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Hands of a Stranger
Warner Archive Collection

Hands of a Stranger
Warner Archive Collection
1962 / B&W / 1:78 widescreen / 85 min. / Street Date August 13, 2013 / available through the Warner Archive Collection / 18.95
Starring Paul Lukather, Joan Harvey, James Stapleton (Noah), Laurence Haddon, Barry Gordon, Elaine Martone, George Sawaya, Sally Kellerman, Irish McCalla, Michael Rye, Ted Otis, Michael du Pont.
Henry Cronjager
Film Editor Bert Honey
Original Music Richard LaSalle
Produced by Newt Arnold, Michael duPont
Written and Directed by Newt Arnold

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

French author Maurice Renard had quite an imagination. In 1928 he wrote a science fiction novel about a man who shrinks to microscopic size. The tiny victim is attacked by monstrous insects, just as in Richard Matheson's 1956 book The Shrinking Man. Renard also wrote about invisible men and people with electronic eyes; he openly took as his inspiration the books of H.G. Wells. But Renard's enduring work is his 1920 horror novel Les Mains d'Orlac ("The Hands of Orlac". It was filmed twice in his lifetime, as a silent movie starring Conrad Veidt and then in a classic version starring Peter Lorre. More filmic retellings were to follow.

One of the minor reiterations uses the Orlac story without on-screen credit. Hands of a Stranger was filmed independently in 1960 but waited over a year to be released by Allied Artists. It was often American-International that swooped down on underfunded or orphaned fantastic films, for release on the exploitation market. In this case A.I.P. probably felt there wasn't enough exploitable content. The movie plays like a talky soap opera but is not without its better points.

A gangster is gunned down in the city, on the same night that the hands of the world-famous concert pianist Vernon Paris (James Stapleton) are mangled in a taxi accident. Dr. Gil Harding (Paul Lukather) conducts experimental transplant surgery. He takes it upon himself to graft the gangster's powerful hands in place of Vernon's own ruined pair. Vernon's sister Dina Paris (Joan Harvey) and his agent George Britton (Michael Rye) are furious until Gil shows them what remained of the old hands. The three of them agree to remain quiet about the irregular surgery in hopes that Vernon will accept the new hands and train them to play music once more. Gil stalls police Lt. Syms (Laurence Haddon) when he asks after the missing hands, which of course carry the gangster's fingerprints. The high-strung Vernon initially accuses the doctors of ruining his life, and then goes through several stages of anger and acrimony about his new hands. He pretends that he's training his clumsy new fingers to play, but he has no patience for starting anew. More upsetting, when Vernon discovers that his former girlfriend has no interest in a non-celebrity, his hurt vanity turns ugly -- and to thoughts of vengeance.

Hands of a Stranger takes a sincere stab at the Renard story without adding anything particularly exciting to the versions already existing. Neither a performance powerhouse nor a stylistic triumph like the two earlier, expressionist versions, it quickly retreats to a tame serial killer plot. Writer-director Arnold starts off with two or three talky scenes that set the pace for the entire movie. So much is spoken of instead of visualized that the show could easily be a radio play. Arnold blocks his camera as in a soap opera, except that no afternoon soap even in the '60s would frame so many scenes with people standing stock still, their arms hanging at their sides.

It goes without saying that there are no scenes of surgery, gore or other shocks that might tilt Hands of a Stranger into exploitable horror territory. Arnold does devote a lot of attention to his cast, who are acceptable when not called upon to overact. Paul Lukather's surgeon is in ultra-sober professional mode at all times, and just a little dull. He's breaking the law playing musical chairs with body parts, and doesn't seem to mind that he's risking the futures of his dedicated colleagues. The danger then comes from another angle as Vernon Paris starts knocking people off.

Back in the 1920s, the great Conrad Veidt played Orlac as a mad artist inspired by his 'magical' new hands, which seem to want to kill on their own. Colin Clive in the sublime Mad Love suffers from various forms of castration anxiety; he's pushed over the edge by Peter Lorre's romantically fatalistic mad surgeon. James Stapleton's artist-celebrity Vernon Paris is furious that he's been robbed of his talent; the fact that he's no longer a babe magnet is secondary. Within those limits Stapleton looks the part -- he's like a morph between Hurd Hatfield and Don Murray, with a little Ray Liotta thrown in around the mouth. Always impatient and unhappy, Vernon Paris seems ready to strangle people even before his scars have healed.

Future activist & film director Joan Harvey is okay as the concerned sister, but along with her peers overplays in the stronger scenes. Elaine Martone looks familiar but has very few credits. She isn't given enough screen time as Vernon's fancy girlfriend Eileen. Dr. Fry (producer Michael Du Pont) and Dr. Compton (Ted Otis) end up on the wrong side of Vernon's rage. When it comes time for violent confrontations, the movie cuts or dissolves away, with the exception of one semi-accidental burning scene. Perhaps the screenplay wants candles to be outlawed? When one falls to the floor in this movie, half an apartment and a gorgeous woman immediately burst into flame.

The film does have three interesting actors in small roles. Irish McCalla, of Sheena, Queen of the Jungle and She-Demons is a friendly nurse. Someone on this production had the good taste to dress McCalla In high collars that de-emphasize her very long neck. The great Sally Kellerman has all of one scene making out with Dr. Fry. We remark at her pouty look and chubby cheeks -- this is before Sally adopted her attractive, permanent half-smile. More rewarding is young Barry Gordon, five full years before people really took notice of him in A Thousand Clowns. Barry is an ace performer at age twelve, and carries his one scene single-handed. The deranged Vernon comes to murder little Skeet's father Tony (George Sawaya), the cabbie who was driving during the accident. Skeet leads his guest to the piano much like the little girl plays with Boris Karloff's original Frankenstein monster. His piano recital is treated like the film's violence -- the movie cuts to another scene as Skeet begins to play and cuts back to him when he finishes. So was the kid any good, or what?

Maurice Renard's story concept connects with primal ideas about the human body being a sacred God-given object, every piece of which has a personal identity and conveys its owner's soul. This idea persists to this day. The illusion can be a good thing, as when the recipient of a heart transplant claims to feel the 'love' of the heart donor at work in his body. But it's still a superstitious notion -- some primitive commonly were known to eat parts of their defeated foes in order to 'absorb' their life force, or courage, or strength.

On the other hand (cough), we all seem to feel that our hands 'learn' to do things partially on their own. The nerves in the hands are part of the nervous system, and might be partially encoded for repetitive motion. Our hands often seem to do things independent of our conscious control. This is probably an illusion, but we accept it as a part of existence in a physical body. Is it maybe a story idea for David Cronenberg to investigate?

The only really memorable visual in the movie is a view of Vernon Paris playing in concert, with an abstract stage scenery tree behind him on stage. The movie in general seems too intent on providing acting showcases to concentrate on its own story points. It is often confused with another 1960 version of the same story, Edmond T. Gréville's English effort with Mel Ferrer and Christopher Lee. Unfortunately, Lee does not play the pianist, or a masterpiece might have resulted.

Anyway, I'm surprised that nobody ever thought of making an ultimate 'candelabra' version of The Hands of Orlac, starring... Liberace!

The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Hands of a Stranger is a very good encoding of this B&W show that has been MIA for a very long time. It certainly hasn't been seen framed in handsome widescreen as on this disc. The images are clean and the contrast good.

Richard LaSalle is credited for the score, and in one scene the Red Norvo Quintet song How's Your Mother? is heard on a record. Horror fans whine and complain for access to the obscurities, and this title certainly qualifies.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Hands of a Stranger rates:
Movie: Good -
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: none
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 12, 2013

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2013 Glenn Erickson

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