Five Little Dancing Fingers

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Getting in the mood for Halloween. It had been years since I saw THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS — I remembered it being slightly disappointing, and Fiona didn’t remember it at all. The heart sinks slightly at Curt Siodmak’s script credit, yet his scenario isn’t in any way laughable. It does have dull stretches, though. Director Robert Florey seems to come awake in fits, thrusting wildly canted angles or serried rows of faces at us, then falling back into soporific busywork. But from the time of the first death, the good scenes start to slowly outnumber the dull ones, and there’s always Peter Lorre…

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It’s surprisingly brutal for its time, with the severed hand scuttling about like it owns the place, flashing its stump brazenly. There’s a wet, meaty back view complete with wrist bones, apparently painted trompe-l’oeil fashion on the hand actor’s wrist, while the rest of his arm is blacked out. Apart from the various stranglings, it’s the hand who suffers most of the violence, crucified and burned by the neurasthenic Lorre (playing a character called Hillary, a mild-mannered name that doesn’t seem to quite suit him).

The source novel surely owes a debt to Guy de Maupassant’s short story The Hand, which likewise plays with the idea of a disembodied hand strangling victims from beyond the grave, only to offer a not-quite-reassuring rational explanation. But we can go further back and credit the inspiration to Algernon Swinburne — when Maupassant saved the poet from drowning, he rewarded his rescuer with an ashtray made from a human hand. As you do. I have to presume that the young writer, sat at his desk, Gauloise in hand, casting around for inspiration, seized upon the first interesting thing to catch his eye. A good thing for French literature he didn’t alight upon his waste-paper basket made from a human arse, or his paperweight made from a fossilised spleen. In fact, Maupassant’s study was decorated with the disassembled parts of an entire human being, gifted to him by Swinburne. Possibly they were the parts of Swinburne himself. But astute readers will have realized I stopped telling the truth here some time ago, though they may be surprised to learn how late in the paragraph the fantasy takes over.

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A very good bit — Lorre hears scuttling, and the previous astrology books on his shelves start to nudge outwards in a creeping series — the hand is crawling behind them! Swiping the volumes to the floor, Lorre searches out the stray extremity, and Florey tracks along INSIDE the bookshelf, behind the books, until the wriggling thing is discovered, cornered, and Lorre smiles with genuine pleasure at catching it. He then hammers a nail through it, seals it in the safe, and reports to Robert Alda, “I locked it up.” But Fiona misheard this, owing to Lorre’s thick accent, as “I looked it up,” and imagined that he had somehow tracked it down on the bookshelf under H for Hand, or possibly B for Beast. It’s a nice idea — why has there not been a remake to exploit this possibility? One thinks, of course, of the very good “A Farewell to Arms” gag in EVIL DEAD II…

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15 Responses to “Five Little Dancing Fingers”

  1. Could it be that Swinburne didn’t want to be sauvé des eaux, so he bough the vilest “gee, thanks” gift he could find?

    That picture of the hand on the bookshelf, is his finger caught in something? Why doesn’t he run off down the wall, like a cat?

  2. The weird thing about the bookshelf shot is that it’s filmed THROUGH the fourth wall, helpfully rendered invisible. So the hand is trapped between shelf, book, invisible wall and the smiling Peter.

  3. Don’t forget “Thing” from The Addams Family, and its place of origin — Whale’s The Old Dark House

  4. The whole Addams Family owes a bit of a debt to Whale’s gothic eccentricity. In the movie, a hand on a banister turns out not to be attached to the person we first see, but it IS attached to somebody. Either Thing was developed from that moment, or from this movie — but the similarity here (he even emerges from a box) is such that I can’t imagine the two being, er, unconnected.

  5. The connection is Addams seeing that shot and imagining a disembodied hand having a life of its own.

    I imagine Whale found this quite amusing.

  6. But did Addams invent Thing before 1946? It seems not: one impetus for his macabre cartoons was a collaboration with Ray Bradbury in that year, illustrating stories about the sinister “Elliot Family.” By the time Addams started on his own family, he had ample time to have seen Peter Lorre’s little pal, whether he consciously remembered it or not…

  7. Don’t forget Robert Wiene’s Orlacs Hände (1924), starring none other than Conrad Veidt, which was remade by Karl Freund in 1935 as Mad Love, starring … Peter Lorre! The source of the films is a novel by Maurice Renard called Les Mains d’Orlac.

    I’ve got the Warner Archive disk of Beast with Five Fingers, which I’ve set aside for Halloween. I guess I could do a severed-hand triple feature.

  8. The Old Dark House is from 1932.

  9. My point is that probably Maupassant inspired the source novel of 5 Fingers, and that the move surely inspired the identical character in Addams cartoons — whatever the artist claimed as his inspiration.

    So The Old Dark House predates Beast, but Beast still predates Addams’ drawing of a disembodied hand that emerges from a box, exactly as in the Florey-Lorre film.

    Then there’s Bunuel, who borrowed the sliding paw for The Exterminating Angel.

  10. Just to complicate things more, the Addams character who became Uncle Fester rather resembles Lorre in appearance.

  11. Buñuel, My Last Sigh, Page 189:
    “I also tried working for Robert Florey, who was making The Beast With Five Fingers, starring Peter Lorre. At his suggestion, I thought up a scene that shows the beast, a living hand, moving through a library. Lorre and Florey liked it, but the producer absolutely refused to use it. When I saw the film later in Mexico, there was my scene in all its original purity. I was on the verge of suing them when someone warned me that Warner Brothers had sixty-four lawyers in New York alone. Needless to say, I dropped the whole idea.”

  12. For the record, Addams’s original Thing was not clearly disconnected from anybody.

    I believe it started with a cartoon showing the family relaxing and listening to a victrola — with two human arms reaching from inside the cabinet to change the records. It wasn’t clear if somebody was inside the cabinet (he’d have to be strangely built) or if the arms were attached somehow. Trying to remember if Addams ever revisited the idea in his cartoons.

    Created for the TV series, Thing was a hand that would pop up from boxes placed all over the house — a naked hand puppet, really. Wrist and some arm were always there, undisguised. It was implied but never made explicit that there wasn’t a person attached. Ted Cassidy, who played Lurch the butler, provided the expressive fingerwork for Thing.

    The movie was the first time I recall seeing Thing as an untethered and mobile body part, but there were some Hanna Barbara cartoon shows inspired by the TV series that may have introduced the idea for animated gags.

    Remembering “Beast with Five Fingers” from long ago. Beyond Lorre struggling with the unstoppable hand, I seem to recall the movie ending with a dumb gag involving a French policeman talking to the camera. For a long time I conflated this with “Mad Love,” also involving Lorre and delinquent digits.

  13. The French policeman is Welles’ favourite bad actor, J Carroll Naish (according to the disputed Jaglom book). It’s a magnificently eggy finish, entirely wrong for the movie and hideously protracted. I guess they felt after all that gruesomeness they’d better “leave ’em laughing” to avoid complaints.

    Hmm, so Thing evolved into his disembodied state, suggesting maybe he could have started life inspired by The Old Dark House and kind of swallowed up the influence of B5 along the way.

  14. I prefer the idea that Thing is not a disembodied hand, but rather connected to some sort of extra-dimensional being.

  15. A Dweller in Outer Darkness! A Lurker on the Threshold! A Reacher-Through from Beyond Our Realm!

    This undoubtedly would work more easily with the TV version than the movie version, and is quite evocative.

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