Monochrome Manor Presents:
THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS (1946)
Review by Steve Van Samson
Down a particularly twisted road, over an old bridge and up, up on the very top of a hill where no one goes, stands a forgotten manse. With a sudden clap of thunder, the nameplate flashes—MONOCHROME MANOR. Standing here, nearly forgotten, is a place out of time. A place where bookshelves move, portraits leer, and, on nights just like this… old black and white movies are screened in the house’s totally plush theater room.
Tonight’s Feature: THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS (1946)
First, a little history…
Over the last century, there have been scores of fantastic actors, who made careers out of playing a single sort of character. That said, many others have looked upon being typecast as a kind of curse. I think it’s safe to say that in all of cinema history, few had a harder time being accepted in the sorts of roles they aspired to play more than Peter Lorre. Unfortunately, with his foreign accent, nontraditional looks and diminutive stature, Lorre simply wasn’t being offered the “leading man” roles he yearned for.
His big break came as the primary villain of Fritz Lang’s M (1931), the lady-killing Hans Beckett. The role made Lorre an international sensation, but the actor was wary of playing too many monstrous characters. Of course, like anyone, Lorre still had to pay the bills and eventually, principles had to bend. Portraying unsavory characters in movies like Hitchcock’s THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO LITTLE (1934) and MAD LOVE (1935) may not have been what Lorre envisioned for himself, but the public ate them up.
Fortunately, in 1937, 20th Century Fox hired the Austro-Hungarian actor to play the lead role of Mr. Moto in THINK FAST, MR. MOTO (1937). The character was no villain, no monstrous creep, but a brilliant, endearing detective (think Holmes meets Poirot) whose adventures were based on a popular series of books by American author John P. Marquand. As it happened, audiences loved Lorre’s turn as the character, and he went on to play Mr. Moto in a total of eight films. These were all produced and released in just two years, ending with MR. MOTO TAKES A VACATION (1939).
With the arrival of the 1940s, Lorre took another turn off that magical career road. Signing a contract with Warner Brothers, he went on to appear in some of his most enduring films. Immortal classics like THE MALTESE FALCON (1941) and CASABLANCA (1942), turned Humphrey Bogart into a star that shone so brightly, it’s easy to forget the bit players around him. Though Lorre would continue to act all the way into the 60s, by that point, his star had diminished. From the 40s on, he would be forever typecast as what I affectionately call “the shifty little weirdo”.
But enough of that…
THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS (1946), was directed by Robert Florey (MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, 1932) and was Warner Brothers’ only horror film of the 1940s.
Our story begins in the lovely Italian village of San Stefano, with a prologue that is a tad on the bizarre side. Not only does it have virtually nothing to do with the rest of the film’s narrative, the tone is light and playful—hardly indicative of what is to come. We meet a well-dressed cad, Bruce Conrad (played by Robert Alda), as he cons a wayward American couple into purchasing a worthless bauble, misrepresented as a priceless antique. After making what is surely a nice profit, Conrad runs afoul of a local police constable, who ends up letting him go without as much as a warning.
Clearly this Conrad guy could charm the pants off a trouser salesman. The weird thing is, that fact doesn’t really come up again.
Over at the fabulous, if dimly lit, Villa Francesco, (where we will spend the rest of the film) we are introduced to the rest of the primary cast. The lovely nurse Julie (Andrea King) sits rather stiffly beside a grand piano. Her expression is difficult to read, as a rumpus, one-handed concert is banged out by her patient—famous pianist Mr. Francis Ingram (Victor Francen). Unbeknownst to the pair, a mysterious Peter Lorre is also in attendance, lurking and listening from the second floor library.
At some point, in the not so distant past, Ingram was the victim of a stroke that left his right side completely paralyzed. This sad turn of events forced the master pianist to relearn his craft using only his left hand.
As the playing comes to an end, Julie gets up to answer a knock at the front door. In walks none other than Bruce Conrad (from Scene 1) who apparently can’t stop himself from doing the charm thing, no matter where he goes. After a brief exchange and a subsequent scene involving Julie and the mysterious Lorre, whose character is actually named Hilary (originally a masculine name—look it up), we are able to discern a few things. Primarily among which is this—nurse Julie is the object of obsession for all three men.
Conrad’s aim is the most simple and purely romantic, having secretly fallen in love with the woman. Ingram, on the other hand, has become infatuated with Julie on a whole other level. Clearly the tortured genius is somewhat difficult to bear, evidenced by his demeanor, as well as how empty the grand Villa Francesco is. As a nurse, Julie cares for her patient, but Ingram is smothering her—badgering the woman for her presence, every minute of every day. Lorre’s need for Julie completes the trifecta, practically falling to pieces when she admits to be planning her departure. Lorre’s actual role in the house is a bit muddled, but it seems the little weirdo is using Ingram for his vast collection of astrology books. He claims to be on the verge of some major “breakthrough” with “his work” and if Julie leaves, Ingram will surely turn that bottomless neediness on him! So more than anything, Lorre needs Julie to stay for deflection.
Okay, supper is ready, and after that, another moody concerto, and yes everyone has to come. I’m looking at you, Hilary.
From this point on, Lorre pretty much mopes through every shot he’s in. He mopes to the garden to spy on Conrad and Julie, then he mopes up to Ingram’s study to tattle on the couple for plotting to leave the country. And when Ingram goes a little crazy and tries to strangle the messenger, Lorre mopes his way right down to the floor. Luckily, Julie bursts in just in time, stopping the murder before it sticks. Unfortunately, crazy-eyes Ingram proceeds to throw Lorre out—banishing the little weirdo from his sight and from Villa Francesco, forever.
Celebrities, am I right?
Later that night, Ingram is stirred from his post nearly-killed-a-guy slumber by a cacophonous storm of thunder and wind. He climbs into his chair and wheels himself into the hall, looking half a madman and calling for the only person on earth he really cares for. JULIE—he cries into the darkened manse, as the hallway stretches and blurs. JULIE! JULIE! He calls again and again, all the while rolling closer and closer to the top stair.
After one heck of a satisfying pratfall, we dissolve to the man’s funeral. Yup, that’s it for the loveable Francis Ingram. But this isn’t the end of the story, not by a long shot. Remember, we’ve been promised a “beast” after all. One with only five fingers.
As it happens, the man called Hilary does not in fact, vacate the premises. After all, why should he? Much to the chagrin of some newly arrived “grief stricken relatives,” Ingram has left all his worldly possessions, including the Villa itself, to one person—you guessed it, Nurse Julie. And she’s nice. Surely, she’ll let him continue that “super important astrology work” he’s always moping around about.
Okay but what if Ingram’s ghostly HAND comes back to play a little piano and strangle its way through everyone who ever wronged him? What happens then?
THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS (1946) is a great little film. Part mystery and part sweeping romance, it is also an early example of body horror. Featuring some charming and mostly effective special effects of a disembodied, killer hand, a full 51 years before Bruce Campbell’s Ash would take a chainsaw to his! The back half of the movie’s 90 minute runtime is filled with twists and turns and shifty characters that will keep you guessing until the credits role.
Whether or not Peter Lorre lamented what became of his career or learned to embrace it, I cannot say. What I do know is this. No one excelled at the role of “the shifty little weirdo” better than him.
© Copyright 2017 by Steve Van Samson