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The Beast With Five Fingers (1946)

"It was the hand! - the hideous hand!"

bwff.jpg (10039 bytes) Director: Robert Florey

Starring: Peter Lorre, Robert Alda, Andrea King, Victor Francen, J. Carroll Naish, Charles Dingle, John Alvin

Screenplay: Curt Siodmak, based upon a story by William Fryer Harvey

Synopsis: Bruce Conrad (Robert Alda) is a gone-to-seed musician who ekes out a living in a small Italian town by selling fake antiques to American tourists and parasitising Francis Ingram (Victor Francen), a former concert pianist who suffers paralysis of the right side of his body after a stroke. Ingram is infatuated with his nurse/companion Julie Holden (Andrea King), who in turn has fallen for Conrad. The household is completed by Hilary Cummins (Peter Lorre), Ingram’s secretary of many years, who is using Ingram’s collection of ancient books to pursue his obsession with astrological lore.

Uncomfortable with Ingram’s obvious passion for her, Julie discusses her plans to leave with Conrad, who confesses his love for her. They are overheard by Hilary who, needing Julie’s continued presence to distract Ingram’s attention from his own behaviour, repeats what he has heard to his employer. Ingram flies into a fury, calling Hilary a liar and half-strangling him with his one good hand before suffering an attack.

Waking during the night to find Julie absent from attendance on him, Ingram drags himself into his wheelchair to go in search of her, and is killed when he loses control of his chair at the top of the staircase. Ingram’s brother-in-law and nephew arrive from England for the funeral, and are outraged to discover that Ingram has named Julie his sole heir. They plot with Ingram’s lawyer to overturn the will, but before steps can be taken the lawyer is strangled. A light has been seen in Ingram’s tomb, music heard throughout the house, and Ingram’s ring found on his piano. When Ingram’s body is investigated, it is found that his left hand is missing, while the mausoleum has been broken out of from the inside....

Comments: Up until its final minutes, The Beast With Five Fingers is a genuinely creepy film. The atmosphere of the film is greatly helped by Max Steiner’s score, which makes effective use of Bach as a signature tune for Victor Francen and, later, his hand. Robert Alda and Andrea King are adequate, if not particularly sympathetic, as the romantic leads, and Charles Dingle and John Alvin suitably repugnant as the scavanging in-laws; but the film belongs to Peter Lorre, who gives a bravura performance as the increasingly deranged Hilary.  (Director Robert Florey got an even better performance out of Lorre five years earlier, in the excellent little-known thriller, The Face Behind The Mask (1941)  The script by Curt Siodmak (who seems to have had a thing for detached body parts with a mind of their own: he also wrote the novel Donovan’s Brain, on which the films The Lady And The Monster (1944) and Donovan’s Brain (1953), among others, were based), builds its horrors slowly, but the pay-off is worth it: the scenes of the hand playing the piano, resisting imprisonment in drawers and boxes (look no further than this for the inspiration for Thing), and scuttling behind Hilary’s precious books are genuinely creepy (Hollywood legend claims that Luis Bunuel worked on this part of the film).   These scenes are played quite straight, with the other characters forced to consider the possibility of the hand being genuine, so it is a disappointment, if no real surprise, when it ultimately proves to be a figment of Hilary’s imagination. The Beast With Five Fingers was one of Warner Brothers few forays into the world of fantastic film, and shows just how uncomfortable the studio was when dealing with such subject matter. Somehow, even when their supernatural elements proved genuine, Warners’ horror films always felt like something else: Doctor X (1931) and The Mystery Of The Wax Museum (1933) play like standard Thirties’ reporter-based whodunits, while except for Boris Karloff’s resurrection, The Walking Dead (1936) could be any one of the gritty crime dramas at which Warners excelled. While this attitude may have disappointed horror fans, the films themselves usually retained their effectiveness. However, the last few minutes of The Beast With Five Fingers, an utterly ridiculous coda featuring J. Carroll Naish laughing away the entire plot, very nearly destroy what until then has been an unnerving cinematic experience, and leave a very sour taste in the mouth.