Mad Love (1935)

Director: Karl Freund

In which Peter Lorre makes his American debut, and while I suspect MGM possibly could have found a more grotesque vehicle for him if they’d tried, they would’ve been hard put to do so. Pauline Kael actually thought this was an influence on Citizen Kane, drawing some tenuous connections to prove her point (Steve Haberman on the DVD commentary bluntly calls her views “idiotic”), but I’ll be damned if I can see them myself; while Gregg Toland was cinematographer on both films (though not the main cameraman on this one) and did pass on at least some advice to Welles on Kane, I don’t think he was drawing that strongly on this one for ideas to knock off. Anyway, this is a vastly different affair on many levels, a lurid melodrama based on the novel The Hands of Orlac (which had already been filmed in 1924) in which a concert pianist loses his hands in a terrible accident, and a doctor transplants the hands of a just-executed murderer, whereupon he finds the hands taking on a life of their own. However, MGM’s twist on the tale made it less about Orlac (played nicely enough by Colin Clive) and more about the doctor, Gogol, played by Lorre in full bug-eyed psycho mode. Gogol, a gifted surgeon, is obsessed with Orlac’s actress wife, and when she reluctantly turns to him to save Orlac’s hands, he soon finds himself with a bit of an opportunity to get at Madame Orlac. Actually, the executed killer is one of the film’s more interesting characters, for all that he’s only in two scenes; Wm. Everson thinks he comes across as too sympathetic to actually be taken seriously as a murderer, and on the surface he surely does seem kind of jolly, but somewhere below the surface lurks something more explosive with a propensity for throwing knives, which Orlac obviously picks up from him. The film is like that, too, there’s something kind of weird and nasty underlying it, which is actually kind of remarkable given we’re now in the Production Code era; I’m surprised the line about Orlac’s wife “supplementing her income” to help pay for the operation actually got into the film. It’s not quite the usual 30s gothic, but it’s still a pretty good example of early horror, shot through with an oddly unwholesome feeling, technically accomplished, and driven by a remarkable lead performance from Lorre. Alas that it was an even bigger box office catastrophe for MGM than Freaks had been, but at least its posthumous reputation has been more solid…

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