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Thursday, October 20, 2011

Five Reasons to watch The Beast with Five Fingers

It is getting close to Halloween, which is a great time to dig up some old, black and white movies of yesterday to warn us of the many dangers that lurk in the dark.  In our present age we spend too much time worrying over the economy, pandemics, the price of gasoline, and who will run for the Presidency.  These might be valid concerns, if you are into reality, but these do not begin to compare to the worries that really ought to keep us up at night.  If people today could only realize the horrific and plausible prospect of giant leech attacks, great globules of furious jellied alien life, and apes run amok in the streets of Paris, our petty concerns about overcrowded jails and teenage bullying would be forgotten in an instant of pure terror.
     Just the other night, around midnight, I came into our bedroom and found that my wife had gone to sleep with the TV on.  In the blackened room, lit only by the pale light of a black and white horrorfest, I watched a poor woman running from a deranged ghoul.  Locking herself in a bathroom, she stared in horror at the water running from the faucet.  Through the miracle of Hollywood, this water was bright red, even though the rest of the film was black and white.  Turning from the crimson flow of bloody water, she stared in catatonic shock at a bathtub full of the same, bright blood.  Rising out of this viscous pool was a hand covered in gooey crimson muck.  The woman, in the face of this incomprehensible yet totally reasonable scene, died of fright.
     This was typical of the macabre scenes we often saw as children when the late, late movie was playing at this time of year.  I hated these things, and only watched a little of them before rushing to the TV and turning them off.  Who could blame me?  Even during the day, watching Creature Feature on Saturday afternoons, I had trouble making it through such terrors.
     Now, older and wiser, I have come to enjoy these movies on a higher level.  Yes, they are often filled with campy scenes and low budget monsters that look like the director’s teenager in a suit made out of old carpet swatches, but that is hardly the point.  What these movies really did was allow us to escape fears of reality through the terrors of imagination.  If you need to do so this season, here are five reasons that you would do well to watch The Beast with Five Fingers.

1.  Gothic Atmosphere and Music
     Right from the start this movie has all the makings of a classic horror.  It is set in an Italian village, which is like so many of the European settings for movies like Frankenstein, The Black Room, and The Masque of the Red Death.  It was a way for movie makers to take American audiences and place them in strange lands that were still highly superstitious and plausibly full of dark undertakings.  This was also a chance to fill out the cast with odd, harsh looking immigrants who were readily available in California to project a disturbed view of the population.  There are rarely scenes that include blond All-Americans with classic facial proportions.
     The house in which the story takes place is full of Germanic decoration, large rooms with startling shadows, and statuary that keeps one wondering if they just might come to life.  The central room is nearly empty with only a grand piano set in the middle of it.  Adding to the gloomy and majestic set is the music of Bach’s Violin Partita in D minor, a dark piece that is not only heard throughout the film by the audience but also by the characters who learn it is a sinister precursor to death.  Again and again we hear the music along with the characters and wonder, who will die next?
2.  Robert Alda’s Performance as Bruce Conrad
Robert Alda     A nice treat in this movie is the performance of Robert Alda.  The father of Alan Alda, Robert Alda plays the heroic lead.  We first see him as a scam artist, with a wisecracking attitude around the local law enforcement as well as those who live in the main house.  It is easy to see the seeds of Alda’s son’s character “Hawkeye Pierce” in this smart-alecky role.  As the plot progresses, we see Alda slip into the familiar horror hero role, maintaining an easy-going skeptical presence, intent only on keeping near the heroine and securing her attentions by protecting her from whatever silly thing is worrying her.  He will of course have to both seduce her and save her while keeping above all the horror.

3.  J. Carrol Naish’s Performance as the Commissario
Naish (left)

     Naish is one of those character actors that would never get a chance to perform today.  An Irishman by birth, he played nearly every ethnic role (with accent) but an Irishman.  In The Beast With Five Fingers, Naish plays the local lawman, known to all as The Commissario.  An over-the-top character, Naish delivers an unmistakable (and some would now say unforgivable) Hollywood Italian accent, complete with-a the added a on-a every-a word-a.  (Naish had done the very same thing just three years earlier as the tragic Italian in the World War II thriller Sahara alongside Humphrey Bogart.)  Yes, many would shun such nonsense and shake their fingers at this kind of condescending thing, but why?  It’s a foolish performance to be sure, but it is so over-the-top that it can’t be taken seriously.  I suppose if I were Italian I might take offense.  However, as a good German, I don’t take offense at the equally silly performances of actors like John Banner’s Shultz in Hogan’s Heroes.  Why would I?
     Here in Five Fingers, Naish plays a police chief who does a more than competent job investigating the murders.  He does a good job of throwing his authority around, with sincerity at times, and he moves the story along quite well.

4.  The Hand!

     What horror movie would be complete without a monster?  And here, in brilliant black and white, we get to see a most horrifying sight: the murderous, finger-walking hand!  Now here I must spoil the movie for you and warn the faint-hearted that this movie does indeed have a disembodied hand scampering about and killing willy-nilly.  It might just make you ill to see it, so don’t watch if you have a weak stomach.  This hand is so realistic you can see the remains of the radius and ulna where it is cut at the wrist.  Even worse, at times this hand, animated by the magic of Hollywood, looks just like a fake hand that cannot move unless manipulated by Peter Lorre as he hugs it to his chest.  It is almost too terrifying to behold!  (Ummm, never mind.)
     There is, in fact, an intense scene in which the hand crawls through fire, and I am sure it must have been pretty dramatic for audiences in 1946.  As we watched this movie just the other day, my wife remarked that she well remembered the fire scene from watching the movie as a young girl.  Such things are nightmares made of!

5.  The Always Perfect Performance of Peter Lorre

The Beast with Five Fingers, Peter Lorre, 1946 Photographic Poster Print, 12x16
You can buy this poster at Amazon, check it out!
       One can never say enough about the screen presence of Peter Lorre.  A mild-mannered, creepy scholar who only wants to be left alone with his books, Peter Lorre’s character, Hilary Cummins, carries the movie with his large sad eyes, and his halting thin voice that never ceases to both repel an audience as well as win them over.  Lorre has always been able to do this.  Even in one of his greatest roles, as the murderer in Fritz Lang’s M, the audience is quickly repulsed by his degenerate behavior, yet equally filled with compassion for him.  Lorre never passed up the chance to exploit this advantage with the audience.  He does so in Five Fingers and then lures the audience along with him as he descends into madness.
     Lorre can’t help but steal the show.  He cannot even walk into a room with the other characters without grabbing your attention by the throat.  In one scene, as all of the characters follow the lawyer into the main room to sign a document, Lorre is the last to enter.  Sliding off to one side, he sits with his back to the others, pausing a few moments before turning to look over his shoulder at them with those big eyes, as if to say, okay, I know I have to be here, just don’t make me join the group.  I don’t like groups!  He never says a word, and that’s the best part of it.
     I know it will come as a shock that Lorre is revealed as the villain.  Who could have seen that coming, right?  But the great bit of writing here is the way in which Lorre loses his mind.  He is no mad-dog monster who charges blindly around attacking the females in the house.  His near sleepwalk attack of Andrea King’s character is as subtle as his transformation to madness is hysterical.  It is easy to quit mocking the Gothic camp of the film and allow yourself to get caught up in his insanity.

In the following scene, Lorre explains what he has done with the Horrible Hand! 

     When all is said and done, and the ghastly hand is finally revealed, The Beast with Five Fingers satisfies on many levels, leaving five reddened finger marks at the base of your neck.  Dare I say, it will really grab you?  The solid screenplay is from the pen of Curt Siodmak, who earned his monster chops writing during Universal Pictures’ golden age of monsters, including the screenplays for The Wolf Man, The Son of Dracula, and The Invisible Man Returns.  (Other notable screenplays by Siodmak include I Walked with a Zombie and Donovan’s Brain.  He also developed the story for Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers, a favorite Sci-Fi of mine.)  The creepy atmosphere includes a mausoleum in the center of a graveyard, desecrated bodies, and creeping hands.  Along the way you will be entertained by the performances mentioned above, as well as the heroine played by Andrea King.  The best line of the movie might just be Robert Alda’s.  As he hears Peter Lorre hammering in a far corner of the house, he asks King, “what’s he hammering on down there?  He’s a sick man!”  Priceless!  Also, keep a sharp eye out for William Edmunds, known for his role as Mr. Martini in It’s a Wonderful Life as one of the servants.
     As in all movies of that age, the greedy will be punished, of course, and the lovers will be united.  It was imperative in that era that the criminals always paid for their crimes; a sentiment that has disappeared in Hollywood.  Once the horror has come to an end, all ends well as the Commissario enjoys a last joke and reminds us just how fun and absurd it has all been.

This movie is not available on DVD, but there are several online movies sites that list it available for download. Amazon is presently providing it for download rental, or you can buy it for download.



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