Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Hands of Orlac, "Orlacs Hände", and "Mad Love"

Back when I was in 7th or 8th grade, I discovered the film "Mad Love," with the great Peter Lorre as the insane and pathetic Dr. Gogol, a surgeon so obsessed with the wife of a great pianist that he attempted to convince said pianist that the killer's hands he'd surgically grafted onto his arms had a mind of their own, and were responsible for some grisly murders in Paris.

It's a hilarious, strange, horrifying, wonderful film, full of creativity and greatness. It remains an all-time favorite of mine. A few years back, I created a parody/homage called "Zany Dick!," that is probably one of my better pieces of animation.

But back to "Mad Love": It was directed by Karl Freund, who worked as a cinematographer on Fritz Lang's classic film "Metropolis," and who also directed "The Mummy," and worked as a cinematographer/co-director on "Dracula," with Bela Lugosi. He's also largely responsible for the look of every situation comedy ever produced, thanks to his work on "I Love Lucy."

The man was a genius.

The screenplay was written by Guy Endore. Mr. Endore had a distinguished, Academy Award-nominated screenwriting career, but he is perhaps best known for writing one of my all-time favorite novels, Werewolf of Paris, which happens to be available for amazon kindle for a mere $2.99 -- buy it now and read it if you haven't, it's a wonderful, strange, witty, clever novel of mental illness and revolution.

The man was a genius.

Mr. Endore's screenplay was based loosely -- very loosely -- on a novel by the great Fantastique Littéraire author Maurice Renard. I do not have the vocabulary necessary to express how much I love Mr. Renard's work. He is one of the greatest, most creative authors of strange horror and fantasy who has ever lived. Pick up any of his work you can find-- in particular Dr. Lerne, about a series of increasingly bizarre and outlandish organ transplants (available for $5.99 for kindle, in a translation that I have not read), Blind Circle, the plot of which begins with a man being killed in two different places at the same time, and gets stranger from there, and of course the basis for the film "Mad Love," his masterpiece, The Hands of Orlac (French edition available for free from amazon kindle).

The Hands of Orlac is about a great pianist Stephen Orlac, whose hands are ruined in a train derailment. He's taken to a clinic where a doctor called Serral repairs the hands, apparently replacing them with those from a recently executed knife murderer. A series of sinister occurrences follow, beginning with threatening notes and seances and spiritualism and culminating with a series of grisly knife murders for which Orlac is convinced he bears responsibility.

The story is a classic one, a reflection of general human anxiety of the unreliability of our own bodies -- whether because of disease, or the decay of old age -- amplified by the more modern anxiety over rejection of organs we've received through transplants. These ideas only gain relevance as we approach the singularity. As I've written before, I'm a sucker for the Transplant Terror subgenre. I don't think anyone ever did them better than Mr. Renard.

The man was a genius. (I paid a small tribute to him in this work.)

During the summer of my 7th or 8th grade year, Cinemax screened "Mad Love" several times-- I seem to recall them airing it around 11 AM, almost daily. And I watched it every time it was on. I was fascinated by it, for all the reasons I've outlined above.

I tried to get my hands on a copy of Renard's book, but it had gone out of print. Around 1990, another translation was produced, but I missed it. Then, around 1994, I discovered a knock-off called The Hand of Cain, by a British author called Martin Thomas. That novel is strange, tawdry and Victorian, as if the author himself found the whole story distasteful. But that strangeness only added to the sense of fun of the book, and my interest in Transplant Terrors was renewed.

I sought out Renard's novel, but the only copies I could find were hundreds of dollars. Even the Los Angeles Public Library only had a copy of the novel in French. And my French is quite mal. So I had to content myself with re-watching "Mad Love," on those rare occasions when it appeared on television. It wasn't available on DVD until October, 2006, as part of a collection of strange horror films from the 1930s and 1940s (including "Mark of the Vampire," which also features a Guy Endore screenplay).

Somewhere along the way, I learned of the existence of two other adaptations of the novel. The 1960 version with Mel Ferrer I caught on television late one night in 1996 or 7. It lacked the energy and fun of "Mad Love." The original adaptation from 1924 was much more difficult to come by.

"Orlacs Hände" was directed by Robert Wiene, and starred Conrad Veidt as the tormented pianist Paul Orlac.

If Wiene's and Veidt's names look familiar to you, then you probably remember them as the director and star of one of the most famous films of all time, "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari." Dr. Caligari is justifiably considered a classic film, and it is well worth your time. It's a strange, creative, unsettling work. But it's also artificial and distancing. Here's something from wikipedia's description that indirectly explains the problem:
The film used stylized sets, with abstract, jagged buildings painted on canvas backdrops and flats.
Watching TCODC is like watching a nightmare unfold before your eyes. Which means there is no tension -- no matter how terrible and horrific a nightmare is, we can always wake up from it. Everything in TCODC, including the very backdrops themselves, is strange and unsettling. If everything's unsettling, then what am I supposed to be scared about?

(Can you imagine having an artistic career in which "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" was your second greatest work? The men were geniuses.)

"Orlacs Hände" takes care of that problem. It very much takes place in a world that is recognizable as our own, and the nightmare is imposed upon reality. It helps that Veidt is given a chance to really act in this film. Where he literally sleepwalked through TCODC, here he is tormented and abused, terrified by every shadow that crosses his path, in a performance that could have been just "sawing the air," as Hamlet put it, but in fact is subtle and affecting. Like Lon Chaney, Conrad Veidt is one of the few silent film actors whose work translates well for modern audiences.

(Also check out his film "The Man Who Laughs"-- his character was shamelessly ripped off by the creators of Batman's villain The Joker-- and, oh yeah by the way, he was also in "Casablanca," which you might as well check out, too.)

Anyway, I searched for a VHS and then DVD copy of "Orlacs Hände", but I wasn't able to find one for years. Then, last December, while scrolling through the available options of the Fandor channel on the Roku, I stumbled across the film. Watched it. Watched it twice.

It is a work of genius. It's one of the greatest films of all time. One of my favorite novels of all time has been the inspiration behind two of my favorite films of all time. And these two films are totally different in focus and tone. "Orlacs Hände" is unremittingly bleak, focusing on the torment of the victim. "Mad Love" is almost sadistically gleeful as the viewer revels in the charm and humor of the mad scientist villain who was extrapolated into the work by a screenwriter who was nearly the equal to the author of the original work.

We are blessed to have both of these films so easily available for viewing; one on DVD, the other online, for free, at the Internet Archive.

Yes, "Orlacs Hände" is available for free viewing online. Here it is:

Hands of Orlac at Internet Archive:

Movies and books that I spent years trying to locate are now found almost anywhere, and in some cases for free.


Thrill Fiction said...

It's somewhat touching you sharing your love with a world that doesn't deserve it. The clown factory would rather watch The Avengers again (I am bewildered as to how popular that film remains).

I've not see any of the movies mentioned - apart from Casablanca. I was always planning to watch Dr Caligari but there's a football tournament on. Perhaps this is a vein I should explore; this transplant macabre.

Thanks for sharing Sprague. I know of a literary genius too.

Ricky Sprague said...

Thanks, A.Jaye.

Would you believe I still haven't gotten around to actually watching "The Avengers"? I just can't bring myself to do it. I kind of feel like I've already seen it before, over and over again.

I think Caligari is only about an hour long, so you can probably make it through. I'd be interested in what you thought of it versus "Nightmare on Elm Street." In many ways, I think Elm Street is more effective, but Caligari was one of the first, and it definitely has an unnerving elegance.

I think you might also like Endore's Werewolf of Paris.

I remember once watching a TV special in which Ian McKellen talked about Richard Burbage and he said, "Can you imagine being the first actor to play Hamlet?" That's what I think of when I watch movies like Caligari, Nosferatu, Metropolis, and He Who Gets Slapped.

I wonder what I'm going to think when I finally get around to watching "The Avengers"?