Saturday, October 10, 2015
Mad Love (1935) is a horror film, noteworthy for two reasons. First, the film features a particularly effective performance by Peter Lorre, probably his most indelible effort in the horror genre. Second, the movie clearly influenced Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, although the nature of the influence is a bit eerie -- bits and pieces of Mad Love are embedded in Citizen Kane like slivers of shrapnel in a wounded body, improbable citations: Welles' make-up is based on Lorre's appearance, there's a cockatoo, and weird deep focus sets; it's like coming upon shreds of unassimilated Holinshed and his Chronicles in Shakespeare's history plays. The story is familiar and so resonant that the plot has been used in innumerable pictures -- 1935's Mad Love was itself the remake of a German horror film with Conrad Veidt, 1924's The Hands of Orlac and, then, was remade, more or less, by Robert Florey in the 1946 film wonderfully named The Beast with Five Fingers. The story concerns a surgeon who implants the hands of a murderer onto the wrists of a concert pianist mangled in a train wreck. The pianist discovers to his horror that his new hands are autonomous -- they are murderous instruments that act on their own accord to wreak havoc on the pianist's next-of-kin and loved ones. The idea is brilliant, but it can't support a feature-length film and, even, Mad Love, probably the best of these pictures, has a startlingly dull middle act -- and the film is only 68 minutes long. Karl Freund who shot Fritz Lang's Metropolis and, later, engineered the two-camera approach to Hollywood sit-coms in I love Lucy directed the picture. Lorre is superbly repulsive as a sadistic surgeon -- one scene, he strokes a child that he has saved with his surgical art; although he talks about compassion and defeating pain, when the child begins to scream and cry, his eerie composure is undaunted, completely indifferent to the suffering beneath his hands. He watches a guillotining with a squinty eye cast upward on the blade and, then, just the faintest hint of a smirk when the severed head drops away from the condemned man's body. As the film becomes more Gran Guignol, Lorre's skills are wasted -- in the end, he has to stagger around shrieking and howling like a mad man and the ending of the movie seems rushed and rather poorly staged. (Lorre is best when he is most subtle -- almost, but not quite, sympathetic when he woos the pianist's wife, Yvonne Orlac. When she has to kiss him, she shudders as if putting her lips to a corpse and we shudder with him.) The film's theme is a powerful one -- that is, sexual desire and obsession are autonomous and may have nothing to do with our conscious intentions and desire. The benefactor of humanity, Dr. Gogol, spends every night watching Mrs. Orlac, an actress in a chamber of horrors, being tortured -- Lorre's character is obviously a sadist and there is a curious and poignant disconnect (or, perhaps, secret similarity) between his benevolent work as a surgeon and his desire to see a beautiful woman stretched on the rack and, then, branded, the red-hot iron apparently searing her breast. Similarly, the pianist's mechanical dexterity, his skills playing the piano, is more than a little bit uncanny as well -- although the film doesn't make the point, isn't it true that a great pianist playing Chopin is, in effect, possessed by Chopin and his hands controlled by the hands of the dead composer? This theme is best expressed in Jonathon Demme's film Something Wild where the heroine (played by a young Melanie Griffith) says to her exhausted boyfriend -- he has just killed her ex-husband in a brutal fight: "Now, you know how the other half lives." "The other half?" the boyfriend asks. "The other half of you," Melanie Griffith replies. In the first third of the film, and its last ten minutes, every sequence begins with a strangely disorienting shot or some clever indirection. As in The Black Cat, a better film, but similar in appearance, there's almost too much stuffed into the short picture: audiences get a peek at a wax museum chamber of horrors, see a beautiful woman graphically tortured, are treated to a guillotining and the spectacular aftermath of a train wreck; Lorre's character "gaslights" the hapless pianist and, in one famously ghoulish scene, claims to be the dead man executed by the guillotine, his head reattached by Dr. Gogol. There are comical drunkards, not one but two, and, last but not least, a spectacular cameo by the American comedian Ted Healy, the inventor of the Three Stooges, playing the psychopathic killer, Rollo, the Knife-Thrower. "We all get it in the neck in the end," Rollo says nonchalantly as he led to the guillotine. And, despite this plethora of material, the middle fifteen minutes of the film is static, completely dull, and may put you to sleep.