One of the earliest examples of body horror in any form of media – well before David Cronenberg made his name in the genre – is the 1920 novel Les Mains d’Orlac (The Hands of Orlac) by French author Maurice Renard. The story has become synonymous with the horror genre that it has been adapted for film 4 times so far, the first a German Expressionist take from 1924 by Robert Wiene and starring Conrad Veidt; the second, Mad Love, introduced American audiences to a Hungarian actor who had previously made a name for himself in Fritz Lang’s M (1931) and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), Peter Lorre. Originally released as part of the Hollywood Legends of Horror DVD set, Warner Bros. has revisited the film for a stand alone Blu-ray release as part of the Warner Archives line.
The Production: 3.5/5
Brilliant Paris surgeon Dr. Gogol (Peter Lorre) is madly obsessed with actress Yvonne Orlac (Frances Drake), who’s giving up her career in a Grand Guignol styled theater to be closer to her composer husband Stephen (Colin Clive), whose star is rising in the classical music world. However, when a train derailment causes Stephen’s hands to be crushed beyond repair, Yvonne reluctantly turns to Dr. Gogol for help; the doctor manages to replace his hands with those of a recently executed murderer who was a knife thrower before committing murder. This starts a devious plan by Dr. Orlac to win the object of his affection by trying to convince Stephen he’s losing his sanity!
For his final film as a director, Karl Freund – the master cinematographer behind Dracula (1931) and Metropolis (1927) – makes Mad Love a very stylish affair. Clearly harkening back to his German Expressionistic roots, Freund creates an atmosphere of disorienting dread that’s pervasive throughout the film’s brief running time; he also had at his disposal the talents of two up and coming talents behind the camera who would go on to greater things: cinematographer Gregg Toland and composer Dimitri Tiomkin. However, the film has two noticeable flaws: first, there’s an injection of humor that’s a bit jarring in comparison to the source material, more so if you’re not comfortable with the mixture of horror and humor. The second is that the film – released just as the Production Code went into full effect – had 15 minutes trimmed following the initial release that not only toned down some of the horror, but also removed some character and key motivations of Gogol (some of these details are covered in Steve Haberman’s commentary accompanying this release), leaving a feeling that the story’s a bit incomplete even in its brief running time. Despite that, Mad Love is still a polished work that elicits some solid performances and a reminder that Freund was more than just a great cinematographer – he could also direct a solid horror movie (see The Mummy from 1932 if you’re still not convinced); one final note: it’s interesting to point out that in Pauline Kael’s controversial book length essay Raising Kane from 1971, she made an interesting case that Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane may have been influenced by – or rather ripped off of – this movie’s visual style, noting that Toland served as cinematographer of both movies, but that’s another story altogether…
For his debut performance here in America, Peter Lorre is appropriately creepy as the madly obsessed Dr. Gogol; the legendary Charlie Chaplin even called him “the greatest living actor” after seeing the movie. Frances Drake – in a role that was originally slated for Virginia Bruce – is decent as the actress who becomes Gogol’s consuming obsession; Colin Clive – loaned out from Warner Bros. for this film – is appropriately tortured as the pianist with new killer pair of hands following a near fatal train wreck. One of the two most notable cases of offbeat casting here is Ted Healy – the vaudeville performer best known for bringing The Three Stooges to Hollywood – as a wisecracking reporter; the second is Edward Brophy – whose voice is known to Disney aficionados as Timothy Q. Mouse in Dumbo (1941) – as the knife throwing murderer Rollo, whose role could be an extension of a part he played in Tod Browning’s horror classic Freaks (1932). Rounding out the cast here are Sara Haden as Yvonne’s maid, Henry Kolker as the police prefect Rosset, Keye Luke as Dr. Gogol’s assistant and colleague Dr. Wong, May Beatty as Gogol’s drunken housekeeper, an uncredited Ian Wolfe as Stephen’s unsympathetic stepfather and an uncredited Billy Gilbert as the overly enthusiastic autograph seeker on the ill-fated train; those whose parts and scenes were left on the cutting room floor include George Davis, Billy Dooley, Harold Huber, Leo White and Isabell Jewell.
3D Rating: NA
The film is presented in its original 1:37:1 aspect ratio, taken from a new transfer created for this release. Film grain is organic, with fine details and gray scale given faithful representations; this release also restores the original MPAA “seal of approval” card before the opening credits as well as the original National Recovery Administration tags on the MGM opening logo and on the “The End” card. There’s minimal cases of scratches, dirt, tears or vertical lines present here, which means that this release is likely the best the movie will ever look on home video, easily surpassing the Hollywood Legend of Horror DVD release of the movie.
The film’s original mono soundtrack is presented on a DTS-HD Master Audio track for this release. Dialogue is strong and clear, with sound effects and Dimitri Tiomkin score also given a strong and faithful representation as well; this release also restores the “word of warning” spoken prologue that was cut prior to the film’s wide release. There’s minimal cases of distortion, crackling, popping or hissing present here, which means that this release is likely the best the movie will ever sound on home video and represents another improvement over the previous Hollywood Legends of Horror release of the movie.
Special Features: 3/5
Commentary by film historian Steve Haberman – Carried over from the 2006 DVD release, Haberman goes over the movie’s production background, the cast and crew as well as what was cut from the movie prior to the film’s release.
Theatrical Trailer (2:05)
Though it didn’t make an impact at the box office despite a great performance from Peter Lorre, Mad Love has since been reevaluated as a classic horror film from Hollywood’s Golden Age. Warner Archive has done it again, with a great HD transfer – which includes the previously unheard warning at the beginning of the movie – and carrying over the legacy special features from the Hollywood Legends of Horror box set. Very highly recommended and worth upgrading.
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