You Need Hands

I needed the obscure 60s remake of THE HANDS OF ORLAC, since it appears in Denis Gifford’s big green book of horror movies, and you know what that means. Sending off for an out-of-print VHS, I awaited the thing’s arrival with a certain lack of enthusiasm — I had actually seen bits of it years ago, and found it, well, terribly boring.

It’s amazing the difference a few years can make. But, on the other hand, THE HANDS OF ORLAC is still just as boring as it always was. Director Edmond T Greville was responsible for BEAT GIRL the previous year, which is eighteen separate kinds of HOOT, but how much of its unquestionably mad merits can be credited to the director? OK, he wrote the story too, and he must get credit for wrestling Gillian Hills, David Farrar, Christopher Lee, Oliver Reed and Adam Faith into the one movie. But his visual style is often pretty flat, his control of pace sometimes flaccid, and those negative qualities are allowed to dominate ORLAC.

You know the story — concert pianist Stephen Orlac (gangling meerkat Mel Ferrer) suffers horrific injuries to his hands in an accident, and a brilliant surgeon repairs the damage — but has he done so by transplanting the hands of a murderer? And will those hands resume their homicidal career from the ends of their new wrists?

No, and no. But getting to that answer is a protracted and largely tension-free drag, enlivened only by the appearance or lovely couple Chris Lee and Dany Carrel. Lee is a criminally inclined stage magician and Carrel his chanteuse squeeze, whom he persuades to seduce the fugitive Ferrer. Chris and Dany have a genuinely warm and delightful relationship:

“You made me into a slut, ” she accuses. Lee counters that she didn’t need much pushing. Charming.

Dany gets Mel’s interest by blundering into his room and having the front of her dress collapse in his face. This is typical behaviour of the rather adorable Ms. Carrel, who spent her career popping out, as in this perverse moment from MILL OF THE STONE WOMEN, a colourful yet turgid French horror —

It’s a strain, but she manages it. As early as 1957, in Duvivier’s POT-BOUILLE, she was bursting her bodice in Gerard Philippe’s direction (her co-star was Danielle Darrieux: Dany might not be able to out-act this living legend, but she could beat her in the random nudity department), and you can see her in archive footage in the new documentary about Henri-Georges Clouzot’s L’ENFER, again managing a nip-slip, I believe it’s called, setting off a chain of reactions in a lakeside restaurant. It’s a cheesy idea, one would think, but Clouzot gets some simply incredible stuff out of it, his camera gliding decisively from one glance to another. Vulgarity + excellence = Clouzot.

Sexy bad guys Chris and Dany are so much more exciting than protags Ferrer and Lucile Saint-Simon that one wishes for a whole other movie centering on the bad guys. Greville’s screenplay doesn’t provide this, of course, and it short-changes us out of the expected pleasure of an ORLAC movie also, wasting the great moment where the villain dresses up as an executed killer, brought back from the dead and demanding the return of his hands. Lee pops up in a crappy rubber mask, sporting a pair of hooks, then whips the disguise off within seconds.

But then, the movie’s explicit demonstration that Ferrer’s idée fixe (having the hands of murderer) is only a delusion has already spoiled the plot, and without really getting inside the hero’s disturbed mind, or turning him full-on psycho and letting him kill someone, the movie has no actual narrative resources to scare us with.

An intriguing image NOT present in my VHS copy. There’s a separate, uncensored French cut? What’s he going to write? Is that the first downstroke of the letter “B”, as in “BREASTS” — is he teaching her English?

So the whole mess is a valuable example of the fabled Million Dollar Mistake, or False Good Idea, in action — exposing the twist before the climax leaves the film without a motor to drive it forward, since we can assume a happy ending for the nice, middle-class hero and heroine, and a less-than happy one for the declassé du of Lee and Carrel. And we get both… eventually.

19 Responses to “You Need Hands”

  1. AnneBillson Says:

    Haven’t seen this, but generally have a soft spot for evil hand movies: not just Mad Love and The Beast With Five Fingers, but The Hand, Evil Dead 2 and Body Parts. I love scenes in which characters wrestle with their hands. There’s something farcical, but at the same time incredibly nasty, about the idea of severed hands scuttling around like fat spiders.

  2. david wingrove Says:

    In addition to BEAT GIRL, Edmond T Greville made at least one other deranged pseudo-masterpiece, the 1935 Josephine Baker vehicle PRINCESSE TAM-TAM. It’s at once a lavish piece of frothy musical exotica and a well-nigh Post-Modern deconstruction of itself and its own genre. Anyone who could make it must have had genius of a sort!

  3. AnneBillson Says:

    Just to add a barely relevant note to David’s post: Princesse Tam-Tam is now the name of a popular chain of French lingerie shops.

  4. I have only seen “Mad Love”… I must say that, having seen Colin Clive as the pianist, Ferrer strikes me as utter miscasting.

  5. david wingrove Says:

    A lingerie shop named after PRINCESSE TAM-TAM? That sounds almost too good to be true. Just shows you how iconic the film is.

  6. J’adore Beat Girl !

  7. As for hands, I much prefer Florey’s The Beast with Five Fingers — on which Bunuel allegedly worked as an a.d.

  8. Stealing from Havana Widows, I think we should declare Dany Carrel as Miss Nip-Up. Votes for her as Miss Pop-Top will also be considered. The effort she uses to get them out from under restraint in that clip are really heroic.

  9. Pricess Tam-Tam (movie AND knickers) – tres bien.

  10. No hands actually crawl about by themselves in the Orlac films, but there is the idea of them taking control and defying the body, like Strangelove’s Nazi arm. This may be a natural male idea, since only men have an appendage which does not obey the conscious mind (or not always).

    Ferrer could have just about played the part, though not as effectively as CClive… but the movie gives him nothing to play. It’s too obvious that he’s simply imagining it all. I can’t blame Greville the director for failing to enliven this, but I absolutely blame Greville the writer for saddling himself with it.

  11. We can’t call Dany Carrel Miss Nip-Up because it might sound racist (she’s half Japanese). But Pop-Top is cute. She was the sixties’ answer to Little Nell.

  12. Ah, that I didn’t know. I expect I wasn’t looking too much at her face. She’s not one of the actresses I know, Hammer being the only English horror imports I ever saw much of outside American and (ahem) Japanese horror. French cheapie horror? Sounds weird, but looks rather conventional.

  13. she didn’t know either. And being brought up without knowledge of her mixed race, she was able to throw herself into an acting career that might have been less open to her had it been known. She probably wouldn’t have been cast in Pot-Bouille, a Zola adaptation, if she’d been thought of as “ethnic”.

    My fave Dany perf is in La Prisonniere, Clouzot’s last, where she plays a glamour model wearing a badge that reads “Javais les Problemes.”

  14. Tony Williams Says:

    I saw this version of THE HANDS OF ORLAC on first release and the scene where Lee played on Fritz Kortner’s appearance, “They took my hands but gave me back my head” always scared me – unlike the rest of the film!

  15. It’s the closest thing to a scary highlight, but it’s over in a flash, unlike the great mileage Fritz Kortner and Peter Lorre were able to get from it. Poor Sir Chris has about five seconds before he rips off his Halloween mask and gives the game away. The scariest thing here is the idea of his character being crazy enough to do it, and being in your hotel room at night!

  16. > turgid French horror

    Italo-French co-production, with Italian director, shot in the Netherlands — to be precise. I saw “Stone Women” on television as a child, and retain a fondness for it. What you post looks good, even though the translator-ese (“He’s all a-flame,” is it?) and staging can be awkward. It’s the sort of quasi-Gothic horror that speaks to me, in any case.

    Here’s a thoughtful review:

  17. I love all of Sir Christopher lee’s film no matter if they are englisch, german or whatever he is a great actor and performs masterly.he also has a great singing voice.

  18. You’ll find lots of stuff about his films scattered around here. I’m a big fan too.

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