Hands On

Newt Arnold was a busy AD and second-unit man on big films like BLADE RUNNER and THE GODFATHER PART II, but directed the occasional film of his own — HANDS OF A STRANGER (1962) being the first. It shouldn’t take me long to polish off his directorial oeuvre — BLOOD THIRST seems to have been shot around 1965 but didn’t get a release until 1971 (and considering it was shot in b&w, it’s a small miracle it did). BLOODSPORT is a 1988 Jean-Claude Van Damme movie.

HANDS OF A STRANGER is an Allied-Artists release — so, cheap, but not so cheap it hurts. Arnold manages to get some cinema going on, notably in the dynamic opening sequence showing an apparent mob hit. As screenwriter, he’s quite simply lifted the plot of THE HANDS OF ORLAC — a literary-cinematic warhorse that had just been filmed in 1960 by Edmond Greville with Mel Ferrer, Christopher Lee and Dany Carrel. In fairness, original author Maurice Renard had probably been heavily “influenced” by Arthur Train’s hand-transplant novelette Mortmain, itself filmed as an early silent. What’s interesting about this (stolen) property is that each version comes up with a very different take on the idea of transplanted hands influencing their recipient’s behaviour. Only Arnold’s version suggests that the whole gimmick may be a red herring — the identity of the donor is never discovered, and the murderous impulses felt by pianist Vernon Paris (James Noah) may be entirely his own — deprived of the ability to express himself musically (even though everyone keeps telling him his new mitts just need wearing in — he releases a pent-up rage against everyone associated with his accident and subsequent op.

The first Orlac movie, ORLACS HANDE (1924) is proper expressionist, and Arnold has to his credit come up with a mod equivalent: noir cinematography coupled with incredibly fervid performances snapping out reams of verbiage. Everybody talks the same: people are always saying “Tell me one thing” or “Accept this one thing” until it gets kind of delirious. It’s a deliberate choice to make the driven, obsessive surgeon Dr. Harding (Paul Lukather) practically the same character as his experimental subject, the driven, obsessive pianist. But it’s not a deliberate choice, I don’t think, to make everyone else talk the same. too.

Probably for reasons of budget/sched, a lot of this is covered in talking head form, but there are lots of hand close-ups too. It’s all crude but undeniably forceful.

The only time we sense a real human presence before the camera is when child actor Barry Gordon (the newsboy from THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT) is around. He doesn’t seem to have grown any in the intervening six years, making me wonder if this one got its release held back too — but he’s amazing. And a young Sally “Hot Lips” Kellerman turns up for one scene and is likewise terrific. Though Joan Harvey is pretty good as the piano player’s too-sisterly sister, only BG and SK really get any lifelike behaviour going. Everyone else is a prisoner of genre and plot and that seething dialogue.

It’s a very gay film, I felt, though it’s hard to put one’s finger on why. And Arnold was married three times, twice to the same woman. You can have a gay sensibility, whatever that is, without being gay (and vice versa, I guess?). A reviewer notes that BLOOD THIRST is throbbing with beefcake, so this may be a directorial theme. I can’t imagine that BLOODSPORT is entirely unbeefcaked.

2 Responses to “Hands On”

  1. Robert Zemeckis tells some pretty funny stories about Arnold in the commentary for “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” (Arnold did that film as a sort of “vacation” after/in between “Sorcerer” and “Convoy” — looking at his IMDb, it seems like he was on a LOT of nightmare productions…). Arnold apparently directed the extras in the big crowd scenes using a pistol (“one shot means everybody screams — two shots means everybody runs!”), and ended up playing a barber in the film after the actor cast in the role didn’t show up (“Every good first assistant director’s a member of SAG!” Zemeckis remembers Arnold saying as he pulled his SAG card out of his pocket).

  2. Nice! Newt also turns up in the jaw-dropping Skulduggery, and in The Goonies as “Man in shower #3.”

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