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.