Karl Freund, 1935
Starring: Peter Lorre, Frances Drake, Colin Clive
“Each man kills the thing he loves.”
An actress at the Parisian Théâtre des Horreurs, Yvonne Orlac, celebrates her final performance before she and her pianist husband prepare to travel Europe together. Her most devoted fan, the surgeon Dr. Gogol, is horrified to learn that she is married and leaving the theater. He purchases the wax statue of Yvonne to have a reminder of her. Before she can reunite with her husband, he is in a bad train accident that has damaged his hands. Another doctor prepares to amputate, but Yvonne begs Orlac to help. He prepares Orlac for an experimental hand transplant and gives him the hands of Rollo, a knife thrower executed the same day.
Orlac and Yvonne are nearly destitute after the expensive surgery and rehabilitation process combined with Orlac’s inability to work. To further complicated things, Orlac inexplicably begins throwing pens and knives when he becomes angry or upset. He visits his stepfather, Henry, to ask for money, despite the fact that they are on bad terms. They argue and Orlac throws a knife at him, but misses and flees, embarrassed and frightened. Orlac asks Gogol why his hands behave so strangely and Gogol suggests potential childhood trauma is to blame, concealing the fact that his hands belonged to Rollo. Gogol also tries to win Yvonne away from Orlac, but repulsed and outraged, she rejects him.
Orlac’s stepfather is murdered during the night and someone sends Orlac a mysterious note. He meets a man wearing a heavy muffler, dark glasses, and metallic hands. The man clams to be Rollo and tells Orlac that his hands killed his stepfather. After this disturbing meeting, a somewhat defeated Orlac explains to Yvonne that he has Rollo’s hands and has killed his father without remembering. He turns himself into the police, while Yvonne flees to Gogol’s home for help, but his drunk housekeeper mistakes her for the wax statue and locks her in the house. Gogol returns, now totally mad, and also believes she is the statue come to life. He tries to strange her to death, but Orlac and the police arrive in time for Orlac to throw a knife at Gogol before he can kill Yvonne.
Written by regular Universal scribe John L. Balderston (Dracula, Frankenstein) and Guy Endore (The Werewolf of Paris), Mad Love is a remake of Robert Wiene’s German expressionist classic The Hands of Orlac (1924), starring the first true horror star, Conrad Veidt. That film was based on Maurice Renard’s story The Hands of Orlac. Though not a perfect film, this is one of the most interesting ‘30s horror films and marks the American debut of Hungarian actor Peter Lorre. Lorre developed his career by acting in a number of German plays, mainly by Bertolt Brecht, and starring in Fritz Lang’s landmark classic film M. Like many other actors and filmmakers living in Germany in the early ‘30s, Lorre fled to the U.S. and continued his film career in Hollywood.
Lorre is the undeniable center of the film and it’s strange that this debut didn’t instantly make him a star in the U.S., though he would go on to appear in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, Casablanca, and a number of other lesser known horror films. Gogol is one of his finest roles and inspired Charlie Chaplin, after seeing the film, to declare Lorre the greatest living actor. His impersonation of Rollo is absolutely terrifying, thanks in part to the whisper that insinuates that Gogol tries to reattach Rollo’s head after decapitation, but wasn’t entirely successful.
Gogol is an oddly complex character. Though he has elements of the mad scientist trope growing in popular at this time, there is no villain that comes close to him in all of ‘30s horror, though Bela Lugosi tries in The Black Cat (1940). Gogol is strangely poetic, literary, and intellectual. He references the Greek myth of Pygmalion and Galatea, and quotes the poems of Robert Browning and Oscar Wilde. Though he is a monster, he is melancholic and sympathetic.
Colin Colin Clive (Frankenstein) overacts, as always, but is generally likable as Orlac. He could be a lot more pathetic, as he has essentially lost his passion and livelihood, but he makes the best of things overall. Frances Drake is also enjoyable. She isn’t able to keep up with Lorre, but she has an appropriate mixture of fire, intensity, fear, and loathing throughout the film. She is not portrayed as an innocent; she knows exactly what the nature of Gogol’s interested in her is all about, but keeps him at arm’s length until she needs his surgical skills.
There are a number of overt pre-Code elements at play here and Gogol’s obsession with Yvonne can’t be mistaken for anything but sexual. The wax statue he keeps of her is incredibly disturbing, combined with his obvious thrill at seeing her Grand Guignol-esque state performance in which she is whipped and tortured. It is also clear that, aside from obsessing over Yvonne, Gogol’s primary hobby is attending executions.
As I said, the film is not quite perfect and the plot has some weak moments, which I wholeheartedly blame on the scriptwriters. They changed a lot of things from The Hands of Orlac for better and worse. The ending feels a little rushed, but this a relatively minor issue. There is some unfortunate comic relief, including the extraneous character of the American journalist, though Gogol’s drunk house keeper is actually quite funny in some scenes.
Mad Love is benefitted by plenty of black comedy, such as the opening with a hanging man that turns out to be a gag for the theater. There are a number of great moments at the theater, including a coat check girl without a head, and a birthday cake with skeletons on it. This is an incredibly stylish film with beautiful costumes and lovely, German expressionist inspired visuals from director Karl Freund (The Mummy) and cinematographer Gregg Toland, who would go on to work on Citizen Kane.
Mad Love comes with the highest possible recommendation and is available in the Hollywood Legends of Horror Collection along with Doctor X, Return of Doctor X, The Mask of Fu Manchu, Mark of the Vampire, and The Devil-Doll. Peter Lorre is one of the finest actors working in horror, noir, suspense, and even comedy, and is work should be celebrated by younger generations of cinema fans.