Robert Florey, 1946
Starring: Robert Alda, Peter Lorre, Andrea King, Victor Francen
One of the most enjoyably ridiculous films I've seen in a long time, The Beast with Five Fingers is not sure if it wants to be a whodunnit murder mystery, a haunted house film, a psychological thriller, or a minor creature feature. It doesn't work particularly well as any of the above, but is a hell of a good time, in part because of the delirious performance by the great Peter Lorre. He’s not quite on the level of M or Mad Love, but is still utterly delightful. As with Mad Love, The Beast with Five Fingers is somewhat based on German expressionist horror film The Hands of Orlac.
Francis Ingram, a famous, albeit tyrannical piano player, dies leaving behind a questionable will. It seems that he wanted to leave his considerable estate to Julie, his young nurse that he fell in love with, but his greedy, American nephew is contesting it based on an earlier will in which everything was left to him. Hilary (Lorre), Ingram's librarian, secretary, and musicologist, is obsessed with the library and a number of rare, valuable occult books and is determined to keep them regardless of who gets the rest of the property. Ingram also has plans of his own - his spectral hand begins to haunt the manor, presumably killing anyone it comes across, and bodies start piling up. Are the murders the work of the diabolically possessed hand or is the killer all too human?
In its desperation to resolve things rationally, the conclusion is a little disappointing, but is similar to other horror films of the period with Scooby Doo-like endings. Despite a script by Curt Siodmak (The Wolfman and a number of other Universal horrors), the plot, which was already a bit of a disaster, is made more complicated by a love story between nurse Julie and Ingram's young friend Conrad, a conman and ex-concert pianist. As long as you don't question any of the more absurd elements, the film is endearing and enjoyable and really worth seeing just for the scenes where Lorre battles with an undead, disembodied hand. Director Robert Florey (Murders in the Rue Morgue) worked with Lorre previously and they obviously had a lot of fun here, though Florey allegedly didn’t want to direct this. Despite that, Florey’s sure direction and use of some lovely, spooky visuals make this look far more polished and expensive than it probably deserved. This was both Florey and Lorre’s last film with Warner Bros.
The Beast with Five Fingers comes highly recommended if you like older, campier horror where there are genuine chills as well as plenty of laughs, intentional and otherwise. As in everything, Lorre is wonderful and steals the film away from every other actor, except maybe Universal B movie regular J. Carrol Naish, the roguish police inspector. There are also some decent performances from Victor Francen (End of the World) as Ingram, though he doesn’t stick around long, and Robert Alda (The Devil’s Hand) as the con artist with a heart of gold.
For the musically inclined, the score was chosen by Max Steiner and is an arrangement of Bach's chaconne from the Violin Partita in D Minor as transcribed by Brahms, intended to be played with the left-hand only. The pianist shown on screen is Nyiregyhazi, a famous Hungarian-American musician.
Unfortunately The Beast with Five Fingers is shockingly not yet available on DVD, though you can still find it used on VHS and, with a bit of cunning, it can be easily tracked down on the internet.