly this is due to the way the mostly superb hand effects were done. About half the time an unidentified pantomimic (not Francen, whose hands are notably hairier) wearing a prosthetic stub near his wrist portrays the animated hand while through clever staging hides the bulk of his arm. Nearly all these scenes are superbly done, partly because the bold, interesting camera angles all but defy the audience to guess how it's being done. One critical shot shows the hand climbing up Cummins's vest, suggesting the performer had to reach through Cummins's buttoned vest, with Lorre leaning forward at an uncomfortable angle while appearing to be sitting up.
Another 40% or so of the hand scenes utilize nearly perfect double exposures and traveling mattes, including most of the shots of the body-less hand playing the piano. Again, the interesting angles (including some shots that reveal the stub where cut bone can be glimpsed) help make the trick work. The remaining 10% of hand scenes use an articulated hand prop that's much less successful. When Lorre is holding it he subtly moves its fingers and it almost seems alive, but crawling across the floor on its lonesome it looks exactly like what it is, a mechanical prop.
Going all the way back to Fritz Lang's M (1931), Peter Lorre was famous playing mentally-disturbed characters, though for most of his career he generally avoided flat-out horror films. In The Beast with Five Fingers he sort of surrenders to this dogged typecasting, cutting loose with an unforgettable, terror-stricken portrait of a complete madman. Though he'd played similar roles in movies as varied as Mad Love, Crime and Punishment (both 1935) and even send-ups like Arsenic and Old Lace (1941), it's specifically Lorre's performance in The Beast with Five Fingers that seems to have spawned the wave of Lorre imitators and which began to typecast him. Consider, for instance, Spike Jones's hilarious recording of "My Old Flame" (1950), with voice artist Paul Frees imitating Lorre so perfectly many assumed it really was Lorre. Frees isn't just mimicking Lorre, he's specifically imitating Lorre's performance in this part.
After all the Daliesque horror, it's a bit disappointing that The Beast with Five Fingers concludes with a non-supernatural explanation for its wayward hand. Released on Christmas Day (!) 1946, the picture was virtually the last true classical horror film until the genre's resurrection with the Hammer Gothics a full decade later. In between came horror movies offering scientific accountings for their monsters. Straight fantasy of this type no longer seemed plausible with the dawn of the Atomic Age. ("Hence the 1900s Italian setting," adds reader Sergei Hasenecz.) J. Carrol Naish's jokey little coda, breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience, is a further indication of this. But I'll bet The Beast with Five Fingers scared the pants off audiences when this was new.
Video & Audio
As noted above, The Beast with Five Fingers was withheld from DVD for many years owing to the poor condition of its original film elements, though attempts to partly restore it seem to have been successful. Despite signs of wear the movie generally looks and sounds quite good. The region-free disc includes a fine Dolby Digital mono soundtrack that had me wishing I had a copy of Max Steiner's score. The lone Extra Feature is an original trailer, which wisely doesn't show the hand except very briefly.
A classic American horror movie if only for its last half-hour, The Beast with Five Fingers remains by far the best of that sub-genre of disembodied hand movies, and features an iconic performance by the great Peter Lorre. Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.