Wednesday, 11 February 2015
Mad Love /
‘The Hands of Orlac’
(Karl Freund, 1935)
Whilst I bow to no man in my appreciation of The Black Cat (1934 version), ‘Island of Lost Souls’, Bride of Frankenstein and numerous other masterworks of weirdo horror that crawled from the recesses of the Hollywood studios in the 1930s, I think after much consideration that my vote for the single best pre-war American horror film must go to ‘Mad Love’ (released in the UK as ‘The Hands of Orlac’), one of MGM’s intermittent attempts to leapfrog the success of Universal’s horror cycle, which opened in New York in the summer of 1935.
I say “best pre-war *American* horror film”, but it is worth noting before we move on that one of the things that makes ‘Mad Love’ such a unique brew is the fact that it takes its personnel, inspiration, setting and aesthetic style from just about everywhere BUT America. This of course was a pattern well established by the Universal horrors, which drew from European gothic traditions to such an extent that their success often hinged largely upon the contribution of European actors and directors, but ‘Mad Love’ takes this tendency even further, creating what is in effect a Hollywood studio movie in which American input didn’t extend much beyond putting up the money and providing accents and dialogue for some of the supporting cast.
Set amid the narrow streets of a grimy and decadent Montmartre, the film was adapted by ‘Werewolf of Paris’ scribe Guy Endore from the French pulp perennial ‘Les Mains D'Orlac’ by Maurice Renard, and subsequently massaged into filmable shape by ubiquitous Universal horror script doctor John L. Balderson. Famously, ‘Mad Love’ gave Peter Lorre his first role in an American film after leaving Germany for fairly obvious reasons a few years previously, and, whether by accident or design, he found himself under the direction of another exile from the Nazis (and another key Fritz Lang collaborator to boot), the master cinematographer Karl Freund.
A US resident since 1929, Freund had by this point already established himself as an important contributor to Universal’s horror films - as director of photography on Todd Browning’s ‘Dracula’ he is often credited with devising most of that film’s best moments, and his directorial debut on the following year’s ‘The Mummy’ proved equally auspicious. It seems likely that it was this element of Freund’s CV that convinced MGM to hand him the reins here, and the studio’s attempts to echo Universal continued with the casting of Englishman Colin Clive – Dr. Frankenstein himself – in the pivotal role of Stephen Orlac.
The presence of Clive seems appropriate, as, initially, ‘Mad Love’ could easily be mistaken for one of James Whale’s pioneering horror films. The same odd mixture of modernist cynicism and crumbling gothic / music hall melodrama, the same lightning fast pace, striking visuals and constant unpredictability that made ‘Bride of Frankenstein’ and ‘The Old Dark House’ such head-spinning prospects – all are present and correct here, suggesting that the team behind Freund’s film had been taking careful note of Whale’s achievements. But the circumstances of ‘Mad Love’s creation arguably resulted in an even better and more accomplished film than Whale had managed – a heady mixture of all that was good in the pre-existing French, German and American horror traditions, with just a touch of Britishness lurking somewhere in the background for good measure.
‘Mad Love’ diverges considerably from its source however, pushing Orlac into the background and concentrating instead upon the surgeon who performs the transplant operation, Professor Gogol (played by Lorre, of course) - a sinister and lovelorn individual driven to madness by his unrequited love for Orlac’s wife Yvonne (Frances Drake), who appears nightly as the top-billed actress in a Grand Guignol-esque horror theatre.
In this iteration of the story, Gogol acquires a pair of hands from a condemned killer who had previously worked as a circus knife-thrower, and initially transplants them onto Orlac simply as doomed attempt to win Yvonne’s favour, telling the couple that he has merely rebuilt Stephen’s existing hands, rather than replacing them entirely. It is only after Stephen’s behavior becomes erratic as a result of the supernatural influence of his new hands that Gogol goes off the deep end and steps in to push Orlac toward madness and murder, in a fiendish and rather desperate attempt to get him out of the way so that he can, presumably, have his wicked way with Yvonne.
From this already somewhat contrived outline, things spread out into a wider plotline that incorporates enough fiendish disguises, snooping reporters, pilfered corpses and mistaken identities to recall the heady Gallic pulp of Louis Feuillade’s silent serials. But Freund and his collaborators wisely decided to pare things down to their bare emotional essence here, building an atmosphere of furtive dread through the application of powerful cinematic imagery rather than elaborate plotting, and keeping the focus squarely on the pitiful and terrifying figure of Gogol – a move that helps to elevate the film from just another variation on a hoary old pulp yarn into something approaching a masterpiece.
Lorre’s mixing of these two distinct modes, the way in which he manages to let them co-exist within the same cohesive character, is remarkable, as he moves between quiet, awkward dignity and snarling, eye-rolling hammery on the turn of a dime. As Andre Sennwald rightly points out in his insightful review in The New York Times (readable here), there are few actors who could deliver a line like “I, a poor peasant, have conquered science – why can’t I conquer love?” and succeed not only in making such a pronouncement seem natural, but in actually drawing us into the character’s emotional turmoil to such an extent that any sniggering or suggestions of ironic ‘b movie’ camp become unthinkable.
Whilst Lorre’s performance in ‘Mad Love’ was widely praised at the time and has frequently been cited as his best American role, I would go one further and say, with all due respect to Lang’s ‘M’, that this must surely be the best performance of Lorre’s entire career.
Meanwhile, Freund echoes Whale at his best by sidestepping the bland and obvious at every turn, crowbarring a little bit of strangeness and uncertainty into every scene as he twists the oft melodramatic scenarios offered by the script into a veritable feast of unheimlich imagery. From the sight of Gogol strangling his beloved with her own hair, to Orlac staring at his hairy, oversized new hands, to the dream-like blurring of the line separating the real-life Drake from the wax mannequin of her that Gogol keeps in his attic room, everything is rendered kind of perverse, as the film offers endless variations on the theme of the body being turned against itself.
A series of stark, inscrutable images that could literally have been taken from a nightmare, these scattered tableaus seem to graze the skin of some deeper psychological significance, but never quite settle into the comforting realm of an easily applicable ‘meaning’. Masterful examples of the kind of unchecked weirdness that ‘30s horror so often inadvertently let through the gate, they are practical applications of surrealism, loaded with all the spiritual unease of German expressionism but still, somehow, rendered just about acceptable to the audience of a commercial Hollywood thriller.
Even ‘Mad Love’s title sequence, featuring the name of the film scrawled across the condensation on a steamy window before a bare fist smashes the glass upon which the cast list is super-imposed, is unnerving and faintly suggestive (not to mention quite daring for the 1930s, when most films still announced themselves in a manner rather more like this).
Helpfully, the film’s action is spread across a variety of visually appealing locations. The night-haunted tenement building in which Gogol lives could have come straight from ‘Der Student von Prag’ or ‘Der Golem’ (the latter of which was actually photographed by Freund), whilst the bare halls and gleaming chrome fixtures of his clinic seem emblematic of a whole lineage of cold, unsettling surgical spaces that leads through ‘Les Yeux Sans Visage’ right up to Cronenberg’s ‘Dead Ringers’, and the ‘Théâtre des Horreurs’ where he spies upon Yvonne each night is pure spook-house gothic. Combined with Toland’s bold use of perspective and Freund’s oneiric Germanic sensibilities, these threatening and confined backgrounds lend ‘Mad Love’ a unique visual identity, with the stagey drawing room scenes and fixed medium shots that usually dominate low budget films of this era wisely kept to minimum (if not eradicated entirely).
But, speaking of the budget, some moments here do make me wonder… If you’ll allow me a bit of a gratuitous digression, I was struck on my second viewing of ‘Mad Love’ by how astonishingly elaborate the presentation of the train crash in which Orlac loses his hands was. Though a pivotal plot point, this sequence is basically of little consequence vis-a-vis the central drive of the film’s narrative, and I’m sure many filmmakers would have been happy to present it at a distance, or just mention it in passing. Freund though opts to give us a full picture of the accident and its terrible aftermath, complete with shots of several full-size train cars lying up-ended on top of each other as piles of debris burn on the ground and a chaotic crowd of onlookers, including a small army of wimpled nurses, attend to the prone bodies that litter the track.
None of this looks like the result any in-camera trickery or matte painting, and one can’t help but wonder how the hell the producers managed to justify such an indulgence for such a ‘small’ film. Did they opportunistically jump onboard a set constructed for a far bigger production, or is the scene actually the result of some kind of ingenious use of model shots and visual effects? Whatever the story may be, the resulting shots certainly help to expand what could have merely been a throwaway plot device into a quite lengthy and very effective sequence.
We already feel an awful queasiness when Yvonne arrives at the station to greet her husband, only to be met with the confusion of his train’s mysterious non-arrival, and when we follow her aboard the ‘relief train’ to the sight of the accident, the scene we see through her eyes is genuinely hellish – a Brueghel-esque vision of machine-age devastation. As with the post-WWI angst that consumes Edgar Ulmer’s ‘The Black Cat’, ‘Mad Love’ is a gothic potboiler that wants to show us it is not afraid to confront the real life horrors of its era – one that refuses to allow us to drift completely into horror of a purely fantastical / escapist variety.
And, what could be more ‘real life’ than the crushing loneliness and social inadequacy of Gogol himself? A Kafka-esque urban lost soul if ever there was one. His piteous inability to express his feelings to others and the cracked actions that eventually result are near unbearable to behold. More than avarice, cruelty or narcissism, he is a monster driven to monstrousness simply by his own failure to master human interaction.
One of the most haunting images in ‘Mad Love’ is that of Gogol watching Yvonne perform at the horror theatre, early on in the film. Though the staged violence is never graphic, the extracts we are shown from the performance are startlingly sadistic for a film of this vintage. (How they got past the recently imposed Hays Code is anyone’s guess - I can only assume that perhaps they were deemed acceptable by vestige of being a ‘play-within-a-play’ or somesuch?)
Regardless of the era though, this sequence remains genuinely unnerving, as we are forced to watch Frances Drake being ‘stretched’ on the rack and ‘burned’ with a branding iron, her theatrically exaggerated expressions of ‘pain’ revealed in unflinching close-up. As her ‘screams’ ring out across the theatre, the camera pans in on Gogol’s private box, where the doctor watches staring and impassive, his face half-hidden by shadow.
What we have here is a direct spiritual precursor to every Jess Franco-esque voyeuristic performance/reality blurring scenario that followed in subsequent decades, and indeed of every one of the innumerable instances of horror movies and thrillers using such material to open themselves up to ‘metaphor for cinema itself’ type meta-commentary; but only rarely did Franco or his aimilarly inclined contemporaries ever manage to twist their fantasies into anything quite as disturbing as Lorre’s expressionless face silently observing the gory spectacle of Drake’s torment, his emotions unguessable, until his eyes eventually close in some kind of private, devotional ecstasy.
We are never given any background on what attracted Gogol to the ‘Théâtre des Horreurs’, or what kick-started his obsession with Yvonne, but we feel that, trapped as he is within his strange, slightly autistic state of isolation, he remains ignorant of the conventions or meaning of popular entertainment. The tawdry exploitation offered by the theatre thus somehow becomes the highest and most beautiful sight Gogol can imagine, and its cathartic excesses affect him in ways he doesn’t quite understand - just like Travis Bickle, innocently insisting his date accompanies him to his favourite x-rated movie all those years later.
Indeed, whilst scenes of ‘normal folk’ faffing about whilst the monsters and misfits are off-screen are usually a big weakness in ‘30s and ‘40s horror films, that’s thankfully not the case here. Scripting and acting both remain engaging whilst Gogol is out of sight, and, in contrast to the NY Times review linked above, I even think the film’s comedy interludes work quite well. Gogol’s housekeeper (played by landlady/Great Aunt specialist May Beatty) is weirdly likeable as a Whale-esque music hall throwback, and the blunt interjections of Ted Healy’s meddlesome American reporter serve to deflate the film’s more introspective moments in much the same way as the intrusion of the landlord in Polanski’s ‘Repulsion’, particularly in the brief scene he spends palling around with the equally jovial knife-throwing murderer Rollo. (After three viewings, Healy’s balloon-bursting “man without head kills rich jeweler – what an eight column spread that’ll be for the front page!” outburst still gets a laugh out of me).
Unlike the strict horror/humour dichotomy that upsets the tone of many older horror films, ‘Mad Love’ is a rare example of the genre that is perceptive enough to let the two strands intermingle. All of the film’s designated ‘comic relief’ characters are in some sense as perversely tragic as the leads – the tactless reporter obsessively chasing corpses, the drunken landlady cowed by her sinister tenant, the condemned murderer cheerfully grinning his way to the guillotine. As a result, they add to, rather than detract from, the anguished and oppressive atmosphere of the film’s world.
And conversely, by the time we reach the film’s final act, there is sometimes no adequate response to the black-hearted absurdity of Gogol’s pathetic travails than that of outright laughter. As he pounds away at his organ (yes, of course he has an organ), his mind utterly gone, Lorre grins and gurns like some deranged toddler, and we’re not sure if we should laugh at, sympathise with or simply be terrified of this bizarre figure – so laughter, of course, becomes the default solution. Slicing between his identities as a tragic lover and a monster, Gogol is now also a figure of fun, prompting an uneasy feeling indeed for the audience, as we are invited to mock this character whom we’ve previously felt for so deeply, creating a nagging guilt in the back of our minds that, like so much in the film, lingers on after the story’s glib conclusion, never satisfactorily resolved.
For all my enthusiasm though, it is the duty of a reviewer to grudgingly admit that ‘Mad Love’ is not exactly what you’d call a perfect film. As mentioned above, the plotting is distinctly creaky and overwrought in places, and the film’s dream sequences (of which there are several) are perhaps not terribly effective – a hackneyed mélange of super-impositions and twirling, zooming camera tricks that somehow seem far less ‘otherworldly’ than the movie’s ‘real life’ scenes – whilst the ending seems quite abrupt in view of the care that has been taken with all that proceeded it, even by the clock-watching standards of old-time b pictures.
But, as I have said innumerable times before on these pages, who the hell wants to watch a perfect film? It is the ambiguities, the mysteries, the sheer strangeness of supernatural horror stories that keeps us coming back for more, and in that sense, ‘Mad Love’ is an example of the form that succeeds on every level.
A convoluted pulp potboiler somehow worked up into a mutant cinematic text that leaves us with a wealth of images never to be forgotten, questions never to be answered, raw emotions we don’t quite know what to do with and that may do uncomfortable things to the soul should we let them get to us too much, it surely matches up to the finest intentions of original gothic traditions of which it forms such a startling and uncanny modernisation.
Indeed, if the success of a horror film can be measured in terms of the sheer number of images that remain burned onto the viewer’s retina after viewing, lingering long in the back of the mind and never quite resolving themselves in any reassuring sense of order, then ‘Mad Love’, eighty years young this summer, can still be considered one of the best ever made.
(1) If you want to take the comparison further, you could argue that Gogol even looks a little Kane-like in some low angle close-ups here, looming above us in his wide-brimmed hat and fur-collared coat… and making an actor of Lorre’s stature ‘loom’ is no mean feat, I can tell you.