The Beast with Five Fingers (1946) – An OCF Classic Movie Review

I have to admit I have mixed feeling about calling this a classic movie review.  Even though it falls within the “Golden Age” of Hollywood time period “The Beast with Five Fingers” is hardly a masterpiece.  But a rose by any other name would smell as sweet and vice versa.  Warner Bros. still had Peter Lorre on the payroll from his days in Casablanca and other more mainstream titles so it made sense to have him as the bug-eyed maniac in this little gem.

The story takes place in a small town in Italy circa the year 1900.  Francis Ingram is a rich man who until recently was an acclaimed concert pianist.  He had suffered a stroke that left all but his right arm extremely weakened so that he needed a wheelchair to get around his house.  With him at the time of the story are a circle of people that assist him in various ways.  Conrad Ryler is a friend who has agreed to transcribe music into notes that can be played on the piano with one hand.  Hillary Cummins (played by Peter Lorre) is Ingram’s manservant.  He has attended to Ingram’s household chores for years in exchange for access to Ingram’s library of books on occult studies.  He is more than a little nuts.  Julie Holden is a recent addition to the household.  Since his stroke, she has been Ingram’s nurse.  She has been extremely kind to him in his illness for which he is extremely grateful.  But she has become terribly worn by the job and wishes to leave.  She and Conrad are also in love and planning to leave the town to get married.  Ingram’s lawyer is also in house, a man named Duprex who has just finished drafting Ingram’s new will.  All the above residents of Ingram’s home are there to witness his new will.  But this crystalizes in Julie’s mind the need for her to leave Ingram’s employ and she and Conrad go out into the garden to plan their departure.  Hilary overhears their plans and communicates them to Ingram.  But Ingram flies into a rage believing it to be jealousy at Julie’s preferred status with the master.  He grabs Hilary by the throat with his good hand and practically strangles him to death before Hilary escapes his grip.  Ingram fires Hilary and tells him to leave the next morning.

But that night there is a wild storm outside and the sound of the wind and banging shutters wakes Ingram and he manages to get into his wheelchair by himself and heads into the second-floor hall looking for Julie to help him.  Somehow, he becomes disoriented and ends up falling down the long staircase in his wheelchair and breaks his neck and dies.

The local police chief or as he is titled “Commissario” Ovidio Castanio (played comically with a Chico Marx Italian accent by J. Carrol Naish) investigates the death and declares it an accident.  The will is read and it turns out that Julie is the heir to all of Ingram’s property.  At this point Ingram’s relatives, his brother-in-law and nephew, Raymond and Donald Arlington show up and are unhappy about the new will.  They feel that the will is debatable.  They make it clear that they want to get possession of the estate and liquidate it for cash.  When they mention selling the library Hilary becomes unhinged and says that the books were bought for him and no one will take them away.  We find that he believes that esoteric knowledge found in these books will allow him to possess untold powers over the mysteries of the universe, or something.  Anyway, he’s really incensed at the Arlingtons.  They on the other hand take practical steps to gain possession of Ingram’s estate.  They cut a deal with the lawyer Duprex to have him use his legal acumen and his knowledge of Ingram’s mental state to have the will overturned in return for a third of the value of the estate.

But a funny thing happens that night.  A light is seen shining in the mausoleum where Ingram is interred and later on Duprex is murdered, strangled by a powerful hand that leaves the same kind of marks that Hilary got from Ingram.  Upon examination it is discovered that Ingram’s corpse in its tomb is holding a knife in his paralyzed hand and his good hand has been cut off and is missing.  A small broken window and hand prints on the ground out side the mausoleum makes it scientifically certain that the dead man cut off his own hand and that the dead hand is navigating about and strangling people and also by the way playing the piano in the Ingram house.  Well sure.

Commissario Castanio investigates the murder and confirms that fingerprints on the throat of the dead man and several other places are of Ingram.  Later on, Donald Arlington is unsuccessfully strangled, allegedly by the hand and the whole household is starting to get spooked enough to want to bail on the house for safer lodgings.  At about this time Hilary witnesses the hand playing the piano and after capturing it he nails it to a piece of wood to slow it down somewhat.  Not everyone believes him.  But when Donald Arlington recovers and opens up his uncle’s safe, he finds the hand nailed to the board.  He panics and runs out of the house with Conrad in hot pursuit.

Meanwhile Julie confronts Hilary with proof that she has that he was the one who strangled Duprex and Donald in order to keep them from getting possession of his precious books.  Now we learn that Hilary is guilty of the crimes but he really does believe that the hand he cut off of Ingram is animate and committing the murders.  But Julie’s clear portrayal of his actions convinces him he must kill her too.  He attempts it but she fends him off and locks herself into her bedroom.  But of course, there is another door and for whatever reason she was too stupid to lock it.  As he gets ready to stab her this time, she convinces Hilary that she can hear the hand playing the piano downstairs.  Hilary snaps back into his crazier persona and promises to save her from the hand.  He heads downstairs whereupon Julie locks both doors and throws herself on her bed and has a breakdown.  Now why she is sure there isn’t a third door is unknown to me.

At this point we get to watch Lorre’s Hilary go completely bonkers.  He sees the hand at the piano and grabs it and starts grappling with it.  Eventually he throws it in the fire place and tries to keep it in there with a poker.  But for some reason eventually he just sort of sits there with his bulging eyes and does nothing while the hand crawls up his shirt, grabs him by the throat and strangles him to death.  Loser.

The next day Commissario Castanio shows Conrad the string that Hilary used to trigger a recording of Ingram playing the piano that everybody attributed to the hand.  Everything else could be explained by Hilary walking around with the severed hand and strangling people.  Julie decides to give the estate to the Arlingtons and she and Conrad get exit visas from the Commisario to start their new lives together elsewhere.  At the very end of the film a servant girl starts screaming because she sees a glove on the staircase.  The Commisario picks up his glove and puts it on and says how silly to think a hand can move on its own.  At which point in the close up shot we see a hand coming up to his throat.  Pulling the shot back we see it’s his hand.  Hilarity ensues.

This thing is almost silly enough to be an Abbott and Costello horror movie.  But I would say Peter Lorre’s disturbed manner, voice and face adds just enough creepiness to make it interesting.  Your mileage may definitely vary.  Let’s call it mildly fun.

The Maltese Falcon – An OCF Classic Movie Review

Back in late October of 2016 I reviewed Dashiell Hammett’s crime novel “The Maltese Falcon.”  To describe the review as highly enthusiastic would be an understatement.  I raved about the book.  Well, I’ll almost repeat the performance for John Huston’s film.  There are differences, of course.  And if you had read the book before seeing the movie you’d feel that both Bogart and Astor were physically miscast.  But the movie on its own merits is superb.

John Huston based the movie quite faithfully on Hammett’s book.  Humphrey Bogart is Sam Spade, one half of the San Francisco based private detective firm of Spade and Archer. He’s also his partner Miles Archer’s wife Iva’s former lover (now that’s a complicated sentence!).

The story opens up with Spade’s secretary, Effie Perine, announcing a new client, Miss Wonderly (played by Mary Astor).  Wonderly starts telling a tale to Spade and also Archer as he walks in during the story.  The story is a fabrication about a make-believe teen-age sister who has been spirited away cross country by a real gangster named Floyd Thursby.  Spade and Archer agree to tail Thursby in return for some also very real hundred dollar bills that Wonderly pays them.

Archer is shot and killed during his surveillance and this begins a sequence of events that involves Spade in a confusing search for the truth about a globe-trotting quest to obtain the legendary Maltese Falcon.  We meet corpulent Caspar Gutman played by Sidney Greenstreet, who is the ringleader behind the search.  Then there is Joel Cairo, played by Peter Lorre, a mincing effeminate who sometimes works for Gutman and sometimes doesn’t.  There is Wilmer Cook, Gutman’s young triggerman who would rather shoot his opponents than negotiate terms.  And finally, we have the good cop/ bad cop duo of Detective Tom Polhaus and Lieutenant Dundy.  They show up at strategic moments to inform Spade that he is everyone’s favorite suspect in several murders.

The exact details of the plot are too much fun to spoil so I won’t go into much detail but suffice it to say there really aren’t any innocent parties involved unless you include Effie Perine.  Wonderly, which isn’t the last fake name she’ll go by in the film is up to her neck in the crimes but she becomes Spade’s femme fatale in the story.  Spade is a ruthless but strangely honorable character who lives by his own logic.  The criminals (almost everyone) spend the entire movie double-crossing each other in various iterations.  They all prove, with some prodding from Spade, that there is indeed no honor among thieves.  But the plot moves along smartly and by the end all the loose ends are neatly tied up and Sam Spade is sort of the last man standing.  Bogart even gets to apply an ironic tagline to describe the futility of the whole mad enterprise.

When I said that Bogart and Astor were physically miscast it’s because in the book Spade is described as a tall muscular blond-haired man.  Bogart is none of those things.  And in the book Mary Astor’s character is a woman in her twenties which at the point when this movie was made could hardly describe Astor.  Regardless, they make the characters their own.  And especially Bogart’s Spade is iconic and basically defines the Sam Spade character for most of the people who have heard of the Maltese Falcon.  The rest of the cast is also excellent.  Greenstreet and Lorre are so interesting and memorable that at certain points in the movie they push even Bogart out of the spotlight.

If you’ve never seen the Maltese Falcon then shame on you.  In fact, if I had my way people would read the book first and then watch the movie.  But this is a fallen world we live in.  So, I guess I’m already asking too much to recommend a black and white movie.  Highly recommended.

The Films of Alfred Hitchcock – Part 4 – The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) – A Classic Movie Review

This review is of the earlier British version of the film.  Simply stated, in my opinion, it’s the better film.  No disrespect to Jimmy Stewart or Doris Day but the 1950s version is not even close to the original.  Once again Hitchcock gives us a tale of everyday people colliding with the world of spies.  In this story there is an international plot to assassinate a foreign leader.  And an English couple who accidentally become entangled in it are forced to choose between stopping the killing or getting their kidnapped daughter back alive.

The film opens up in the Swiss Alps where Bob and Jill Lawrence along with their young daughter Betty are involved in some sporting competitions.  Jill is a competing in a skeet shooting match and sometime during the games they have befriended a French downhill skier named Louis Bernard.  After the competitions they all attend a dinner and dance party.  During the party Louis is fatally shot but he manages to tell the Lawrences that he has a secret message that must be given to the British Consulate.  Bob finds the message in Louis’ room but before he can inform the consulate he receives a message telling him to say nothing if he ever wants to see his daughter Betty alive again.  She’s been kidnapped.

So that’s the setup.  And it takes the rest of the movie for Bob and Jill to figure out the message and find the spies without the help of the police.  In between there are homicidal dentists, sun-worshipping churches and classical music performances at the Albert Hall and most importantly there is Peter Lorre as Abbott.  He will be the only actor familiar to American viewers and he is definitely the highlight of the movie.  Of course, he’s the head villain and the most interesting character in the film.  Being Peter Lorre, he is palpably creepy but at the same time not completely unsympathetic as a character.  His dealings with the Lawrences are strangely cordial, almost friendly, as if it’s all just an unfortunate business situation and there are no hard feelings.  And he can inject a touch of humor into the film such as in a scene where Abbott has left the hideout and gone down to the street to talk to the police.  When the gang hears a police whistle blowing they suspect the worst has occurred.  Hearing footsteps approaching they pull their guns.  When Lorre opens the door, he sees the guns and he puts his hands up and smiles playfully at his gang as if to say, “Well, you’ve got me.  Now what?”  It’s just a throwaway moment but it does provide a human touch to the character and gives an extra dimension to the scene.

The climax of the film is a protracted gun battle between the London police force and the spy ring.  Hitchcock really went to town with this scene and the bad guys start off with a fusillade of lead that seemed more appropriate in a World War II machine gun battle.  The merry mayhem goes on for a good little while and forces the police to raid a hunting store to obtain high powered rifles to compete with the weaponry the bad guys are sporting.  I guess Hitchcock can be seen here to be one of the fathers of the action film.

What I especially liked about this film is the way Hitchcock adds in the little touches that aren’t central to the plot.  During the gun battle the English police officers commandeer the surrounding buildings and watching them interact with the tenants and order them around in their own homes was very interesting not because it advanced the story or included characters that would be seen again but because it was humanly interesting.

I like the British Hitchcock films because I think they’re more grounded in the real world that he came from.  The common people seem a little more real than his later attempts at bystanders and incidental characters as if they were based on real individuals he had known.  Hitchcock is known for his crime films and these mundane bits don’t seem to belong in that genre but to the contrary, I think it’s the mundane but authentic elements in a story that make it feel real and that gives it impact.  Otherwise it becomes just fantasy.  Well anyway that’s my opinion.