The Hands of Orlac (1924)

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three star

The 1920s sci-fi horror The Hands of Orclac holds quite an impressive pedigree. Directed by Austrian filmmaker Robert Wierne, who also helmed the infamous silent era classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and starring Conrad Veidt, whose visage in The Man Who Laughs partly inspired the DC Comics villain The Joker, this modest silent horror has spawned two separate remakes & nearly a century of admiration. You can see The Hands of Orclac‘s imprint on schlocky titles like Idle Hands & Manos: The Hands of Fate as well as more prestigious horror milestones like the way Bela Lugosi manually hypnotizes women in the 1930s Dracula. The movie has a challenging runtime in terms of ancient feature lengths (a lot of the silent horrors I’ve watched recently have been barely over an hour; this one doubles it) and a lot of what makes its special is unfortunately undone in its closing minutes, but I still found it fascinating as an old world relic & there were some really strong, dreamlike images that made the experience memorable even if it couldn’t quite stick the landing.

Much like with the 1940s cheapie The Monster Maker, The Hands of Orlac centers on a concert pianist who suddenly, horrifically finds himself unable to use his hands. Instead of being maliciously inflicted with a glandular disorder by a mad scientist, however, our man Orlac loses his money-makers in a near-fatal train wreck. Because of the special effects limitations of the time the train wreck occurs off-screen, a necessary choice that pays off nicely as the audience watches Orlac’s wife stumble into the chaos of the wreckage in search of her beloved. While Orlac is recovering she begs for the surgeons to save his precious ivory-ticklers and they reluctantly oblige . . . sort of. Orlac’s hands are replaced with those of a convicted killer who is to be hung that same day. He can feel the murderous hatred shooting up his arms & into his very soul as he winds up walking around with his arms stretched out like a zombie, doing his hands’ evil bidding. Casting must’ve been essential in selling the horror of this scenario onscreen, as Verdt’s huge, veiny hands really do look like they’re controlling his body & bending his will for malicious purpose.

Like I said, a lot of what makes The Hands of Orlac special is retroactively undone by a lackluster finish involving a police procedural and a criminal caricature that plays about as broad & goofy as a Bobby Moynihan sketch. The film finds a lot to work with before it allows itself to unravel, though. It has a The Red Shoes quality in its fantastical ideas on how an object or a body part can possess you to act or hallucinate. There’s also impressive attention paid to the romantic falling out of such a bizarre situation. Because Orlac cannot play piano, the married couple suffers newfound debt & subsequent crisis. Also, Orlac refuses to touch his wife with his new murder hands, but the hands themselves have no qualms with seducing/being seduced by other women, which leads to one strikingly odd, fetishistic exchange with a maid. There’s a lot of great, weird imagery & ideas that top even that moment of bizarre seduction, including a giant, God-like hand descending from the ceiling over a hospital bed, a reference to head transplant experiment, and an army of wicked bankers mechanically shaking their heads no while Orlac’s wife begs for an extension on their debts. The Hands of Orlac also makes great use out of what’s becoming one of my favorite silent era tropes: impossibly enormous, bare interior spaces that feel like something out of a dream. I don’t think the film is anywhere near wholly successful, especially in light of its total cop out ending, but The Hands of Orlac is still fascinating in it smaller moments & details.

-Brandon Ledet

The Man Who Laughs (1928)

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threehalfstar

(Viewed 07/14/2015, available on YouTube.)

I have to admit that I had no idea what I was getting into with this film.  A black and white picture of Conrad Veidt with a painfully grotesque smile and desperate eyes was posted online next to an illustration of Batman’s Joker.  The Man Who Laughs – inspiration for the Joker!”

I’m a sucker for a dramatic photo.  And for Batman.

The Man Who Laughs turns out to be a gorgeous 17th century period piece filmed on the eve of the sound age and the Hays Code, based on Victor Hugo’s 1869 novel.  The Laughing Man himself, Conrad Veidt, is well known for his other roles in movies such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Casablanca, and I’m sure that you’ve all heard of this film already and that I’m behind the curve on this one.  The 1928 Universal Pictures movie is a melodrama, a romance, a comedy, a swashbuckler, and a thriller.  The story follows a man who, kidnapped and mutilated as a child to punish his father, lives as a performer until his lost identity catches up with him and drags him into a world of intrigue.  There is not a speck of realism to be found and it’s completely delightful.

Conrad Veidt’s portrayal of the mutilated clown Gwynplaine is a fantastically overwrought exploration of existential crisis.  Mary Philbin’s portrayal of the literally blindly innocent Dea is one of the most beautiful presentations of spotless femininity that I have ever seen on film (helped no doubt by constantly luminescent lighting).  Olga Molnar presents a contrasting and archetypically vampy performance of the Countess Josiana: beautiful, sexual, powerful, and cruelly self interested.

The Man Who Laughs is a fun watch, and as a (mostly) silent film it will require your actual attention and a modicum of active investment.  I found the pacing quick enough and the story engaging enough to keep me interested without much effort.  The visual lushness of the movie makes it a treat to watch.  I would consider this movie to be a fairly accessible silent film for anyone interested in dipping their toes into the world of pre-sound movies, and should go on your list if you’re interested in pre-Code movies, German Expressionism (even though it’s an American film), or visual inspirations for the Joker.

-Erin Kinchen