Thursday, March 27, 2014

Saturday, February 5, 1972: The Beast With 5 Fingers (1947) / The Human Monster (1940)

Synopsis: Bruce Conrad (Robert Alda) is an American living in a small Italian village.  He makes a living partly by fleecing American tourists with "antique" stones, and partly by ingratiating himself to Francis Ingraham, a wealthy musician who owns a mansion in the village.

Ingraham is in poor health, confined to a wheelchair, and he only has the use of one hand.  As a concert pianist this is immensely frustrating for him.  But Conrad, himself a musician, has composed for him a number of pieces that can be played with one hand, something which gives Ingraham some measure of comfort.

One evening Ingraham asks his nurse Julie, his long-time secretary Hilary (Peter Lorre), his attorney Dupreix and Conrad to join him over dinner.  He asks each of them if they consider him to be of sound mind, and they all agree that he is. He then asks them to sign a document naming them witnesses to a new will that he has written.

It is clear that Ingraham is in love with Julie.  So is Conrad; and he tries to convince Julie to come away with him, even though he knows that he has no money and no prospects. Ingraham, he admits ruefully, is the meal ticket for all those around him.  Conrad lives off his largesse; Julie is on his payroll, as is Hilary; and there's no doubt that Dupreix depends on Ingraham for much of his business.

But Hilary has overheard Conrad's conversation with Julie, and he immediately goes and tells Ingraham about it.  Ingraham, thinking that Hilary is trying to turn him against Julie, seizes Hilary's throat, choking him.  Hilary manages to escape, but is left with ugly marks on his neck.  Ingraham tells him to get out of the house.

Late that night there is a tremendous thunderstorm, and Ingraham, calling in vain for Julie, brings his chair too close to the top of the stairs.  The wheelchair tips and Ingraham takes a fatal fall down the long staircase.

The discovery of the body is a great shock to the community, and soon Ingraham's only living relatives show up --  Mr. Arlington (Charles Dingle) and his son Donald (John Alvin). The two immediately start taking an inventory of the house's contents, clearly with the idea of liquidating them. This angers Hilary, who claims all the books in the library belong to him, that they were gifts from Ingraham.

But when the will is read everyone is shocked to discover that Julie has been named as the sole heir.  The Arlingtons are furious, and vow to contest the will.  Dupreix secretly meets with the Arlingtons and agrees to support their claim in exchange for a cut of the estate.


Soon weird things start to happen. There's a light coming from the crypt where Ingraham is buried.  Dupreix opens his door to discover a hand -- bearing Ingraham's ring -- reaching for his throat; he is later found strangled. The piano downstairs is heard to play one of Ingraham's one-handed compositions, but when people go to investigate no one is there.  Later, Hilary swears he saw Ingraham's disembodied hand moving of its own accord.  Arlington is nearly strangled by a hand that seemed to come from nowhere.  And when  police commisario Castanio leads the others to the crypt they discover that Ingraham's hand has been cut off from his body, and a window in the crypt has been smashed -- a window just large enough to allow a human hand to escape....

Comments: You could count on one hand (ha ha, get it?) the number of horror films Warner made in the 1940s, and even in those films the studio's embarrassment at the genre is obvious.  The first thing you need to know about The Beast With 5 Fingers is that it does everything to convince you that it isn't really a horror movie at all. It's character-driven!  There's a romance!  There's a cynical, self-deprecating lead character!  The horror elements are explained away in the last reel!

The embarrassment is evident from the first moments of the film, when a title card is inserted to reassure us that we shouldn't take any of this crawling-hand stuff seriously:

It's likely that Warner was envious (as many other studios were at the time)  of the films of Val Lewton, whose horror outings at RKO were high-brow and respectable, keeping the audience guessing as to whether the events they were seeing were supernatural or psychological in origin (Lewton's films made money, too, which never hurts).  In any case, The Beast With 5 Fingers had clearly been put into production with the idea of being something of a hybrid, carefully designed to please both horror fans and general audiences.  Predictably, it is the movie's fatal flaw.

That you could specifically tailor a genre film to appeal to the sensibilities of the masses is an idea that's nearly impossible to kill, kind of like a crawling, disembodied hand.  Studios invariably try it, and they invariably fail.  They forget that if nothing else, movies must be true to themselves. 

The movie fails with horror fans because the promise of a crawling hand isn't kept, and the ending comes across as something of a cheat.  it fails with mainstream audiences because -- well, because there's a hand crawling around killing people.  Why didn't the film just go the full monty and give us a straight-no-chaser horror film? 

After all, the best genre films have no trouble appealing to mainstream audiences: there was no calculation or compromise that made The Magnificent Seven a mainstream hit. It was simply a great movie and audiences responded to that. The fact that it happened to be a western didn't matter.  Similarly, Star Wars appealed to many moviegoers who wouldn't be caught dead buying a ticket to a science fiction movie.  The Great Escape brought in audiences who weren't necessarily interested in war movies, and Lewton's Cat People was such a stylish and superior movie that audience flocked to it with nary a qualm about going to see -- you know -- a horror film.

For all its flaws, this one is well-cast, with Robert Alda making a solid leading man.  As I've mentioned before, J. Carrol Naish is one of my favorite actors from this era, and he does a fine job as the skeptical police commisario. Andrea King gives a winning performance as Julie.  Victor Francen is also quite convincing as the embittered Francis Ingraham, and Peter Lorre is appropriately nutty in what was his last film for Warner Brothers.

The Human Monster

Synopsis: At Scotland Yard, a group of Detectives Inspector are being chewed out by their superior.  Five bodies have been pulled from the Thames in recent months, and while they are clearly meant to look like suicides, no one doubts they are murders.  The Yard is no closer to an arrest than it was at the beginning, and the press is having a field day playing up the ineptitude of the police.  Detective Inspector Larry Holt (Hugh Williams) is told to redouble his efforts to solve the crimes - or else.  He is instructed to take charge of a prisoner who being returned to London from the United States, a career criminal named Fred Grogan (Alexander Field). Grogan is being accompanied by a Chicago police detective named O'Reilly (Edmon Ryan).   Holt's captain tells him that the Americans want O'Reilly to shadow a British detective in order to learn the methods of the Yard.  "I'll have him shadow you," the captain tells Holt contemptuously.  "That way he won't learn anything."

Meanwhile, insurance agent and London philanthropist Dr. Feodor Orloff (Bela Lugosi) makes a loan to Henry Stuart (Gerald Pring), a formerly wealthy man who has had a run of bad luck. Orloff suggests that Stuart sign over his life insurance policy to him as collateral, and Stuart agrees. Orloff talks about his charity work at a house for the blind, and he tells Stuart to visit the house the following evening. As he talks to Stuart, he types out a short note on a Braille typewriter, wraps the note around a coin, and throws it out onto the street, where a blind street violinist picks it up and carries it away.

Later , Holt meets O'Reilly and his prisoner at the railway station, and they head back to Scotland Yard.  Once Grogan is taken away to a holding cell, O'Reilly pulls out a blackjack and recommends the Chicago way of getting information from a suspect: a good old-fashioned beat down.  But Holt has other plans. A drunk is put in to the cell with Grogan, and Grogan takes a great interest in the newspaper the drunk has in his coat pocket.  Later we learn that the drunk was an undercover policeman placed by Holt.  Grogan found a classified ad in the newspaper that had been meant for him alone -- an ad written in a simple code that directed him to Orloff.

The next evening, Stuart turns up at the home for the blind. As he enters, a furtive resident pushes a Braille note into his hand.  Confused, Stuart puts the note into his pocket.   He is greeted by Orloff, who seems shocked when Stuart mentions he has a daughter --  Orloff thought he had no living relations. Stuart's tour ends abruptly when Orloff leads him to a room where Jake, a Rondo Hatton-esque grotesque, is waiting for him.

Before long Stuart's body is fished out of the river. On a hunch Holt has the water in the man's lungs tested; it turns out that Stuart was drowned in tap water, not the muddy water of the Thames. And the Braille note in Stuart's pocket reads simply "MURDER".  Based on this, Holt begins to suspect that Dr. Orloff and the home for the blind are involved, somehow, with the crimes....

Comments: One way I manage to bore people is to jabber away on the subject of curated content.  It's kind of an old-fashioned idea, really. The freedom we have today to  pick and choose what we want to watch, when we want to watch it, is pretty awesome. Sitting here at my dining room table I could opt to view -- at the push of a button --  nearly any movie or TV show I wanted to see.

But that freedom comes with a price. Your Netflix queue can't surprise you; it can't start playing a movie on its own that you might fall in love with, one that you might remember fondly, or one that you might want to learn more about. Serendipity has become a rare thing. It used to happen all the time on broadcast television. And one really good thing about working on the Horror Incorporated Project is seeing movies that I probably would never have gotten around to seeing, if I'd been left to my own devices. 

In a way, I really am like a viewer of the show, ca. 1972.  I've made the same bargain that the original Horror Incorporated audience made: show up Saturday night at midnight, and they'll show you a movie.  It might be a clunker, but then again, it might be great.  Why not tune in and see?

Now to me, that's a bargain I can live with. And that bargain pays off handsomely with movies like The Human Monster.  I can't imagine going out of my way to see another of Lugosi's starring turns in a Monogram production.  But whaddya know, this one actually delivers the goods.

Credit should probably go to the source material. This is an adaptation of the Edgar Wallace thriller The Dark Eyes Of London and it contains the usual improbable plot twists and mildly eccentric characterizations of Wallace's popular crime novels.

Structurally, the movie is a funny mix.  It's essentially a horror movie with a police procedural and a light buddy cop flick dropped in the middle. O'Reilly, the American detective, serves as the sidekick to Detective Inspector Holt, and as in many Wallace stories his main function is comic relief (there's a running gag where Holt introduces O'Reilly as "Lieutenant O'Reilly" -- using the American pronunciation of "lieutenant", --  and O'Reilly corrects him by using the British pronunciation). The American detective also marvels at the presence of female police officers, though he is disappointed to learn that they are on hand to enforce "laws pertaining to morality".  O'Reilly and the audience are clearly meant to be impressed by the modern methods employed by Scotland Yard, and we see more forensic work than we normally do in a film of this era.

The Scotland Yard scenes don't really mesh with Orloff's scenes with potential victims, or with the scenes at the decidedly gothic home for the blind; those are more closely aligned with the conventional horror tropes of the time, right down to the less-than-convincing motivations of the villain (for example, why would Orloff go ahead with his plan to kill Stuart, even after he knows a) that Stuart has a daughter who is coming to town, and b) Holt is nosing around his company's books, having figured out that the insurance payouts for Thames drowning victims suspiciously route back to him?)

All the same it's moderately entertaining stuff, and has a plot twist -- involving a dual role for Lugosi --  that works quite well but which I won't give away here. For the most part Lugosi turns in what I would call a standard performance, somewhat lacking in subtlety.  He tries to be scary by pitching his voice to a lower register and tilting his head forward.  He seems to resort to this when he's unsure of what the material demands, and it makes me think that Lugosi would have been more effective if he'd worked with better directors.  Nevertheless, he is a more threatening presence than most actors of his day and he has more to do in this film than he did in most of his roles from this era. His scenes with Hugh Williams are pretty good and the Hughes / Ryan buddy cop interplay is fun to watch as well.


kochillt said...

Total agreement on THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS. I remembered little of this as a kid, and now I bitterly recall why. It's interesting that the British horror ban that put Bela Lugosi out of work for two years would contribute to his 1939 comeback. THE DARK EYES OF LONDON was the UK title at 76 minutes, offering some of Bela's most brutal crimes on the screen. Only distributed in the US by Monogram, who did something of a remake in 1942, BOWERY AT MIDNIGHT.

Neutron said...

Great stuff. You make a good point about not being able to discover new movies like this on Netflix. The fun is just not there. Watching Horror Incorporated as a kid in North Branch MN shaped a lot of my interest and love for these kind of movies. I have spent a small fortune on collectibles, DVD's, and of course Famous Monsters magazine which I quickly snapped up after getting into Horror Incorporated. In 1971 we moved away to a tiny town with one TV station. The all Hee-Haw farm network. I didn't see another horror film for many years, so great to be in touch with Horror Incorporated again, thanks for your wonderful work!

Uncle Mike said...

Sorry you couldn't stay within HORROR INCORPORATED's range of influence, Neutron, but at least you got to see some of these great films. Aside from seeing the movies themselves flickering on late-night TV, FAMOUS MONSTERS was about the only way to connect with that community of devotees. Hope you stick around!

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