An impressive opening (a fist shatters the credit screen before we cut to a fake corpse hanging outside the Theatre du Horreurs) bodes well for this, far and away the best – albeit rather loose – adaptation of Maurice Renard’s novel Les mains d’Orlac, a rare foray into the genre for M-G-M at the time.
Parisian surgeon Dr Gogol (Peter Lorre) falls in love with the stage actress Yvonne Orlac (Frances Drake) but is horrified to learn that she’s already married, to renowned concert pianist Stephen Orlac (Colin Clive). When Orlac’s hands are crushed in a train accident, Yvonne begs Gogol to help and he grafts the hands of the executed murderer Rollo (Edward Brophy) onto Orlac’s ruined stumps. He now seems to be periodically possessed by a vengeful Rollo, something that Gogol is quick to exploit.
In the film’s most memorable moment, the deranged Gogol tries to drive Orlac – insane by posing as Rollo, claiming to have been resurrected by Gogol (“They cut off my head, but that Gogol – he put it back!”). Clad in grotesque harnesses, neck brace and metallic hands, the mad doctor poses as the dead killer to accuse the terrified Orlac of the murder of his stepfather Henry (Ian Wolfe). The climax, sadly, fails to match, being a disappointingly routine ending – Gogol, driven to a frenzy by his desires, tries to strangle Yvonne, but is finished off by Orlac and the knife-throwing talents he’s inherited from Rollo’s hands. At the fade out, the issue of how Orlac is going to deal with Rollo’s spirit has still not been resolved.
Though clumsily plotted – possibly a result of the studio tampering with the film in post-production, snipping out fifteen minutes or so – and burdened with some tedious comic relief courtesy of nosy American reporter Reagan, Mad Love has much to offer, notably the many macabre subtleties; a cake seen at the beginning of the film is decorated with an ornamental guillotine, for example, or the alabaster ‘hands of Orlac’ that sit atop Orlac’s piano. It also benefits enormously from Lorre’s chilling and persuasive performance as the ambiguous Dr Gogol, at once monstrously sadistic and yet seemingly capable of genuine affection and tenderness.
Beautifully photographed and lit (as one might expect from a former director of photographer as skilled as Karl Freund, here making his final film as director), the film is hobbled by its faltering pace – indeed there’s little difference between the flaws all too readily apparent in Mad Love and those in Freund’s equally dull The Mummy made for Universal three years earlier. Too many sub-plots and diversions (some silly business with a fat man on a train, Orlac’s relationship with his step-father, way too many ‘comic’ interludes with Gogol’s dotty housekeeper) complicate the plot, slowing down the action often to the point of stultification.
And yet for all its faults, Mad Love remains a watchable and often impressive film, revolving as it does around a tour-de-force performance from Lorre. His truly unnerving appearance as the fake Rollo is a highlight of 30s fantasy cinema. From this and other clues scattered throughout the script (the theatrical milieu, Gogol’s stalking of an actress, Orlac’s musical career), one suspects that maybe Freund was intent upon remaking The Phantom of the Opera. Also noteworthy is Gogol’s hallucinatory nervous breakdown, his mirror reflections talking to him, goading him into committing further discretions with the lovely Yvonne.
Very much a curate’s egg, then, enjoyable only in parts. Freund was always so much better as a cinematographer than as a director and, had he not had the considerable talents of Lorre to call upon, Mad Love could well have been an unwatchable disaster. For Lorre it was a triumph and he could have asked for no better start to his formidable career in Hollywood.
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