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The Beast with Five Fingers

The Beast with Five Fingers(1947)


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"Your flesh will creep... at the hand that crawls!" promises the poster for the 1948 The Beast with Five Fingers, a Warner Bros. production that, modest by studio standards, is one of the classier horror films of its day. Once a thriving genre, horror films had largely slipped into the B-movie units of the Hollywood majors by the 1940s, with the Poverty Row studios picking up the slack. This production, helmed by Robert Florey and featuring Robert Alda, Peter Lorre, and J. Carrol Naish, sounds on the surface like a twist on The Hands of Orlac, a chestnut of a thriller about the hands of a strangler grafted onto the body of a musician that have a murderous life of their own. And whileThe Beast with Five Fingers does indeed feature a famed musician and a killer hand crawling through the picture, it is also an old dark house thriller set in a turn-of-the-century Italian castle where friends and relatives gather for the reading of a will and start turning up dead.

That all comes later. The film opens with Robert Alda as an American in Italy fleecing tourists with ersatz jewelry and a line of malarkey sold with a devilish grin. That's just a sideline for Conrad Ryler, a former musician who is now part of the retinue that serves Francis Ingram (Victor Francen), a piano maestro paralyzed by a stroke but for one arm, with which he uses to pound out Brahms on the grand piano that dominates the front room. Ingram's nurse Julie (Andrea King) and his secretary Hilary (Peter Lorre), an obsessive who is usually squirrelled away in the library studying ancient astrology and magic, fill out Ingram's staff, and it's a rather strained sense of community.

Ingram is hopelessly in love with Julie but the feeling is not mutual. Hilary is a recluse, fidgety and nervous in social situations and drawn out of the library only at the command of Ingram, who is a rather imperious boss. Alda comes off like a slightly-less seedy Zachary Scott as Conrad, with his insincere smile and oily manner, but the con man we see in the first scene gives way to a more troubled character all but trapped in the employ of Ingram and his own love for Julie, which he has to suppress around Ingram. J. Carroll Naish is the local police commissario, a regular visitor to the castle and a not-entirely-successful conscience for Conrad. Naish was actually Irish-American but his Mediterranean features got him cast as Italians, Greeks, even French-Canadians along with the usual American character parts, and he puts on his meatball accent to play the role as a jovial stereotype, part superstitious rube and part savvy cop.

When Ingram dies, the funeral and the reading of the will brings out the surviving relatives, the usual collection of greedy, conniving souls, and they contest Ingram's newly-amended will when it's revealed that he left the entire estate to Julie. Needless to say, their bodies start stacking up. Strangled, in fact, ostensibly by the disembodied hand of the dead piano virtuoso. What else would wake the castle's inhabitants in the middle of the night with one-handed concerts on the grand piano?

We actually get to see the hand as it skitters through the film in the second half. Created by Florey and the Warner effects team (led by an uncredited Russell Collings) through a mix of double exposures, travelling mattes, simple sleight of hand and carefully-calibrated camera angles, wires, and an articulated mechanical prop, it is magnificent creation. The latter is the least convincing but for the most part this hand, seen only by Hilary (is it real or just a hallucination on his part?), is a character in its own right as is spiderwalks across a desk, crawls up the clothes of its victims and the curtains of the castle walls, and skitters behind the bookshelves of the library, knocking volumes to the floor as it tries to escape Hilary. There's a marvelous madness to the film its best. Lorre teeters on the edge of insanity as he chases down the hand and the images of Lorre fumbling to hold onto the wriggling hand or intently hammering it to a chunk of wood are so surreal and disturbing they defy description. The script itself, penned by horror veteran Curt Siodmak, is less convincing, and the end of the film cheats the ambiguity and atmosphere that Florey so effectively orchestrates. It's a matter of studio interference imposing a literal explanation and a cheesy comic coda that makes light of everything. Give credit to Naish for carrying it off the jokey ethnic comedy with good humor and not a trace of condescension to the audience, who he addresses directly in the final scenes.

Warner released The Beast with Five Fingers on videotape decades ago but this is first release on disc. Word through the grapevine is that reason for the delay was the poor condition of the original film elements, which sounds right given the company's track record. The print quality is just a notch below the usual Warner standard for its archival films, with some wear on the print and evident digital clean-up in some sections, but Warner has maintained pretty high standards for the Archive releases and they have done a fine job at rescuing this film and presenting it in a perfectly watchable copy. There is minimal visible damage and a clean soundtrack. The disc features the original trailer.

by Sean Axmaker