Veidt Shadows

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The 1924 original version of HANDS OF ORLAC, from Robert “CALIGARI” Weine, is too classy a film really to fit in with my demented quest to see all the films illustrated  in Denis Gifford’s Pictorial History of Horror Movies, but it is in the book, and I did see it, thanks to regular Shadowplayer Guy Budziak. There are horror movies you should see as a kid, and when you see them as a grown-up, you wish you’d seen them earlier (for me, THE BLACK ROOM, CURSE OF THE GOLEM and the silent THE LOST WORLD might be examples), but I don’t think I would have appreciated the lugubrious tone and pace of this one as a kiddie.

It’s also good that I’m seeing it now, since I can connect the stylistic flourishes of German expressionism to the work of Alfred Hitchcock, a student of the German school. This week’s Hitch, NUMBER 17, is a particularly Teutonic crime tale.

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Do you all know the story? Pianist Conrad Veidt plays Orlac, whose hands are smashed up in a train wreck, and is given the substitute extremities of a guillotined murderer. Strange stuff starts to happen, convincing Veidt that his paws retain the murderous proclivities of their previous owner. It’s all part of a fiendish plot by Fritz Kortner, the details of which are obscure enough to keep you guessing. For a while there, I thought that Kortner actually intended to make Veidt murder his own father, by convincing him that his hands were animated by malevolent will.  That plot, worthy of VERTIGO’s Gavin Elster in its twisted complexity, proves to not quite be the case.

Weine here achieves delirious effects without overtly contorted or theatrical sets, although the designs by Hans Rouc and Stefan Wessely are glossy, disconcerting and non-ergonomic. Fiona particularly relished Veidt’s weirdly low hospital bed, which actively compels everybody to loom over him. The best effects are a mixture of lighting (those deep dark jagged shadows, how we adore them!) and performance. Veidt is extraordinary, a floppy-haired stick insect, his brow furrowed into a taut brainscape of clenched convolutions. He does things in this film no actor has ever even thought of doing. I mean, he tries to throw his hands off! He tries to run away from them. Sometimes he literally holds them at arms’ length, as if they’re ablaze, or they smell really bad. At other times they try to crawl inside his face. At one point he looks set to moonwalk. “Michael Jackson!” Fiona cried. “It don’t matter if you’re black or Veidt,” I offered, lamely.

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Alexandra Sorina is Mrs. Orlac, her eyes rolling about like electrified pearls, barely contained by the rings of kohl surrounding them. Actively demented before anything’seven  happened, she does the impossible and keeps pace with Veidt’s physical insanity.

And then there’s Kortner, who has a hard job, appearing as a diabolical villain in such eccentric company, but he has a brilliant strategy — rather than wholeheartedly adopting the contortions and gesticulations of the expressionist style, or merging into the more naturalistic, low-key approach of the supporting players, he alternates between the two, so that you never know what you’re going to get next. Kortner also deploys his astonishing face and body extremely well: he looks like a malignant, pugilistic baby.

Of course, the pachyderm in the parlour is Karl Freund’s Hollywood remake, MAD LOVE, an excellent horror movie (the version to see when you’re twelve) that substitutes a fast-moving parade of grotesquerie and nonsense for the glacial creep of the Weine. The silent movie has nothing that can compare withPeter Lorre’s appearance as the decapitated, reanimated murderer, with black rubber prosthetic forelimbs, fetishistic neck brace, and clockwork cackle, fore-runner to the wind-up Nazi in Del Toro’s HELLBOY.

Lorre, playing a dude, pretending to be another dude — the most balls-out horrific thing in any 30s horror movie.

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But Kortner, deprived of Lorre’s snazzy costume, still does well, moving his plastic-bound arms as if they were stilts, somehow, convincing us that these are foreign appendages buckled to his lardy body. His clunkinessmakes a superb contrast with Veidt’s writhing and slinking.

It’s cinema as spastic ballet!*

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*The phrase “spastic ballet” is copyright Arthur Penn, who used it to describe what he wanted from Beatty and Dunaway when they’re machine-gunned to death at the end of BONNIE AND CLYDE. But on take one, somehow Beatty didn’t get the signal, and while Faye Dunaway spectacularly died in slow motion behind him, Beatty just stood there with a faint, puzzled grin as bits of his head blew off. “I wish I’d kept that bit of film,” says Penn.

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18 Responses to “Veidt Shadows”

  1. What an excellent trailer. Which of us has not dreamed of answering the telephone “Yeah, this is Peter Lorre speaking…” His expression when she praises M is indefinable. But funny.

    The Veidt Orlac I saw by accident at the Cinematheque when they couldn’t get the promised print of Mad Love for their Expressionism season. It is everything you describe, David, and Veidt’s apparent ability to cram his hands inside his mouth is something I will take with me to my grave.

    Guy Maddin’s Cowards Bend the Knee is a deeply wonderful reworking of the Orlac story to fit the facts of Maddin’s own massively weird boyhood in Winnipeg and should be seen by any Orlacians. I wonder how difficult it would be to make a list of all the Orlac-influenced films there are. Irish writer Patrick McCabe wrote a rural Irish version some years back called The Hands of Dingo Deery, which you should also seek out.

  2. I’ll watch out for it. Both Dr Terrible’s House of Horrible and The League of Gentlemen TV shows did comedy versions, the former with transplanted feet, the latter with an arm which does good deeds, frustrating its evil owner. And there have been a couple of heart transplant films that use related ideas, I think.

  3. More Veidt, and Kortner too!

    Kino recently came out with a decent Orlac DVD. The version I’d had previously featured Spanish intertitles and a faux-jazz score which was so insufferable it had to be muted.

    The scientist in Mad Love, per Peter Lorre, is only half-mad? I guess that explains the restraint of his performance.

  4. There’s also Sellers in Dr. Strangelove, a direct descendant of Lorre’s Dr. Gogol-as-reanimated-murderer.

  5. Sellers always seemed more Rotwang to me, but the glasses do suggest a Gogol affinity. I guess he’s a mix-and-match German mad scientist.

    It’s a surprise to find the surgeon is completely sane in the Weine film.

  6. Christopher Says:

    LOL..Colin Clive- Dr. Frankenstein….can’t believe I hadn’t seen that Trailer before..That was fun..

  7. Tony Williams Says:

    I had a bootleg VHS of THE HANDS OF ORLAC and recently seen the Kino DVD. Years ago, I began a Hitchcock class by showing THE STUDENT OF PRAGUE as an introduction to the visual style later employed in THE LOdger and other films.

  8. My frame grabs come from the Kino disc, which has a very nice image, good music and some neat extras on the restoration. Glad I finally saw it in such a good quality copy.

  9. Veidt and Kortner are two very special and distinctive performers. Looking forward to the day I finally get to see Kino’s release of Warning Shadows, the stills I’ve seen from the film look striking as hell. Funny thing is, as different as they are facially, Veidt and Kortner both possess features that convey and define German Expressionist cinema beautifully. My previous exposure to Kortner is from American noir, Tourneur’s Berlin Express and Mankiewicz’s Somewhere in the Night. I discovered today that Kortner was in an Ali Baba fantasy called Chu-Chin-Chow (1934), starring Anna May Wong and Francis L. Sullivan (!), available from Amazon. A Gainsborough film with a fairly lavish budget for its time ($500K).
    About Mad Love, I think it’s interesting (and good) that you chose not to use the overly-familiar still of Lorre in sunglasses, hat, scarf, and glistening metal hands, although I love that image, instead showing us that absolutely bizarre shot of Kortner with those plastic extremities. It somehow brings to mind the Olga Baclanova chicken-thing from Freaks, it looks that strange. And I agree with Paul, Lorre’s expression when responding to her mention of M in the trailer is damn funny, fleeting yet deliciously impish. Love the trailer, the wobbly camera at the onset, the calligraphy of the text promoting the film, the utterly perverse image of Lorre in that neck brace, where the edge of it acts as this grotesque lower lip to his mouth as he laughs.
    One last thing I’m compelled to mention. Comic book artist Jack Kirby was heavily influenced by the films he saw in his youth. I can’t help but think that he saw Mad Love in his formative years, and borrowed aspects of Lorre’s countenance in concocting the many characters, villainous and otherwise, that populated his work over the decades he was most active.

  10. Gleaned from Jean Michel Palmier’s book “Weimar in Exile”: Kortner’s few attempts to act on the British and American stage were panned because he couldn’t or wouldn’t alter his expressionist approach, which might as well have been kabuki as far as Anglo-American audiences were concerned. Besides doing some screenwriting and feuding with Fritz Lang (whom many exiles considered a crypto-Nazi), his American activities included a spell as Dorothy Thompson’s secretary. OTOH, he was one of the few exiles who was able to return to Germany and regain a position commensurate with his previous status.

    In Wiene’s Orlac the doctor is indeed completely sane, and his attempt to graft the hands of a murderer onto a pianist’s mangled arms is … entirely well-intentioned, why would you think otherwise? The film does suffer from a “logical” ending that leaves a lot of possibilities (what about the father and HIS obvious craziness) merely latent.

  11. I like latent possibilties though — they’re good for imaginary sequels. Who’s going to get the dead father’s hands?

    I think the Lorre-Kirby influence is a good instinct. Maybe Lorre was the first Galactus.

    I have Chu-Chin-Chow and have been meaning to post an eye-popping grab of Fritz in Mongol disguise. Quite something.

  12. The Puppet Master was a villain from the first ten issues of Marvel’s Fantastic Four, bald with big eyes and full lips not unlike Lorre’s appearance in Mad Love. His metal hands and garb bring to mind Doctor Doom, whose disfigured features were hidden behind a mask a la Phantom of the Opera. I’m sure that if someone were to take the time they’d find many such parallels. But hey, it all has to come from somewhere. Must get that book Weimar In Exile.

  13. Dr Doom looks a lot like The Man in the Iron Mask in James Whale’s film, doesn’t he? Or the same character in the short by Jacques Tourneur, which I just saw.

    I love the idea of Louis Hayward as Dr Doom.

  14. Hayward was pretty sinister in both Ladies in Retirement and Lang’s House by the River, so yes, he would’ve made a good Doom.

  15. Tony Williams Says:

    Kortner also appears in the title role of ABDUL THE DAMNED, (1935), a British film directed by Karl Grune that also features Eric Portman in a brief role as a conspirator. Kortner’s acting appears very sonnambulistic in this film. The film appeared a year after CHU CHIN CHOW that also starred Anna May Wong. I believe both films may be on the same American DVD reissue.

  16. Makes sense: compact all your Fritz-as-an-easterner into one manageable package. The movie is part of that English music-hall/pantomime tradition that conflates China/Mongolia with Arabia, so Kortner has an Arabian name but dresses like Genghis Khan.

    It’s quite a good look for him!

  17. Tony Williams Says:

    He may look more like Khan than John Wayne in THE CONQUEROR.

  18. I think it’s a safe bet. And the German accent is somehow less off-putting than Wayne’s “Say, you’re beautiful in your wrath!”

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