With October here and Halloween on everyone’s minds, I’ve been trying to squeeze in as many seasons movies as I possibly can. Since it’s going to be a rather movie centric month there in Andyland, it’s also going to be a movie centric month in this column, This week I’d like to tell you about a fun little movie from 1946.
During the golden age of Hollywood, one studio held the monopoly on horror films. That studio was Universal, who between the 1920s and the 1950s released a steady stream of films featuring some of the most popular and iconic monsters in movie history. Seeing the success Universal was having with their horror offerings, other studios would occasionally take a shot at trying to grab some of the horror going audience.
Warner Brothers’ 1946 horror/mystery film “The Beast with Five Fingers” was that studio’s only attempt at anything in the horror genre during the entire 1940s. Headed by a cast that included Robert Alda, Andrea King, and Peter Lorre—in this last film for the studio—“The Beast with Five Fingers” is an adaptation of the short story of the same name by W.F. Harvey. I don’t know if there’s any real connection between “The Beast with Five Fingers” and “The Hands of Orlac,” but one can’t help but wonder if the latter inspired the former ever so slightly—both stories centered around a renowned pianist and hands that are going rogue.
Set in a small town in Italy in 1916 “Beast with Five Fingers” shows the world of virtuoso Francis Ingram—a piano player of renown who is bound to a wheelchair with a paralyzed right arm due to a stroke. Ingram has retreated from the world at large, never leaving his estate and seen only by a few people. These people include his secretary and amateur astrologist (Lorre), his nurse (King), and a young friend who admires his piano playing (Alda).
Ingram’s temperament is short with most people, taking out his frustrations on his broken state on those around him. After dinner one night, Ingram begins to have hallucinations, which cause him to tragically tumble down the stairs to his death—was it death by the cause of a man slowly deteriorating in mind and body? Perhaps Ingram’s death wasn’t just a mere accident, but was actually a nicely constructed game of murder?
Shortly after Ingram’s burial, traces of him begin to become present in the house. His piano is heard being played in a style unmistakably his in the middle of the night, and most incredibly, people begin to see his non-paralyzed hand wrecking havoc on the house and even murdering those who stay in the pianist’s villa! What? You think a movie with a title like “The Beast with Five Fingers” wasn’t going to have a murderous set of digits attached to a wrist and palm? For shame, I don’t think Warner Brothers would have cheated anyone out of that!
Directed by Robert Florey—who also directed The Marx Brothers’ debut film “The Coconuts”—“The Beast With Five Fingers” is Warner Brothers attempt to do Universal’s gothic horror style that we all know and love. Warners even went so far as to hire Universal scribe Curt Siodmak to co-write the screenplay. Siodmak, a scribe of many Universal Monster movies, is perhaps best remembered for writing the original screenplay for “The Wolf Man” from 1943—inventing much of the lore of werewolves that still gets used to this day.
“Beast” does a good job of aping the Universal style, but with the cast and the score by Max Steiner, it has a decidedly Warner Brothers feel. The film really isn’t so much of a straight horror film as it is more of a “supernatural whodunit” with elements of comedy and romance mixed in. The movie ends with a rather amusing comedy take that breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience directly.
This is a fine example of a movie that really isn’t all that scary, but is well made and a great deal of fun. A movie where Peter Lorre fights with a severed hand? Count me in! At a running time of 88 minutes “The Beast with Five Fingers” doesn’t overstay its welcome. It’s a good, old-fashioned “old dark house” film that provides a really enjoyable evening’s entertainment. Your mileage may vary, but if the film’s title and Peter Lorre aren’t enough to convince you, this is one you might want to skip (and would cause me to call you dull). The effects work is quite impressive for the time—with the exception of one or two shots. It’s easy to figure out how they did them, but that doesn’t make them any less effective.
This is an instance of Warner Archive releasing a film on DVD with an existing master instead of creating a new transfer. This is perfectly fine and acceptable. With some of these deep catalog titles, I’d rather see them in print and available than locked away from the eyes of the public. The transfer looks good, a bit soft in places, but is more than acceptable. From what I could gather online, this appears to be a video master of the film created in the late 1990s for a VHS and LaserDisc release.
There are no extras on the DVD, but Warner Archive did include the original theatrical trailer for the film. All in all “The Beast with Five Fingers” is a welcome addition to my home video library—for that part of the collection where all my “spook house” movies live. The ones that I like to break out to say “Halloween is coming” or the ones I watch when it’s too hot outside to function and I want to fool my brain into thinking it’s 64 degrees out. If you’re a fan of 1940s horror films, this is one worth seeking out. A lot of fun packed into a quick running time with a great cast of WB favorites. See you next week.