One of those classic films from the golden age of horror cinema, THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS is one of those films that fans have been aching for on DVD. Well, it’s finally arrived, legendary screen villain Peter Lorre’s final acting role for Warner Brothers makes its digital debut courtesy of The Warner Archive Collection and this MOD disc.
In Italian village before the turn of the century, wealthy pianist and stroke victim Francis Ingram (Victor Francen, THE MASK OF DIMITRIOS) is now wheelchair bound and paralyzed on the right sight of his body, forcing him to play with only his left hand. Surrounded by house guests that include his oddball secretary Hilary (Peter Lorre, THE COMEDY OF TERRORS) his nurse Julie (Andrea King, RED PLANET MARS) and shifty but suave antiques dealer Bruce Conrad (Robert Alda, HOUSE OF EXORCISM), he finalizes his last will and testament, only to fall down a flight of stairs to his death (a possible murder). When his will is read, it is discovered that he has left everything to Julie, something that is contested by nephew Donald Arlington (John Alvin, OBJECTIVE, BURMA!) and Donald’s uncle (Charles Dingle, DUEL IN THE SUN). Musicologist Hilary, who had a violent confrontation with Francis right before his death, also protests, wanting to keep possession of the estate’s extensive and priceless book library. At night, strange happenings occur: everyone in the house hears the grand piano playing, victims are nearly strangled or end up dead, and at least one individual witnesses a menacing, severed hand! When it is learned that the Ingram mausoleum has been broken into, further investigation proves that Francis’ left hand has been severed. Is his ghost out for vengeance? Certainly the villagers and even the house staff believe so.
Although more of a melodrama of the “whodunnit” sort, the gothic thrills of THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS and the whole “severed hand” ingredient makes it fit perfectly in the horror category, and it’s actually one of the last studio horror pictures of the golden period that begin with Universal’s initial monster triumphs of the early 1930s. It’s also got a lot of established genre talent behind the scenes. Robert Florey had already directed Bela Lugosi in Universal’s MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE and Lorre in THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK, and here he establishes an adequate dose of shadowy suspense, with enough spooky conventions to play around with, as well as a top notch cast to keep things interesting (the cinematography by Wesley Anderson compliments the film with some eerie imagery and some memorable shots, including a scene where three bewildered male characters are gazing through a tiny crypt opening). Basing it on a story by William Fryer Harvey, screenwriter Curt Siodmak had written screenplays and/or stories for THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS, THE WOLF MAN, FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN, SON OF DRACULA and numerous other golden age horror and sci-fi classics. Although he envisioned Conrad Veidt in the role of Hilary, it’s hard to imagine anybody but Lorre in the part. Austrian-born composer Max Steiner is best known to monster movie fans for the music in KING KONG (and for movie fans in general, the landmark epic GONE WITH THE WIND).
The cast is quite good, but it’s third-billed Lorre that has kept the film a fan favorite for so many decades. After the Hungarian born actor arrived in Hollywood, he would appear in such notable heavyweights as CASABLANCA and THE MALTESE FALCON, as well as a series of “Mr. Moto” mysteries, but this film recalls his role in MAD LOVE at least in some similarities, so casting him here as weirdo whose madness elevates throughout must have been no shock to theatergoers, even back in 1946 when this first played. Lorre’s scenes are by far the most memorable (especially those who grew up watching it on late night TV or had the Ken Films silent 10-minute Super 8 version), especially in his psychologically induced encounters with the severed hand, which utilize some still pretty credible special effects which influenced a number of chillers over the years since. Another horror icon, J. Carroll Naish (DR. RENAULT’S SECRET, THE MONSTER MAKER, HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN) plays Police Commissario Ovidio Castanio, and although the role would have likely been flat and forgettable in other hands, Naish really does a wonderful job with the character, overshadowing most of the cast by sporting an authentic sounding Italian accent (Naish was a master at playing different ethnicities). For the film’s humorous final shot, Naish breaks the fourth wall, teasing the audience and scaring them at the same time.
Although Warner Home Video has released a good number of their 1930s and 1940s horror properties on DVD, mostly MGM studio titles, THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS (ironically a Warner Bros. production) has been lingering for years after being released on VHS in the early 1990s (through MGM/UA). It finally arrives on DVD as an MOD (manufactured on demand) disc through their ever popular Warner Archive Collection. Presented in its original full frame aspect ratio, it looks as though no major remastering was done this title. The black and white image is sharp for the most part, with a few soft spots, and print speckling is present throughout. The picture is generally good though, and black levels appear where they should be and whites looks proper without being blown out. The mono audio sounds just fine, with no noticeable imperfections. An original theatrical trailer is included, and the original poster art is used for the DVD’s front cover. (George R. Reis)
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