Archive for The Hands of Orlac

Gypsy Malady

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 17, 2011 by dcairns

Edinburgh Filmhouse and the BFI’s Screening the Archive series is a really nice initiative to project on the big screen neglected British items that don’t always get the attention they deserve — we saw Brian Desmond Hurst’s remarkable proto-noir ON THE NIGHT OF THE FIRE a few months ago. Two months back we were sorry to miss a double bill of rare early Boulting brothers thrillers. Last month, GYPSY MELODY, a long-lost musical comedy starring Lupe Velez was the star attraction.

The movie, a 1936 musical travesty, was considered lost for 75 years before being unearthed in the Cinematheque Francaise — the print was then passed on to the BFI for restoration. The film’s French director, Edmond T Greville (BEAT GIRL), a real maestro of the guilty pleasure (he’d just completed a lavish Josephine Baker atrocity, PRINCESS TAM TAM), is not particularly celebrated in his native France, perhaps because he had a tendency to denounce French cinema as a load of rubbish. Shuffling back and forth across the channel, he managed a bilingual career that also included THE HANDS OF ORLAC with Christopher Lee, and NOOSE, a fun 1948 crime pic with a great spiv turn from Nigel Patrick, swarthy villainy from Joseph Calleia, and perky news gal levity from Carole Landis.

NOOSE makes an interesting parallel with GYPSY MELODY — both feature US stars (Landis and Lupe Velez) whose careers were sliding, slumming it in the UK. Both stars made two Brit flicks back-to-back, and later committed suicide. NOOSE is by far the more accomplished film, but that’s not so much due to a fluctuation in Greville’s ability — he frames up some very attractive shots in GM — as to the inherent limitations of the material he’s struggling with here. A plotless Ruritanian romance, the movie nominally stars bandleader Alfred Rode (as Erik Danilo, the surname being a clue to the Lubitschian aspirations). Since Rode (who appears to have had little if any Romany blood) plays a mean fiddle but can’t act to save his life, the bulk of the dialogue is shifted to the annoying comedy relief characters, and poor Lupe’s romantic interest is given nothing to do but express wonder at indoor plumbing and stage a brief spitfire moment when Rode is flocked by female fans.

Despite his inexpressiveness and apparent discomfort in front of the camera, Rode had a substantial film career, but most of it was either in France, where perhaps he was more at home with the language, or in the form of musical guest spots.

It’s interesting to read, in the Filmhouse’s accompanying flier, a Monthly Film bulletin review from the period which refers to comedy support Jerry Verno as “the Jewish hatter” — it wasn’t crystal clear to me why we should interpret the character as being Jewish. A case of anti-semitic assumptions, or character coding that’s unreadable to modern eyes? Or just background knowledge about Mr. Verno?

Thankfully, racial profiling in film reviews is on the decline in Britain today.

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You Need Hands

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 16, 2010 by dcairns

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.

Veidt Shadows

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 10, 2009 by dcairns

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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.