*. A return to The Hands of Orlac. Except they really went in a different direction this time, with Peter Lorre’s Doctor Gogol displacing Colin Clive’s Stephen Orlac almost entirely.
*. Lorre had a thing for stealing scenes, and movies. This was his first American film, and he came to it from Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, which he yanked out from under Leslie Banks and Edna Best.
*. He was terrific as the criminal mastermind Abbott in Hitchcock’s film, but here he reverts to the sexual predator and psychopath he basically invented in M, a figure he would go on to revisit again and again.
*. Why? Sure, he’s creepy, what with his air of vulnerable evil and manic puppy-dog eyes. But what makes him seem so perverse? The silky accent? Or is it just his sense of coiled resentment, a lethargic and downtrodden figure until he finds release in violence? The scene where he gets (or really takes) his birthday kiss from Yvonne is a good foreshadowing of what’s to come.
*. I wish there was more passion in Gogol than what we see in that kiss. Of course you couldn’t get away with much at the time, but I was wondering at the end just what Gogol wanted to do to (or with) Yvonne. Was he just looking for companionship? Love? Sex? Does he want to hurt her? In the audience at the Grand Guignol he seems to be getting off on watching her being tortured, but at other times he acts like a sentimental romantic.
*. How do you make the “moon-faced” Peter Lorre (his common appellation) appear even more moony? Have him shave his head! Or rhyme his bald noggin with a circular light fixture. That works well too.
*. That exaggeration into caricature can be thought of as a product of director Karl Freund’s background in Expressionism, which had a thing for such grotesque effects.
*. It looks like Lorre’s hair still hadn’t grown out by the time he filmed Von Sternberg’s Crime and Punishment, which was up next (and was part of the deal for his making this movie with MGM).
*. Gogol’s later appearance as the resurrected Rollo is even more bizarre (and frightening). What a medical-mechanical monstrosity! But can we talk about Frances Drake’s eyebrows? Are they another touch of the grotesque? They appear to be drawn right into her hairline. Was that the style at the time, or another exaggeration?
*. What is it with the association between pianos (or organs) and madness? Is sitting at the keyboard just something that evil geniuses like to do? Who was the first of these to appear on film? Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera?
*. Edward Brophy as the killer Rollo? Really? I’m sorry but that’s just bad casting.
*. Pauline Kael thought this movie had something to do with Citizen Kane. In addition to the fact that Greg Toland shot parts of it, she also thought Orlac (I think she must have meant Gogol) “might almost be an early sketch” for the elderly Kane, “and a white cockatoo turns up in both” films. I share the doubts Steve Haberman expresses on his DVD commentary.
*. It bombed very badly at the box office, but has since become a minor critical darling. Personally, I don’t find it a very entertaining film, despite all of the talent involved. Even given the short run time it manages to get pretty dull and has a lot of stuff that feels unnecessary (like the operation on the crippled little girl).
*. This is a horror plot that seems to have always been with us, having been remade many times with slight variations. My sense, however, is that it works best when the focus is kept on the schizophrenic Orlac character. As it’s reimagined here the story becomes a more familiar tale of beauty and the beast. Yes, it’s Lorre’s movie and he’s great. But that’s also the problem.