At the turn of the century in the small Italian village of San Stefano, crippled concert pianist Francis Ingram (Victor Francen) summons his closest companions, including smooth talking Bruce Conrad (Robert Alda), creepy astrologist-cum-personal aide Hilary Cummins (Peter Lorre) and nurse Julie Holden (Andrea King), with whom the musician is obsessively infatuated, to witness the writing of his will. Hilary incurs Ingram’s wrath when he claims Conrad and Julie are romantically involved. He narrowly survives being strangled, but later that night Ingram tumbles down the staircase to his death. Ingram’s American in-laws, Raymond Arlington (Charles Dingle) and his son Donald (John Alvin) arrive eager to inherit the estate, but the will bequeaths everything to Julie. Over the next few days, the visitors hear the ghostly piano playing after dark, while Ingram’s attorney Duprex (David Hoffman) is strangled to death. A hysterical Hilary claims the killer is Ingram’s severed, reanimated hand, but while the others scoff at this outlandish idea, the villagers are convinced something devilish is at work. When they exhume Ingram’s corpse, sure enough, his left hand is missing…
What is it with Peter Lorre and movies about crazed pianists with hideous hands? First the sublime Mad Love (1935), then this deranged cult classic. In actual fact, screenwriter Curt Siodmak, of The Wolf Man (1941) fame, wrote the film with Paul Henreid in mind who turned it down claiming he did not want to play second banana to a reanimated hand. With Lorre in the role, Siodmak feared the audience would suspect he was crazy from the outset and he was probably right in that regard. Nevertheless, it is impossible to imagine this film with anyone other than Lorre. His last movie for Warner Bros., The Beast with Five Fingers finds him at his sneaky, snivelling best as he struggles to convince everyone that demonic claw is alive, until the script twists the film away from the supernatural towards the psychological. At one point he drives a nail through scuttling hand to hold it in place, prefiguring a similarly grotesque gag in Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn (1987).
Based on a short story by William Fryer Harvey, this movie’s memorable monster is the granddaddy of all homicidal hands, from the aforementioned Evil Dead II to Thing from The Addams Family (1991) and the Oliver Stone obscurity The Hand (1981) starring Michael Caine, which some claim was a remake. Our sightings of those disembodied digits scuttling out of their box or tickling the ivories are splendidly eerie moments, but the film succeeds largely through atmosphere since the narrative is ambiguous and unsatisfying. The relationship between tyrannical Ingram and timid Hilary is drawn far too vaguely in light of all that happens, while the film casually concludes with two less than sympathetic characters being left all the loot. Robert Alda essays an interestingly shady “hero”, who does not really do enough to justify that term. When we first meet Conrad he is conning naïve American tourists into buying his tawdry trinkets, though we later learn he was the one who wrote (or rather reinterpreted) all the music that made Ingram such a star. He remains sarcastic throughout the story, to the point where we remain uncertain whether his love for Julie is sincere. Max Steiner supplies the lush yet appropriately unnerving score, while the reoccurring piano piece is Brahms’ transcription for the left hand of the “chaconne” from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Violin Partita in D minor, played by pianist Victor Aller although it is actually the hand of Ervin Nyiregyházi we see playing the piano.
Robert Florey is probably better known for the movie he did not make, than the ones he did. He was the original director assigned to Frankenstein (1931) and though replaced by James Whale, his preproduction work established the look of horror cinema throughout the next two decades. Florey brings the same expressionist style he used in his flawed Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), starting out with relatively sober visuals that grow increasingly delirious to match one character’s crumbling state of mind. At the time more than a few critics found the film excessively grotesque, which may be why it concludes with the affable Police Commisario (J. Carrol Naish) breaking the fourth wall as he wisecracks in his best Chico Marx accent: “Who’d-a believe-a walking hand, eh?”