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Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Mad Love

When I wrote about Under the Volcano I mentioned that in both the novel and the film, a recurring motif is the mention of a film playing in town, The Hands of Orlac, starring Peter Lorre. In the U.S., this film was called Mad Love, and I got to see it last night. It's an interesting film from the golden age of horror, but more creepy than scary.

Based on a French novel from 1920, and a remake of a silent film, Mad Love is about a pianist who loses his hands in an accident and has a murderer's hands attached to him. But in Mad Love, the pianist is a supporting character. The focus of Mad Love is the doctor who attaches the hands, Dr. Gogol, who is played by Lorre in his first American film role.

Mad Love was directed by Karl Freund, who has a lot of interesting credits. He was the cameraman for many classic German expressionism films, such as Metropolis and The Last Laugh, as well as Tod Browning's Dracula. He also directed Universal's The Mummy (Mad Love was an MGM film). Mad Love was co-photographed by Gregg Toland, one of the most innovative cameramen of the day (he would go on to shoot Citizen Kaine), and was co-written by John Balderston, who also wrote the film of Dracula, as well as Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein.

Lorre is the weird Dr. Gogol, bald as an egg and looking like an overgrown infant. He is a great surgeon, who helps the poor, but he has a problem with obsession. He's hung up on an actress (Frances Drake) and watches her perform every night at a Grand Guignol-type theater (he closes his eyes orgiastically when he watches her being tortured on stage). He purchases a wax figure of her from the theater and plays the piano for it every night, fantasizing that it is Galatea and he is Pygmalion.

When Drake's husband, (Colin Clive, who played Dr. Frankenstein), a concert pianist, is badly hurt in a train wreck, she turns to Lorre to help. A murderer has just been executed, so Lorre gets the bright idea to use his hands to replace Clive's, though he doesn't tell anyone. Clive starts to recover, but finds he has a new talent for throwing knives.

It's all very fun and very silly. Lorre gives the kind of performance that impressionists used for decades. There's also a strange mixture of classic horror and low comedy, with several comedians in the film, most notably Ted Healy as an American reporter. Healy was a vaudevillian who had an act called Ted Healy and his Stooges. The Stooges rebelled against him and went out on their own, calling themselves The Three Stooges.

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