Saturday, October 31, 2015

#218: The Hands of Orlac (Robert Wiene, 1924)

Happy Halloween, people. This is my first time delivering a movie review post on Halloween, and I'm pleased the film in question turned out to be a great one. I planned on writing it last week, but a houseful of my wife's relatives in town for a wedding led to this spookily appropriate postponement.
The first of many film adaptations of Maurice Renard's novel, The Hands of Orlac is a lesser-known triumph from Robert Wiene, the German director most famous for the 1920 German Expressionist horror masterpiece, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Caligari deserves all the accolades thrown its way and is a true creative blend of set design, cinematography, direction, and performance, but I might like The Hands of Orlac even more. This is just a matter of personal taste, but I prefer the lighter, subtler touch and the burrowing, methodical accumulation of paranoia and fear of Orlac to the more overt and hyper-stylized all-encompassing nightmare world of Caligari. Each film is great and widely available, though, so why pick one when you can have both?
Reunited with Caligari star Conrad Veidt, Wiene uses the gifted actor as the title character here. Orlac is a famous concert pianist away on tour. His wife Yvonne (Alexandra Sorina) anxiously awaits his return and pines for him to run his famous hands all over her body. This hand fetish continues throughout the film, which caused American and German censors some discomfort and led to the film's delayed and disruptively edited release in the United States four years after its release in Europe. There are no double entendres or sly winks and hints here. Yvonne has a strong sexual desire for her husband's hands, and she can barely control herself even when discussing it with her maid and confidante Regine (Carmen Cartellieri). Fortunately, her husband played his last show of the tour and is returning home on the train that night. Unfortunately, a careless railroad employee makes a terrible error, causing Orlac's train to hit another train head-on just a few miles from the station.
Yvonne rushes to the scene of the accident and finds her husband badly injured but still alive. At the hospital, Orlac's surgeon Dr. Serral (Hans Homma) informs a grateful Yvonne that Orlac's head injuries are serious but not life-threatening and that he will recover. Then he gives her the worst news of all. Orlac's hands are so badly damaged he may not be able to save them. Yvonne goes into near-breakdown mode and demands that Dr. Serral save her husband's beautiful, sexy hands at any cost. The good news here is that Dr. Serral has been doing some freaky but successful secret hand transplants. The bad news is that Orlac gets the hands of notorious and recently executed robber/murderer Vasseur. Oh shiiiiiiiit!
When Orlac recovers and learns the source of his new hands, he freaks out. He feels murderous urges, which he suppresses at great psychological cost. Is he losing his marbles or is there some essence of the murderous man contained in his hands that is taking hold of Orlac? Or is something even more sinister going on? Surprisingly, world's biggest hand fetishist Yvonne never even notices that her husband has a completely different pair of hands, but she does notice that he won't touch her with them since the surgery and is pretty distraught about that. I won't reveal the rest, but I will say that many great scenes, images, and twists and turns in the story follow.
Wiene dials down Caligari's extreme stylization in this more earthbound tale of terror, but there is nothing routine or perfunctory about the visual world he creates here. The Hands of Orlac is filled with expressively beautiful and/or nightmarish images and shot compositions and a masterful use of shadows and light. Wiene used harsh, exaggerated, abstract angles in Caligari to let you know from the outset that you were in a world permeated by madness, while the exaggerated, expressionist touches in Orlac slowly accumulate as our character moves from a world he understands to a world filled with darkness, doubt, suppression, and fear.
I loved so many shots and scenes in Orlac, especially the dark taverns and bars, the most visually expressive newsstand in the world, the oversized doors and couches and their exaggeratedly rounded shapes, the expressive faces in closeup and medium shots, the darkly perverse humor and sexual content, the masterful control of a bizarre and difficult tone. I could go on.
This is a great movie, full of great moments, a silent gem that needs a bigger audience. Check it out.    

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