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Horror films about severed body parts with a life of their own are not too uncommon in the genre but it was in 1946 when Warner Brothers released The Beast With Five Fingers, their sole contribution in that category during the forties. Though budgeted as a B-picture and generally regarded by the studio as lowbrow entertainment for undiscriminating audiences, the movie has a considerable cult following today for several reasons. Foremost is Peter Lorre's intense, obsessive performance as Hilary Cummins, the personal secretary of an invalid concert pianist who begins to lose his mind after the mysterious death of his employer. It seems that Cummins is being stalked by the disembodied hand of the pianist which has an irrepressible urge to strangle anyone in its path.
Equally memorable is Robert Florey's innovative direction which is partly inspired by German Expressionist films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Florey's own interest in the avant-garde. Bizarre camera angles and point-of-view shots (the hand crawling behind a row of books in the library), dramatic lighting and foreboding sets help create the mood of a paranoid hallucination, all of which is a reflection of Cummins' distorted mental state. Even the music score by Max Steiner enhances the general sense of escalating madness and manages to make a simple piano sonata sound menacing. But how could it be otherwise when you know the musician on the piano is a severed hand?
With The Beast With Five Fingers Florey finished out his contract with Warner Bros. and it was one of his worst working experiences with the studio; initially he didn't even want to direct it. Probably the most difficult aspect of it was the special effects. From the very beginning, the animated hand was a challenge. According to biographer Brian Taves in Robert Florey: The French Expressionist (Scarecrow Press), "The special effects department received the following instructions:
> Glove hand with stump, ready for photographic test Tuesday, December 11, 1945.
> Mechanical hand to claw at face and throat ready for photographic test Thursday, December 13th, 1945.
There was even some disagreement over the aesthetic properties the hand should possess. Mr. Trilling saw the test and objected to the length of the wrist on the present hand, and there was some mention of using a longer, scrawnier hand. If we use the present hand, it can be cut down and made irregular at the wrist...All of this brought out Florey's sometimes macabre sense of humor, and so he decided to have as much fun with it as possible." In one scene, Florey hid under a table and used his own hand as the "Beast," having it crawl out of a box on top. For the scene where the hand plays the piano, camera technicians covered musician Erwin Nyrigegyhazi in black cloth except for one hand which crawled across the keyboard (the eerie effect was completed in post-production).
Not surprisingly, The Beast With Five Fingers has the look of a lavish A-picture thanks to Florey's artistry but the director publicly disowned the final studio cut stating that most of his creative concepts and script suggestions were ignored. For instance, the long-winded epilogue in which a police inspector (J. Carrol Naish) is brought in to decipher the strange events for clueless moviegoers is one of the more obvious studio-approved changes. Only the sequence with Lorre being pursued and tormented by the hand in the library remains faithful to Florey's original intentions. And Lorre is truly a sight to behold in this film, wavering between quiet dementia and total hysteria; his performance carries the film just as it did in The Face Behind the Mask (1941), his previous collaboration with Florey.
One fascinating bit of trivia about The Beast With Five Fingers: Spanish director Luis Bunuel, the master of surrealist cinema, was under contract to Warner Bros. in 1945. According to John Baxter in his biography, Bunuel, "Some sources claim that Bunuel planned the entire severed hand sequence, but that producer William Jacobs vetoed the result as too florid. Bunuel himself insisted that his ideas were the entire basis of the script." But no records exist of this in any Warner Bros. file on the movie and Florey has never referred to Bunuel in any mention of The Beast With Five Fingers. However, in Conversations with Luis Bunuel conducted by Jose de la Colina and Tomas Perez Turrent, the director revealed "I wrote it [The Beast With Five Fingers] in order to charge them for an entire sequence, even though it was not filmed (I needed money). I imagined a cut-off hand that had a life of its own. Later, they filmed it and didn't pay me anything. I wanted to sue the company but I was already here in Mexico and I decided against it. I received my salary at the company, but that was a job I did on the side. As you two remember, there was already a scene with an amputated hand in Un Chien Andalou . I also used a severed hand that moved in The Exterminating Angel ." Mystery solved, case closed.
Producer: William Jacobs
Director: Robert Florey
Screenplay: William Fryer Harvey (story), Curt Siodmak
Cinematography: Wesley Anderson
Film Editing: Frank Magee
Art Direction: Stanley Fleischer
Music: Max Steiner
Cast: Robert Alda (Bruce Conrad), Andrea King (Julie Holden), Peter Lorre (Hilary Cummins), Victor Francen (Francis Ingram), J. Carrol Naish (Ovidio Castanio), Charles Dingle (Raymond Arlington).
BW-89m. Closed captioning.
by Jeff Stafford