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.
But 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: We have an unusual double bill tonight: back to back horror films from Warner Brothers. Warner ventured into the horror genre only rarely, so the odds of getting two in a row are pretty unlikely. There’s no way to tell if it’s by accident or design. Either way, it’s a nice change of pace.
First up is The Beast With 5 Fingers, a Curt Siodmak-penned thriller about a crawling hand on the loose in a spooky mansion. The central mystery of the film — whether the crawling hand is real or a delusion — doesn’t detract from the general aura of creepiness, and it should come as no surprise that this film was directed by Robert Florey, whose movies were always atmospheric, if nothing else.
The movie takes its time getting started, but that’s not a bad thing. This isn’t a typical smash-and-grab programmer, as time and care are taken in establishing each of the characters. And each character, we learn, has his or her faults, even our protagonist — something else you don’t often see in genre films. Bruce Conrad is affable, charming, and intelligent, yet he seems keenly aware of his own weaknesses and failures. He has wound up in this quaint Italian village due to his own mistakes, but seems to have no idea how to get out. He loves Julie and wants to start some kind of life with her, somewhere (or so he claims) but seems paralyzed. He is just as adrift without Ingraham’s patronage as he was with it.
It is amusing that Julie, who had confessed previously that she wanted nothing more than to get away from Ingraham’s gloomy mansion, is determined to stay once the will is read. Bruce acts shocked, as though this is some sort of betrayal, and in a sense it is. In death Ingraham has a power over her he never had in life. After all the 10-lire-per-game chess matches Bruce conned Ingraham into playing, he seems surprised to have been checkmated so easily himself.
Peter Lorre gives his standard manic, bulgy-eyed performance, in a role that had originally been offered to Paul Heinreid. I wouldn’t say that Lorre is particularly good in this movie, but he could certainly make a convincing hysteric.
One of my favorite Universal contract players, J. Carrol Naish, portrays police comissario Castanio with a great deal of verve, even though the character is a thinly-written ethnic type. Naish always managed to inject a bit more good humor and warmth in such roles than what could be found on the page, and he’s delightful to watch here.
Max Steiner composed the eerie score, and he really outdid himself: this is terrific film music. The one-handed piano compositions, it should be noted, were by Brahms. Steiner chose them specifically for their slightly unnerving feel, and they are perfectly appropriate for this film.
The Beast With 5 Fingers comes from a time when horror films were tilting toward explained-away endings, and from a studio that was keenly embarrassed by genre material. So it’s not surprising that this horror effort hedged its bets to the extent that it did. Nevertheless, it’s a smart and entertaining attempt to make a serious and literate horror film.
The Return of Doctor X
Synopsis: Newspaper reporter Walter “Wichita” Garrett (Wayne Morris) is thrilled to score an interview with celebrated actress Angela Merrova (Lya Lys). But when he arrives at her apartment, Garrett finds Merrova dead, stabbed through the heart. Like any good newspaperman, he calls not the police, but his editor. Before you can say “stop the presses!” his newspaper blares this scoop on its front page. It’s only after the late edition comes out that the police find out about the crime and arrive at Merrova’s apartment, but they find no body, and no sign of a struggle. Garrett is perplexed, but insists that Merrova is dead and someone must have moved the body.
Later, Garrett is called into his editor’s office, where he is astonished to find Angela Merrova, not only alive, but threatening a monster lawsuit. Garrett insists that he saw Merrova dead, and that this woman must be an imposter. The editor sees things differently and Garrett is fired. But because he is that plucky breed of newspaperman that we often encounter in old movies, this doesn’t deter him. He seeks out his friend, Dr. Michael Rhodes (Dennis Morgan) to ask him whether someone with a stab wound of the type Angela Merrova sustained could survive.
The good-natured Dr. Rhodes is tolerant of Garrett’s questions but he’s a little busy. He is preparing to assist hematologist Dr. Francis Flegg (John Litel) with a tricky blood transfusion. The donor, a man with a rare blood type, hasn’t shown up. Nurse Joan Vance (Rosemary Lane) tells him that she has the same rare blood type, and volunteers to take the donor’s place for this procedure.
Joan clearly has a crush on the handsome Dr. Rhodes, and volunteering for a transfusion succeeds in catching his attention: after the procedure asks her out on a date. But instead of dancing under the stars, she ends up tagging along as Rhodes and Garrett check up on the missing blood donor. They find him dead in his apartment, his body drained of all blood. In fact the only blood they do manage to find doesn’t seem to be human blood at all.
They take the blood sample of Dr. Flegg, but Flegg seems rattled by it, angrily asserting that it’s ordinary human blood. While there, they meet the doctor’s creepy assistant Marshall Quesne (Humphrey Bogart), a pallid man with a streak of white running through his hair. Certain that he’s seen Quesne somewhere before, Garrett searches the newspaper archives until he stumbles onto the photograph he’s looking for: Quesne is none other than Dr. Maurice Xavier, whose diabolical experiments sent him to the electric chair years earlier. Garrett now knows of two dead people who have turned up alive. But how is it possible?
Comments: Like Return of the Ape Man and Devil Bat’s Daughter, The Return of Dr. X is a bit of a cheat in that it isn’t a sequel at all. There’s absolutely no connection between this movie’s Dr. Xavier and the one portrayed by Lionel Atwill in Dr. X.
However, The Return of Doctor X isn’t nearly as bad as those two non-sequels. It’s a hybrid of horror and science fiction that’s only remarkable for two things: the fact that it was produced by Warner Brothers (which seldom ventured into the horror genre) and the unlikely presence of Humphrey Bogart, who plays the character of Quesne from beneath a thick layer of makeup and a prominent shock of white hair.
Bogart rarely talked about this movie, and when he did he had nothing good to say about it. He had appealed to Jack Warner to let him out of the assignment, but he was not yet a big enough star to choose his projects and in the end he had to go through with it. “You can’t believe what this one was like,” he said later. “I had a part that Bela Lugosi or Boris Karloff should have played”. In fact the role had been written with the latter in mind, but by the time The Return of Dr. X went into production Karloff’s three-picture deal with Warner had already been fulfilled. Somebody had to play the role, and without any established horror stars on the lot Bogart ended up with the job. It would prove to be the only horror film of his career.
To his credit Bogart carries on gamely, but he wasn’t kidding. This isn’t his kind of picture. He comes off like a weirdo in his introductory scene, stroking a white rabbit and peering out from behind a pair of coke-bottle specs, but he can’t project the vague sense of unease that you get from Boris Karloff or Vincent Price. There’s no real menace behind the character, and as a result the whole movie seems rather slack and perfunctory.
Wayne Morris is ostensibly the lead as the dogged reporter, but he’s a little too goofy-looking to be a leading man, and his character is awfullly light-hearted for a horror film. Then again, most of the newspaper reporters we’ve encountered on Horror Incorporated have been there mostly for comic relief, or (like Wallace Ford in Night of Terror) have been cheerful blue-collar types, able to see through the bluster of the croquet-and-cucumber-sandwich crowd . By contrast, reporters in crime dramas have been much more hard-bitten types.
Dennis Morgan is the more conventional leading-man type, and he dutifully checks the movie-romance box with Rosemary Lane’s adoring nurse character. But the romantic subplot doesn’t really go anywhere; in fact, Dr. Rhodes hardly seems interested in her at all. The word “bromance” hadn’t been coined yet, but there seems to be a lot more fun to be had hanging out with the reporter at the morgue than taking some stupid girl to a dance. And let’s be honest: Rosemary Lane is sweet as apple pie. But in a noirish thriller, what you’re really hoping to meet is a femme fatale. And the sad truth is that in this film, there isn’t a bad girl to be found.