A brilliant young pianist is involved in a serious car accident on the way home from his first big recital. His hands are smashed beyond repair but a daring surgeon replaces them with those from a recently delivered corpse. Although the operation is a complete success, the pianist has serious difficulties accepting what has happened to him, and the emotional pressure leads to murder…
The fourth, and to date the last, cinematic take on Maurice Renard’s successful novel ‘Les Mains d’Orlac (The Hands of Orlac)’ published in 1920. The most well-known adaptation is the twisted classic ‘Mad Love’ (1935) with Peter Lorre, which drips with gothic atmosphere and boasts a gloriously demented performance from its star. The other versions are the original silent with Conrad Veidt from 1924 (rather dull) and a low budget 1960 ﬁlm that wastes Christopher Lee in a supporting role.
Coming so soon after the 1960 film, this project runs the risk of redundancy before it even begins, but actually emerges as the most thoughtful take on the story, although its execution is somewhat flawed. The film has an opening right out of ﬁlm noir when a shady character is gunned down by hoodlums on an empty street. It’s quite an impressive sequence and establishes that the origin of pianist James Noah’s new hands is somewhat dubious. Unfortunately, this removes a layer of ambiguity which the film would have been better advised to maintain, especially as the exact identity of the donor is never revealed.
Elsewhere, the dialogue is intelligent but somewhat overwritten as Noah and surgeon Paul Lukather discourse on the ‘creation of beauty.’ lt’s not so overdone as to prompt laughter, but it’s not all that realistic all the same. Better are the exchanges between Lukather and knowing cop Laurence Haddon, who makes far more out of a generic role than most performers would have managed. But it’s Noah who is the centre of the ﬁlm and his nervy, intense portrayal of an artist on the edge of madness is quite effective. His self-obsession before the accident and treatmeht of his sister Joan Harvey helps to make his breakdown all the more credible. Also in the cast is a young Sally Kellerman, getting a small role almost a decade before her breakout in blockbuster hit ‘M*A*S*H (1969).
What impresses in general about the ﬁlm is its serious intent, and a determination to present the material in a matter of fact, non-sensational way. There is a discussion about how the new hands might possibly have retained the spirit of their former owner, but it’s all played down in favour of more realistic explanations. Unfortunately, a small budget does mean the audience gets a lot of talk, and so the action, when it finally arrives, is not all that persuasive.
Director Newt Arnold also had a hand in the script, and it’s a pity that his resources were limited. There’s a particularly effective sequence at a fairground which displays a good deal of visual flair and imagination.
A middling entertainment with an unfairly poor reputation.