Hands of a Stranger
Warner Bros. // Unrated // $21.99 // August 13, 2013
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted September 26, 2013
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Graphical Version
Hands of a Stranger, filmed in 1960 but not released until 1962, is a low-budget remake of The Hands of Orlac with a florid, arty pretentiousness similar to the even more insufferable The Cabinet of Caligari, another loose remake from '62. Hands of a Stranger was released by Allied Artists, the former Poverty Row Monogram Studios, though produced independently by Michael du Pont and writer-director Newton Arnold. The movie is entertainingly stylized, opens well, and has an interesting cast (including Sally Kellerman and Barry Gordon in early roles) but it's also talky and overwritten, and downright wrongheaded in its approach to its familiar story.

The picture may be in the public domain but regardless Warner Archive has gamely and admirably chosen to create a new master and release it anyway (simultaneous with another presumed PD title, Tormented). The 16:9 enhanced widescreen transfer of this black and white production is a good one. No extras.

The movie deviates from Maurice Renard's 1920 novel in strange ways. In the original story, as well as in two other sound era adaptations, Mad Love (1935), by far the best of the three, and the British-made The Hands of Orlac (1960), the hands of a supremely gifted concert pianist are destroyed in an accident and replaced with the hands of a murderer. In Mad Love the doctor behind the surgery (deliriously played by Peter Lorre) also tries to drive the musician mad, disguising himself as the convicted felon and taunting the recipient of the hands, hoping to instill the notion that the hands will drive the musician to murder as well.

In Hands of a Stranger, the hands belong not to a criminal, but the victim of a robbery. Though fingerprinted the man is never even identified. Instead, the musician becomes an insane killer for no other reason than his inability to play the piano as he once did, and because he regards himself as a freak, the victim of an obscene medical experiment. As the doctor in Hands of a Stranger is merely a talented surgeon and not a mad scientist type or even an overly ambitious medical researcher, the musician's (and, initially, his sister's) extreme negative reaction to his efforts lends the movie a peculiar anti-transplant air.

Vernon Paris (James Stapleton) is the pianist, a somewhat arrogant womanizer who with the undying support of sister Dina (Joan Harvey) is at the top of his game. However, on the night of his first great success he's horribly injured in a taxicab accident, and surgeon Dr. Gil Harding (Paul Lukather), assisted by Dr. Ken Fry (Michael du Pont, the producer), successfully graft the unusually powerful hands of the robbery victim to Paris's body.

Initially Dina is outraged at the idea of her brother being used as a Guinea pig, but soon she not only accepts the idea but falls in love with Dr. Harding. Paris, however, is horrified by the scarring (very minor, considering) and the visual shock of seeing someone else's hands attached to his wrists. Less than two months after the surgery Paris regains 80% use of his hands, and with practice might yet return to the stage, but he's entirely negative about his prospects, a real defeatist. Instead, he goes on a murderous rampage, using his powerful new hands to exact revenge at those he holds responsible for his plight.

Michael du Pont was the son of A. Felix du Pont, Jr. of the Du Pont chemicals empire. Michael was a budding actor, nightclub-restaurant owner who occasionally dabbled in films as a producer and, in this case, an actor as well. Newt Arnold (as he was later credited) directed one other film for du Pont, Blood Thirst (1971), a terrible Filipino horror movie. Arnold had a far more productive and prestigious career as an assistant director, his credits including In the Heat of the Night, The Godfather, Part II, The Abyss, and most of Sam Peckinpah's later films.

Unlike most low-budget films of this scale ($168,000) Hands of a Stranger is quite stylized, too much so, though this overemphatic direction does provide some visual flair usually absent in the generally flat low-budget films of this period. The prologue and other early scenes are particularly flamboyant and entertaining. But the film quickly goes downhill, becoming less and less believable, and the climax is particularly weak.

Arnold's screenplay, which does not credit Maurice Renard's novel at all, is talky and pretentious, though it does show a lot of effort. Unlike even most big budget films of the early 1960s, for instance, it uses medical and police procedural terms accurately and well.

Star James Stapleton soon changed his named to James Noah and enjoyed a long television career inexplicably interrupted for several decades, from 1966 to 1986. He's in "The Maestro," a 1995 episode of Seinfeld featuring a similarly pompous classical conductor. Paul Lukather also had a long television career though he's equally famous today as a voice artist; I'm pretty sure he's narrated movie trailers in addition to his better-known work on cartoons.

Sally Kellerman and Barry Gordon have small parts, she as Dr. Fry's girlfriend, he as the piano student son of the ill-fated cabbie (George Sawaya). Even at the age of 11, as he was here, Gordon was an unusually gifted child actor, capable of adult-like subtleties in his performance, even though his one scene is very badly written and unintentionally comical.

Video & Audio

Hands of a Stranger is presented in 1.78:1 enhanced widescreen, approximating its original 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio. The mono audio (English only, no subtitle options) is also fine on this region-free disc. No Extra Features and even the menu screen has a generic Warner Bros. background plate.

Parting Thoughts

Strictly for hardcore sci-fi/horror fans, Hands of a Stranger is moderately interesting but not good, and the least of the Maurice Renard adaptations. Still, for those with an interest, it's 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.

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