Monday, April 30, 2018


Once again I had the pleasure and privilege of appearing on the vastly entertaining and informative FOUR BRAINS ONE MOVIE podcast, featuring the inimitable Bradley J Kornish and Dan Pullen. This time we discussed two films that are very dear to me, HANDS OF ORLAC and MAD LOVE, both of which are based on the book LES MAINS D’ORLAC by Maurice Renard.

I’ve already written a little about both of these films, but that was quite awhile ago. Re-watching them this past week for the podcast, I was struck by the fact that I’ve grown to appreciate these films even more, and for very different reasons than I have in past. At least on a conscious level. Over the last couple of years I’ve been going through some Dougie Cooper-level stuff and over the past six months or so I’ve been actively confronting these issues, and I think that my new outlook on these two films has been actively informed by my own personal journey. Also, I’ve been reading a lot of Brene Brown.

At heart, these movies about a hand transplant gone wrong are about the ways in which humans fail to connect, and how the need to express oneself is vital to their survival.

Also, a killer’s hands probably contain some vestige of their original owner’s homicidal spirit—so be careful whose limbs you have transplanted onto your body.

In HANDS OF ORLAC, Conrad Veidt gives a manic, exhausting performance as Paul Orlac (Stephen in Renard’s original book—I’m not sure why it was changed; MAD LOVE changes it back), a famed concert pianist whose hands are crushed in train derailment. The brilliant but bland surgeon Dr Serral transplants the hands of Vasseur, a man recently executed for committing a series of murders, onto Paul’s arms. Thanks to a highly effective plot to drive him insane and extort money, Paul comes to believe that his hands are possessed by the evil bloodlust that drove Vasseur to commit the crimes for which he was executed.

Prior to the train derailment, much is made of the importance of Paul’s hands. Very early in the film Yvonne is seen reading a letter from Paul, in which he states that his “hands will glide over your hair. I will feel your body beneath my hands.” Later, Yvonne pleads with Dr Serral to “save his hands,” and when Paul awakens after the procedure, his hands still covered in hand bandages (“handages”), Yvonne comments on his “beautiful, tender hands…”

All of this might seem like overkill, and maybe it is—but the fact is, hands are important. They’re specifically important to Paul because as a pianist it’s how he earns his living and how he expresses himself creatively. They’re also an important part of the way in which he and his wife connect with one another. Without the ability to connect with others, we miss out on crucial aspects of ourselves. It’s very difficult to be a wholehearted, satisfied person without connecting with others. When Paul, who has been looking forward to once again holding the love of his life in his arms, and getting back to sharing his musical gifts with the world, learns that the hands that are now on the ends of his arms once belonged to a man executed for committing murder, he understandably suffers a serious emotional break.

He decides that he won’t allow himself to use these new hands to touch anyone else. So, following this major medical trauma, he feels a need to compound his difficulty by walling himself off from humanity. This is on top of the fact that his new hands seem incapable of creating music anymore: In one particularly painful scene, Paul goes to the piano, caresses it. Fearfully, anxiously, a shell of what he once was, he attempts to play. His and Yvonne’s reactions are appalled at the result.

Paul’s struggle is dramatized in scenes that show him almost dancing, with the hands seeming to lead him. He tells the hands, “I feel like it comes from you… along the arms… until it reaches the soul… cold, terrible, relentless…” A knife found planted at his home as part of the blackmail/insanity plot is used to stab at the air—and leads to Paul considering using it to sever his new hands.

In this way Veidt and director Robert Wiene clearly establish the heartsickness, fear, and psychological difficulties that come from Paul’s situation. His new hands are the reasons why he can’t connect with others, either physically or through his Art. Now his blackmailers, Nera and Regine (Yvonne’s maid) really start to twist the knife, so to speak. Nera tells her: “Seduce his hands.”

This is a wildly specific and even humorous phrasing. But it shows that Nera has a deep understanding of the trauma that Paul is still dealing with. Paul has been denying himself connection with everyone, including his wife. Nera knows that Paul can’t keep that up forever without going completely insane, and that the opportunity for actual contact will be too much for him to resist. So he tells her to make that connection with Paul. When he touches her, the look on Paul’s face is one of pathetic, heartbreaking relief. Human beings are hardwired for connection. That connection is often sloppy and open to miscommunication even in the best circumstances.

Then Regine hits him with “Don’t touch me... Your hands hurt... Like the hands of a killer...” she is messing with him on a primal level. She lets him get a taste of connection that he hasn’t had since before the accident and then takes it away in a brutally emotionally violent way.

This leads to Paul visiting Dr Serral, and asking him to remove the hands. Dr Serral responds with stupid platitudes: “The head and the heart lead the body… and command the hands.” Well, Paul’s head is completely twisted up, and his heart is broken. His head and heart are useless in this case, and as Paul has already stated, he can feel the hands’s influence reaching into his soul.

Finally, Nera, pretending to be Vasseur, confronts Paul with his explicit blackmail demands. This leads to the climax of the film, in which we learn that Nera was the killer all along and that Vasseur was unjustly executed. Nera took a wax cast of Vasseur’s hands and created gloves which he used to leave Vasseur’s fingerprints at his crime scenes (slightly reminiscent of the third Fantomas novel, published in English as THE CORPSE WHO KILLS, in which Fantomas created gloves from the actual hands of a dead man). The hands, then, are clean—Paul kisses his hands and touches Yvonne. This ending, taken directly from the book, is an unmitigatedly happy one. It might seem a bit too “pat,” but it’s actually a relief that feels earned by Paul after that incredibly draining performance by Veidt. As the audience, I felt a lot of relief, too.

This is in stark contrast to the ending of MAD LOVE, which is almost unbearably bleak.

MAD LOVE follows the same story as HANDS OF ORLAC, but puts the focus squarely on Professor Gogol—a vast improvement over the bland Dr Serral. As inhabited by the great Peter Lorre, in probably his best performance and one of the greatest performances of all time, Gogol is a deeply disturbing, pathetic, sympathetic, appalling, evil, generous, complicated human being who is ultimately looking for human connections he’s unable to make due to his profound and irreparable flaws.

The director Karl Freund crafted the story of MAD LOVE with a writer called Guy Endore, author of a fantastic novel called THE WEREWOLF OF PARIS (which you should read!), to add an additional psychosexual element centered around Lorre’s Gogol. In this version of the story, Yvonne is an actress appearing at a Grand Guignol-type theater which Gogol visits every night to watch her suffer simulated tortures, which, given Gogol’s expression during one particularly grisly scene of torture, give him sexual satisfaction.

Or is it really sexual? Compare the look on Lorre's Gogol's face with that of Veidt's Orlac in the "seduce his hands" scene screenshotted above. I wonder if this is in fact Gogol feeling an EMOTIONAL connection with Yvonne. It's warped, I know--but Gogol is a warped character.

After a performance, Gogol visits Yvonne in her dressing room where he’s appalled to learn that she plans to journey with Stephen to England. Stephen’s playing can be heard on the radio in the background and when Yvonne asks Gogol, “How do you think he plays?” Gogol exposes his bitchy jealousy when he answers “Very modern music” in a condescending tone. (Gogol’s good taste in Art is shown throughout the film by his frequent quoting of poetry by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Robert Browning, and Oscar Wilde.) But his attitude changes to outright desperation when he tells her “I’ve come to depend on seeing you every night… I must see you again… I MUST!” She’s creeped out and looks for escape, but Gogol is invited to the afterparty, where the cast and crew present Yvonne with a guillotine-themed wedding cake. Yvonne offers “One kiss and one piece of cake for each…” Bad idea, as Gogol’s kiss is a clear violation. In a great piece of acting, Frances Drake’s Yvonne displays a range of emotions in just a few seconds, going from fearful, to horrified, to saddened, then to a sort of steely resignation to soldier on.

In these few early scenes Gogol’s and Yvonne’s characters and their dynamic are clearly established. Stephen’s character is established by the radio announcer who states that he is “an Artist with a great future,” and, significantly, it’s noted that Stephen isn’t just a pianist but also a composer. The next time we see Stephen he’s riding in the train, composing music. This is contrasted with the arrival of Rollo, convicted of killing his father with a knife and on his way to Paris for execution. Creativity is expression is life—Stephen is asserting his life by composing. This dichotomy is made explicit by the American journalist Reagan, who equates the train’s arrival to “A welcome and farewell party all in one.”

As if that wasn’t enough, later, after Stephen’s handages have been removed and his piano playing is shown to be less than satisfying, he plays a record of a past performance and tells Yvonne, “I used to play rather well. Wonderful invention, the phonograph… keeps a man alive long after he’s dead… These records are all that’s left of Stephen Orlac.” Yvonne responds by stating, “All of Stephen Orlac is left. His tenderness… his genius… and his arms. That hold me close…” Stephen is still alive, he can still touch Yvonne, but he can’t express himself creatively, which was a crucial part of his identity.

Note that by this point in the story in the previous film, Paul Orlac has been told that he has the hands of a killer on the ends of his arms. Stephen still believes that the hands he has are his own, reconstructed. So he has the luxury of being able to hold Yvonne close, at least. Even if he can’t play the piano anymore. But this is going to change in a truly devastating way.

Things take a really sinister turn when a creditor attempts to repossess Stephen’s piano. He throws a pen at him—the pen lodges in the wall just as the pen lodges in the wall of train car when Rollo throws it at the autograph-seeker. The symmetry of this scene is complete when Stephen again states, “This happens to be my pen, gentlemen…”

So it would appear that Stephen has some idea of that he’s got Rollo’s hands—but the audience hasn’t yet seen anything that lets us know for certain that he’s been told. When he confronts Gogol, Stephen tells him, “You and your black magic!… The hands feel for knives… They want to throw them… They want to kill!” Gogol then offers Stephen some bland platitudes, along the lines of Serral’s nonsense in HANDS OF ORLAC; but in this case, Gogol is aware he’s being banal.

When Yvonne confronts him later, Gogol seems to be talking about himself as much as Stephen: “The shock has affected his mind… Get away from him before he ruins your life…” He then delivers one of the great lines horror movie history: “I, a poor peasant, have conquered science! Why can’t I conquer love? Don’t you understand? You must be mine!”

This outburst drains Gogol, who seems to go into a sort of catatonic state not unlike that of Paul Orlac in HANDS OF ORLAC. At this point Gogol’s mind completely snaps and he hatches his plan to murder Stephen’s stepfather and assume the identity of Rollo to drive Stephen insane. He tells Stephen that the hands he now possesses once belonged to Rollo, the knife throwing murderer.

At the climax, Stephen throws the knife used to murder his stepfather and with deadly accuracy he kills Gogol just before Gogol is able to kill Yvonne.

Stephen has the knife-throwing skills of Rollo. The hands do in fact want knives! They want to throw them! And they wanted to throw knives—and to kill—BEFORE Stephen knew they’d once belonged to Rollo. This means that the hands are in fact corrupt, and they’re corrupting Stephen. The hands are exerting a powerfully malevolent influence over him. And it’s at this point the film ends.

For crying out loud that is a desperately bleak ending!

Where does the story go from here? What kind of future do the Orlacs have to look forward to? The best they can hope for is that Stephen is able to channel his hands’ bloodlust in “positive” ways, in a sort of Dexter Morgan type future.

By making Yvonne an actress in a Grand Guignol-esque theater, Freund is able to do a PoMo style commentary on horror films and their fans (when Gogol is invited to the afterparty, much to Yvonne’s chagrin, he’s told, “Dr Gogol, you represent our public!”). But even more than that, by making Gogol the main character of the story, Stephen and his plight become a subtle commentary on Gogol and HIS plight.

Gogol is a deeply flawed person who commits bizarre and monstrous acts. But everything he does is in his fumbling and inappropriate attempts to connect with others. He’s unable to connect with others in ways that are “normal” and “healthy.” In many ways he’s a good person—he’s a gifted surgeon who uses his skills to help the poor. He specifically tells Reagan he doesn’t work for money, and we see this altruism in action, in his care for children in need of medical care. Despite his amazing surgical skill, he can’t make meaningful human connections. He’s almost like a character from a Todd Solondz film.

After the procedure Gogol has a conversation with Yvonne in which she is clearly the one with the power. He confesses his true feelings for her in a truly awkward and cringy way, asking for “pity for a man who has never known the love of a woman but has worshipped you…” Yvonne tells him that she knew of his feelings for her, and traded on them in order to get him to take on Stephen as a patient. She then delivers a painful emotional wallop: “Even if not for Stephen, there’s something about you that… frightens  me…”

Self-aware, pained Gogol replies, “You are cruel! But only to be kind…” He seems resigned to his loveless fate, but once he concocts his plan to drive Stephen insane and step into Yvonne’s life in a romantic way he delivers his “poor peasant” line. Once again, Yvonne is in control, and she pushes him away in disgust. Gogol, near catatonic, is physically exhausted. He’s made at least three overt attempts at reaching out to Yvonne, and she’s rebuffed him every time.

Clearly, Gogol needs help. Yvonne can’t help him, and she has her own horrifying difficulties to deal with. Gogol’s doomed—his fate is sealed by his lack of human connection. But the devastation that he’s caused will last long after the film’s end.

When I first saw these films, in particular MAD LOVE, I was mostly drawn to their strange psychology and exploration of medical anxiety. The idea of losing control of your own body is truly horrifying. Watching them now, however, I’m struck by the fact that they’re actually about far more universal human issues. The lack of meaningful relationships can lead to disastrous consequences. MAD LOVE and HANDS OF ORLAC are both powerful, affecting dramatizations of the importance of connection and self-expression.

My cartoon mashup of HANDS OF ORLAC and MAD LOVE.