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 bruises 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.
Soon 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: How you feel about The Beast With 5 Fingers seems to depend quite a lot on your circumstances when you first saw it. I had never seen the film as a kid, so it never did much for me, and I’ve always regarded movies with explained-away endings to be a cheat (the biggest let-down by far, was the hapless Curucu, Beast of the Amazon, which I did see as a kid, and we’ve been lucky enough to avoid so far). But I keep encountering people who saw The Beast With 5 Fingers when they were small, and the scary crawling-hand parts were indelible for those who encountered them early enough.
That got me curious about what audiences in 1946 thought of it; and so I looked up Bosley Crowther’s review, published on December 26, 1946. Crowther, as we know, was rather peevish and unforgiving of horror as a genre; but he doesn’t dismiss this one out of hand (ba-dum tsh!), so maybe the explained-away ending softened his opinion somewhat:
The meticulous Warner Brothers, apparently careful not to miss any of the standard ingredients, have endowed “The Beast With Five Fingers” with psychological, whodunit, romantic and comedy twists. But this Christmas film package, which was opened at the Victoria yesterday, hardly is a thing of joy. For, taking its title literally, the producers, obviously respecting the tradition of “The Invisible Man,” herein have a ghoulish hand scaring the daylights out of the residents of a villa in northern Italy. And, if audiences are reasonably tolerant, chances are this thriller will scare them too.
Chances are also, that audiences will notice that this thriller takes its time in beginning to thrill. But as the foreword points out this “happened or seemed to happen in San Stefano fifty years ago” when, presumably, things happened in a more leisurely fashion. What occurs specifically is that a partially paralyzed concert pianist, master of the villa, dies accidentally after willing his estate to his nurse. What happens then to that beautiful lady, the pianist’s secretary, composer-friend and relatives shouldn’t even happen to a bad pianist. That artist’s hand, it appears, refuses to stay dead. It pops out of, desk drawers, bookshelves and a hidden safe, crawls about like a fiddler crab, chokes people and plays concertos. One scene, especially, in which Peter Lorre captures the peripatetic member, after a chase around the library, and nails it to the desk, is guaranteed to raise a few goose pimples.
Crowther seems to pull his punches with this film, apparently seeing it as a harmless trifle, and maybe that’s because the movie refuses to take itself seriously. Or perhaps he found himself in a good mood after having given a rave review to another film with fantasy elements that day (Stairway To Heaven, with David Niven and Kim Hunter). Either way, he goes easier on a crawling-hand movie than one would expect — so maybe if we’re wondering who this movie is aimed at, we should conclude people like Crowther were the target audience: the somewhat stodgy sorts who need to have their scares carefully stage-managed.
The Human Monster
Synopsis: At Scotland Yard, a group of Detectives Inspector are being chewed out by their superior. Five bodies have been pulled from the muddy Thames in recent months, and while they are clearly meant to look like suicides, no one doubts they are murders. The Yard is no closer to an arrest than it was at the beginning, and the press is having a field day playing up the ineptitude of the police. Detective Inspector Larry Holt (Hugh Williams) is told to redouble his efforts to solve the crimes – or else. He is instructed to take charge of a prisoner who being returned to London from the United States, a career criminal named Fred Grogan (Alexander Field). Grogan is being accompanied by a Chicago police detective named O’Reilly (Edmon Ryan). Holt’s captain tells him that the Americans want O’Reilly to shadow a British detective in order to learn the methods of the Yard. “I’ll have him shadow you,” the captain tells Holt contemptuously. “That way he won’t learn anything.”
Meanwhile, insurance agent and London philanthropist Dr. Feodor Orloff (Bela Lugosi) makes a loan to Henry Stuart (Gerald Pring), a formerly wealthy man who has had a run of bad luck. Orloff suggests that Stuart sign over his life insurance policy to him as collateral, and Stuart agrees. Orloff talks about his charity work at a house for the blind, and he tells Stuart to visit the house the following evening. As he talks to Stuart, he types out a short note on a Braille typewriter, wraps the note around a coin, and throws it out onto the street, where a blind street violinist picks it up and carries it away.
Later , Holt meets O’Reilly and his prisoner at the railway station, and they head back to Scotland Yard. Once Grogan is taken away to a holding cell, O’Reilly pulls out a blackjack and recommends the Chicago way of getting information from a suspect: a good old-fashioned beat down. But Holt has other plans. A drunk is put in to the cell with Grogan, and Grogan takes a great interest in the newspaper the drunk has in his coat pocket. Later we learn that the drunk was an undercover policeman placed by Holt. Grogan found a classified ad in the newspaper that had been meant for him alone — an ad written in a simple code that directed him to Orloff.
The next evening, Stuart turns up at the home for the blind. As he enters, a furtive resident pushes a Braille note into his hand. Confused, Stuart puts the note into his pocket. He is greeted by Orloff, who seems shocked when Stuart mentions he has a daughter — Orloff thought he had no living relations. Stuart’s tour ends abruptly when Orloff leads him to a room where Jake, a Rondo Hatton-esque grotesque, is waiting for him.
Before long Stuart’s body is fished out of the river. On a hunch Holt has the water in the man’s lungs tested; it turns out that Stuart was drowned in tap water, not the muddy water of the river. And the Braille note in Stuart’s pocket reads simply “MURDER”. Based on this, Holt begins to suspect that Dr. Orloff and the home for the blind are involved, somehow, with the crimes….
Comments: Edgar Wallace wrote mysteries with such a uniquely daffy worldview that it’s easy to spot film adaptations of his works, even if you have never read them. This one, based on the novel The Dark Eyes of London is classic Wallace, featuring screwball characters, bizarre coincidences, inscrutable motivations, and overly-complicated MO’s. But it is also great fun, which is why Wallace’s books always sold well despite the endless carping of the literary critics.
The movie was released stateside by Monogram, but I doubt if anyone was fooled into thinking that misbegotten studio had anything to do with the production. Monogram simply served as the U.S. distributor, and was presumably responsible for the witless American title The Human Monster. They probably thought the new title would made it more marketable. Knowing Monogram, the opposite was probably true. In any case, the studio would borrow a good deal of the plot a few years later for The Bowery at Midnight (1942), which also starred Lugosi as a respected philanthropist who is running an underworld racket on the side.
This is a classic Bela Lugosi bad guy role, and he seems to be having a great time as the sinister Dr. Orloff. Edmon Ryan’s O’Reilly, the Chicago detective assigned to shadow Lt. Holt, is funny and engaging; this movie is pretty grim most of the time, and O’Reilly’s comic relief is deftly executed, and added at just the right moments.
In the past I’ve praised Greta Gynt’s performance, and she really sparkles throughout this movie – she has a look and manner that made me wish that he had a longer film career. If there’s a weak link among the leads I’d have to point to Hugh Williams at Lt. Holt. He isn’t bad in the police procedural stuff (which takes up much of the middle third of the film) but as an action man / love interest he’s quite dull and tiresome; we keep hoping that O’Reilly will come back and liven things up.