On-line rental companies now offer democratized, unprecedented access to the annals of film history, but the copious selection can be a bit daunting and counterproductive: what, exactly, should you watch? This column hopes to help steer you towards good film and away from the bad.
B-moviemaking at its very finest, the efficient and compact Mad Love opens with the image of a dead man hanging from a noose. Don’t worry, it’s just a gag, yet just like the film it appears in, the image succeeds in being spooky in spite of the light comedy that surrounds it. Peter Lorre plays Dr. Gogol, a brilliant surgeon who falls in love with a young actress, Yvonne; she is happily married, however, to Orlac (Colin Clive, of Dr. Frankenstein renown), a famous concert pianist and composer, and thusly rejects his overtures. However, when her husband is in a train wreck and has his hands crushed, she turns to Gogol for help, as he is the only man who could possibly save them. (Orlac’s hands are his life!) Gogol, knowing the hands are beyond salvage but desperate for attention from the object of his affection, transplants the hands of Rollo, a recently executed killer and expert knife-thrower, onto the pianist. After a brief recovery, Orlac’s piano playing isn’t the same, though he now possesses quite the aptitude for the art of impalement. Perhaps, then, he could abandon the piano and join a vaudeville act; according to Orlac, “The hands don’t want to just throw knives—they want to kill!”
A lesser film would’ve pursued this angle to predictability ad nauseum, but for Mad Love, which is always frightening and surprising, it’s merely a red herring; as ostentatious flowers attract more bees, such an outlandishly clever set-up is bound to attract more curious viewers—it’s what got me! Though based on a French novel called The Hands of Orlac, the film is Gogol’s story, and it’s his diabolical surgical hands that you have to watch out for. Lorre brings astonishing depth to the pitiable doctor, transforming a stock mad scientist/psychotic villain into a tragic figure, a man who, as he plaintively bellows, has conquered science but cannot conquer love. In addition, no other actor is quite as eerily unsettling as the crackly-accented Lorre. With his cold and sleepy eyes, he seems stuck in a perpetually hypnagogic state from which he occasionally, explosively, bursts forth, and it’s these sudden awakenings from his trance that make the film genuinely creepy. Lorre, in the final act, brings terrifyingly hyperbolic madness to the screen as he goes crazy… like Jack-Nicholson-in-The-Shining crazy.
Lorre, however, is not solely to thank for this minor masterpiece; he gets a lot of help from director Freund (who, to jog your memory, directed The Mummy and photographed Metropolis and Dracula). The plot is a series of kooky mix-ups worthy of an Astaire-Rogers romp, but the mise-en-scene indicates a far more sinister mood, particularly with its mildly crooked set-design that feels like some sort of German Expressionism Lite. Intelligent enough to know not to get too full of himself, Freund isn’t lacking for a sense of humor about the whole affair; despite the fact that Yvonne’s play is a macabre tale of black magic and torture, most of the early scenes at the theater are hilarious: for example, the ticket-seller wears a gaudy monster-mask, but the best gag is the headless coat check girl. That also, however, simultaneously serves to foreshadow the upcoming and unfunny beheading of Rollo, as does the miniature guillotine on a closing-night cake for Yvonne.
Lorre’s performance works in tandem with the film’s rich visual symbolism, which is also thanks in large part to Gregg Toland (Citizen Kane), with Chester Lyons, on cinematography; in one of the earliest shots of Gogol, in which he is in his box at the theater watching Yvonne on stage writhe and scream in pain, his face is ominously split in half by shadow, accentuating the villainous longing behind Lorre’s mad gaze. Duality is the prominent leit motif in Mad Love, expressed at one point, for example, by Gogol’s drunken housekeeper’s double vision, but most eminently by a wax statue of Yvonne that Gogol keeps in his home. He looks on it as his Galatea, “But,” as he dolefully moans, “I am no Pygmalion.” The literary allusions rife in Mad Love help to elevate it above standard fare, as Gogol’s unrequited love is lent depth by his ability to quote, by heart (how else?), both Robert and Elizabeth Browning. As if “Porphyria’s Lover” isn’t morbid enough, just try falling asleep after hearing a completely mad Peter Lorre recite it as he strangles a woman in a frenzied fit:
In one long yellow string I wound
Three times her little throat around,
And strangled her. No pain felt she;
I am quite sure she felt no pain.