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  Hands of Orlac, The Ten Finger Terror
Year: 1924
Director: Robert Wiene
Stars: Conrad Veidt, Alexandra Sorina, Fritz Strassny, Paul Askonas, Carmen Cartellieri, Hans Homma, Fritz Kortner
Genre: Horror, ThrillerBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Paul Orlac (Conrad Veidt) is one of the greatest concert pianists in the world, some would go as far as to call him the best, and life is going well for him. One day, after performing and heading back to his wife Yvonne (Alexandra Sorina) with whom he keeps up a fond correspondence while he is away, he opts to take a train. This turns out to be the biggest mistake he will ever make, as the train crashes thanks to a simple points error, and he is crushed in the wreckage. Yvonne rushes to the scene and searches the disaster for him - and finds him! But there is tragedy when it turns out his hands have been irreparably mangled...

So begins the first of a number of adaptations, as well as a number of rip-offs, of author Maurice Renard's most famous book, Les Mains d'Orlac from 1920, a hit when serialised and a bestseller when in novel form. His big idea, or at least the big idea that creatives to come would take away, was transplanted body parts were able to hold some of the personality of those they came from and influence the minds of those who received them. You occasionally hear of it happening in real life, where a recipient takes a liking to food that was the donor's favourite, that sort of thing, though the movies were not going to use that notion.

Far more potent was the idea a donor who was a murderer, as here, was able to transfer some of their personality onto a new body, so when Orlac is given the transplanted hands of a killer criminal, who has recently been executed, his terror is that he will now be driven to kill against his own will. Now, Veidt was not hired to take this in his character's stride, and say well, que sera, sera, he was employed to go absolutely to the end of his tether, and that was precisely what he did in a performance of such maniacal intensity that you may be left wondering how he could ever calm down even if he was exonerated in the crime that arises.

That crime being... murder! After body horror became the big new thing in the genre as the advances in special effects progressed, it is maybe surprising that the only film to really take on Renard's innovative plot was Body Parts, which thanks to unfortunate timing did not inspire more. Though the concept of "alien hand syndrome", where the sufferer believes their hand or hands are not obeying them and have a mind of their own, is one that crops up anywhere from The Beast with Five Fingers in the forties to Evil Dead 2 in the eighties, and as transplants are more the norm and body dysmorphia grows in incidents, it could be something that comes and goes in cycles in the genre, Possessor being an example a hundred years or so after Veidt's histrionics.

The most celebrated version of the Renard plot may be the Hollywood version, Mad Love from 1935 which showcased a terrifically unhinged Peter Lorre performance - but he was not playing Orlac, he was playing the doctor who pioneered the operation, and the power it gives him sends him insane, pursuing the Yvonne character. Needless to say, nothing like that happened in director Robert Wiene's telling which illustrated how versatile the source could be, here the doctor was an avuncular supporting character who disappears from the film around the point the murder mystery begins, where we have to work out whether Orlac had allowed his madness to overcome him or whether he was framed. The answer to that was amusingly unhinged in itself, and Wiene was obviously trying to include the odd expressionist shot to remind us he was the man who directed Veidt's breakthrough The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, but if the real substance came from the leading man's incredible intensity - Sorina does her best to match him, it should be noted - this was such a big hit, especially for an Austrian film, that it influences pop culture to this day.

[Eureka release this on Blu-ray as part of their Masters of Cinema collection with these special features:

Limited Edition O-Card Slipcase | 1080p presentation on Blu-ray from a restoration of the original film elements by Film Archiv Austria | LPCM 2.0 audio | Original German language intertitles with optional English subtitles | Brand new feature length audio commentary with author Stephen Jones and author / critic Kim Newman | Brand new video essay by filmmakers David Cairns and Fiona Watson | Alternate presentation of The Hands of Orlac [SD, 110 minutes] - Courtesy of the F. W. Murnau Foundation, a presentation of the film struck from a different print source, featuring alternate takes of certain scenes. Includes a musical score by Paul Mercer | Scene comparisons highlighting some of the differences between the two versions of the film | PLUS: A Collector's Booklet featuring new writing by Philip Kemp, and Tim Lucas.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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