The Hands of Orlac (1924)

handsoforlac1

*. The story comes from a trashy French source, but we can’t hold that against it since almost all the great horror archetypes — from Dracula and Frankenstein through The Phantom of the Opera and many others — had similar low origins. But what is it that has given this story legs?
*. I mean, it hasn’t gone away. This was the first film version I know of, but it was subsequently remade many, many times. Among the most notable versions are 1935’s Mad Love, The Hands of Orlac (1960), and The Hands of a Stranger (1962).
*. I think the symbolic point being made is how the body is often in revolt against the will. The only other horror archetype with a similar theme is that of the Wolf Man, but in this telling of the story the rebellion is limited to the hands. These hands have a mind of their own. Orlac is a decent man, cultured and refined, but he carries with him a fallen (evil) human condition in the form of his murdering paws.
*. Typically there’s a scene in these films where Orlac (or whoever) holds his hands up in front of his face, staring at them in disbelief, as though they can’t really be a part of him. It’s the “phantom limb” syndrome in reverse.
*. Are the hands a stand-in for another part of Orlac’s anatomy? Of course. Orlac and Yvonne share a hand fetish and the screenplay works to emphasize this creepy business. The way his hands seem to lead Orlac around underlines the way he’s “thinking with his hands.” His hands represent the passions, his irrepressible id, and they’re in the driver’s seat. The instructions given to the maid to “seduce his hands” has an obvious literal meaning in this regard.
*. The Orlacs get into financial trouble because, as Yvonne explains to Paul’s old man, her husband can no longer play piano. But it’s announced at the beginning of the movie that he’s given his final concert. In Mad Love they get around this point by throwing in a line about how expensive the surgery is, and making Orlac younger.
*. Another matter left unexplained is Orlac Sr.’s hatred for his son, which is especially odd since Paul still inherits the estate. Mad Love again had an explanation, however bizarre (young Orlac chooses to become a concert pianist rather than work at his father’s shop).
*. Robert Wiene and Conrad Veidt are reunited, but in a very different film than The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Of course Caligari is very different from almost any other movie ever made, but I think it’s worth pointing out here how different this film is since it’s usually just lumped in with Caligari as another example of German Expressionism.
*. It’s a far more restrained film, most obviously in the set design. There’s none of the warped staging of Caligari but rather a use of oversized sets which are the opposite of the cramped and crowded look of that film. In his piano room Orlac looks like he’s in the belly of a whale, surrounded by darkness.
*. Those giant sets help with the use of lighting throughout the film. Often it has a spotlight effect, with large expanses of the screen cast in darkness. That cone of light over the table in the basement bar is a good example.
*. A different kind of lighting, equally effective, informs the train wreck sequence, with phosphorescent billows of smoke, torches that look like sparkling match heads (some of them are in fact flares), and blinding beams of searchlights that the running men stand out against.
*. Veidt’s performance as Orlac is a standout. The part obviously calls for him to make his hands into characters of their own, holding them in front of him, stretching them out, rubbing them together, even sticking them in his mouth and seeming to eat them, or curling them on his forehead like devil horns.
*. I wonder if the plot point of the rubber gloves based on a wax cast made of Vasseur’s hands was borrowed from the Fantômas film The Murderous Corpse, where the false-fingerprint gloves were actually skinned from the dead man.
*. The ending is unfortunate, being talky (something always to be avoided in a silent film), confused, and rushed. This last point is especially jarring in a movie that up till then had been quite deliberately, even slowly paced. Still, for Veidt’s performance alone this is one worth tracking down.

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