Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Beast with Five Fingers (1946)

(Spoiler alert.) The term "classic" gets tossed around rather easily nowadays, especially by any firm re-releasing some forgotten black and white genre film from yesteryear. But just as not every film starring Kevin Costner sucks, not every B&W horror film starring Boris Karloff, Vincent Price or—as in the case of The Beast with 5 Fingers—Peter Lorre is a classic, forgotten or otherwise. Oddly enough, in the case of this movie, it is not just those who stand to gain commercially that expectorate the hyperbolic. Even The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, usually one of the better sources available in regards to a film's true quality, gushingly identifies The Beast with 5 Fingers as "the last decent American horror film made for at least another decade." Pretty heady stuff, but also total bull.
The movie does indeed have its brief flashes of brilliance, which is the least that should be expected of a film directed by the talented and unjustly overlooked Robert Florey and starring both Peter Lorre and J. Carrol Naish, but as a whole this gothic melodrama features very little true horror. Rather, it has an overabundance of flaws in story development, characterization, editing and pacing. True, the cinematography, supplied by Wesley Anderson, a man who normally lensed educational films, is truly top notch, and the typically bombastic musical score by the one-time child prodigy (and student of Gustav Mahler) Max Steiner is more than adequate, but the film as a whole—but for one or two specific scenes—fails to satisfy. The grandiloquent piano variations on Bach and the few scenes in which the hand scuttles around are indeed truly amazing and effective, but they also serve to aggravate, for they give a taste of how great the film might have been had the production been a true horror film or been given more attention.
Aside from its technical and thespian shortcomings, the movie is also populated by unsympathetic characters, plods terribly, is highly predictable and is hampered by one of the worst endings ever to be tacked onto a movie. Hell, the first time the librarian Hilary Cummins (a disappointingly over the top Peter Lorre) opens his mouth, the viewer already knows that the supernatural element of the killer hand will have a "logical" explanation and that the true killer will prove to be the wacked-out librarian. The movie as a whole only serves to delay the revelation.
The Beast with Five Fingers opens in one of those typically quaint Old World villages so common of the movies of yesteryear, where we are introduced to Bruce Conrad (Alan Alda's daddy Robert Alda, just starting his decline into bad-movieville after his splashy debut as George Gershwin in Rhapsody In Blue (1945); the decline in his career instigated an eventual move to Rome in 1960, where he went on to act in such high-brow classics Lisa & The Devil (1973) and Holiday Hookers (1976)). A conman in Italy who makes his living fleecing brainless American tourists, Conrad is typical of all the characters in the movie: a shyster and a user, there is no reason for the viewer to identify with him for, despite his more than questionable expostulations of love for the main female lead, he never actually does anything to make one believe that he is anything other than a smooth-tongued, amiable leach. When he isn't gypping tourists, he plays chess with the decidedly egoistical Francis Ingram (Victor Francen, who fled France in 1940, an émigré of the war like Lorre), a one-armed and sickly pianist who resides in a huge villa outside town. Ingram is obsessed with his nurse Julie Holden (Andrea King, who evidences absolutely no acting talent and went on to such top productions as Red Planet Mars (1952) and William A. Levey's masterpiece of unadulterated z-trash Blackenstein (1973)), who, smothered by his never-ending demands, plans to leave the villa. Conrad admonishes his love for her, and that he will join her when she leaves, though, since we know him only as a shyster, it is hard to believe that his motives are sincere. Ingram's secretary Hilary Cummins (Peter Lorre), who spends all his time in the library researching the ancient secrets lost when the library at Alexandria was burnt down and obviously has numerous screws loose, has a hissy-fit and reveals Julie's & Bruce's plans to Ingram, who tries to strangle him to death as reward. Somewhere along the way, a will is signed, Ingram rides his wheelchair down a stairwell and kills himself, and a couple of money-hungry relatives show up for the reading and get mighty pissed when Julie gets everything. When a light shines in Ingram's tomb and it is investigated, Ingram's body is now missing his left hand, seemingly cut off by the dead man's right hand. Before long, the majestic sound of Bach being played on the piano resounds through the house and the first death ensues, seemingly committed by the demon hand…
The Beast with 5 Fingers
is a beautifully shot film, and exudes a seemingly high production value that easily outdoes the quality of the script and editing. Hampered with a predictable story and unlikable characters whose actions often completely defy any logic, the movie disappoints much more than it satisfies. And anyone who manages to overlook the numerous flaws and enjoy the film anyways will have their mettle seriously tested—if not completely destroyed—by the unbelievably inane last five minutes in which J. Carrol Naish, as the town's police commissioner, first explains how Hilary was able to do everything and then proceeds to take part in not one but two "humorous" interludes making fun of the concept of a killer hand. The Beast with 5 Fingers is not a film to be avoided at all costs, for it does have some nice aspects to it—the film just is not essential viewing, and definitely does not qualify as a "forgotten classic" of any sort.

1 comment:

TM Rezzek said...

Gads, this film was a disappointment. Not a teeth-gnashing disappointment, but a disappointment akin to getting a nice, fat pitch down the middle...and fouling out to the catcher. I mean, they had Florey, Naish, Lorre, an old-dark house and moody photography--how could they miss?? Ah, well.

As for the ending, I'm not sure which irks me more--the ending to this film, or the ending to Tod Browning's "Mark of the Vampire."

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