Henry Cass, 1960
Starring: Derek Bond, Reed De Rouen, Bryan Coleman, Walter Randall
“Blast everybody and everything.”
The film opens with a division of the British Royal Army trapped in Burma, where they are threatened by hostile Japanese forces. During an interrogation, several of the men have their hands chopped off with a machete when they refuse to reveal the location of their base. Fast forward to postwar London, where an old, alcoholic bum is found with a stack of money, but missing in a hand, and Scotland Yard begins to investigate. But soon, the bum turns up dead, the doctor who performs the operation was first missing and then commits suicide, and it becomes clear that they’re dealing with something quite unusual: wartime secrets, a seemingly illicit marriage, blackmail, and much more.
For whatever reason, this film is generally regarded as a horror movie — which is why I’ve included it in my British horror series — but I have to admit that it was not at all what I was expecting. Coincidentally, I watched it at the same time that we did an episode on Mad Love (1935) over at Daughters of Darkness (which also coincidentally went live today), and I do have a fondness for horror films about transplanted parts and missings limbs, particularly those with humor (intentional or otherwise). Beginning roughly with Weine’s Hands of Orlac (1924) and continuing through Karl Freund’s great Mad Love and Robert Florey’s The Beast with Five Fingers (1946) — both of which featured the great Peter Lorre — to French films like Le main du diable (1943) and The Hands of Orlac (1960), the old severed hand is, or at least was, fertile ground for genre cinema. And yet, The Hand is not really a horror film at all, despite treading tentatively on horror ground.
Though director Henry Cass proved his genre chops when he made the fun, albeit very schlocky Blood of the Vampire (1958), The Hand is a cross between revenge film, lurid crime story, and detective tale; it is essentially a British version of the West German krimi genre that was popular during the ‘60s. Borrowing elements from earlier crime serials and ‘30s features — everything from Fantomas to Fu Manchu — the krimi films were actually primarily based on the novels of British writer Edgar Wallace. Essentially kicking off with The Fellowship of the Frog (1959), the subgenre ran for over a decade and generally follow a Scotland Yard detective investigating a series of incredible, strange crimes; the colorful roster of suspects and victims allows him to eventually close in on a killer, usually masked or costumed, and themes include sex, drugs, blackmail, organized crime, revenge, and a slew of red herrings.
And while The Hand initially seems like a war thriller — astoundingly, the opening has WWII continuing into 1946, which you can take as a grievous historical error or a sign that events are unfolding in some parallel universe — the WWII subplot is little more than a backdrop and makes no actual sense when connected to the crimes at hand. Like the krimi films, the plot practically gallops towards its nonsensical conclusion and seems more concerned with maintaining a brisk pace than making a whole lot of rational sense. And like the krimi films, there’s some stodgy if tolerant moralizing in the film’s closing scenes. But sadly, unlike the krimi, it contains very few lurid elements — just a doctor’s suicide, a severed hand that turns up in a dresser drawer, and so on — and lacks the lineup of familiar faces favored by both the krimi and horror genres, though diehard genre fans might recognize Harold Scott (The Brides of Dracula) as the homeless man or Garard Green (The Flesh and the Fiends) as the unfortunate surgeon.
I do have to admit to finding the banter banter between the inspector (Ronald Leigh-Hunt) and his second-in-command (Ray Cooney) delightful — most of their jokes focus on the latter wanting to get off early to see his apparently very demanding girlfriend — though I also have a wide tolerance for police procedurals and, admittedly, it made me wish I was watching Clouzot’s L’assassin habite... au 21 (1942) instead. There is something about the film that seems a little off; I’ve read other reviews guessing that some of the film was cut and this seems like the most rational explanation for why the ending is so choppy, nonsensical, and abruptly concluded.
Despite the fact that I have absolutely no sense of what anything happened the way it did, it didn’t prevent me from enjoying The Hand far more than I expected to. Still, it’s not really something I can defend. If you’ve seen a lot of krimi films, then you’ll know exactly what you’re getting into it and probably have a good time with the film. As far as I can tell, it isn’t available on home release, but you can find it streaming on Youtube and other places online.