This 1960 UK-France co-production was the third adaptation of French writer Maurice Renard’s novel of the same name. The first, THE HANDS OF ORLAC (Orlacs Hande), was made in Weimar Germany and released in 1924. The second, also known as MAD LOVE and starring Peter Lorre, was made in Hollywood and released in 1935.
These dates and details are significant insofar as they thus correspond with three key points in the history of the horror film: The 1920s pre-genre period of German Expressionism and Hollywood Gothic melodrama; the 1930s and the emergence of horror as a genre in Hollywood, with considerable input from German and British personnel; and the late 1950s reinvention of horror associated with Britain’s Hammer Films.
The 1960 HANDS OF ORLAC clearly shows a Hammer influence in its cast beyond first-billed Mel Ferrer, who plays Orlac. Christopher Lee is predictably the villain of the piece, while the supporting cast includes a plethora of British horror film talent including Donald Wolfit (BLOOD OF THE VAMPIRE, 1958), Donald Pleasance (THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS, 1959), Felix Aylmer (THE MUMMYy, 1959), Janina Faye (HORROR OF DRACULA, 1958) and David Peel (THE BRIDES OF DRACULA. 1960).
The Hammer influence does not, however, extend to the film’s actual approach. It’s not so much that it is a black-and-white film – PSYCHO and EYES WITHOUT A FACE (both 1960) managed to be modern in monochrome, after all – as that veteran director and co-writer Edmond Gréville, seem more comfortable operating in a 1930s than a 1950s idiom.
The story for those unfamiliar with it: After his hands are horribly maimed in accident, concert pianist Stephen Orlac comes to believe that he has been given the hands of a murderer – more specifically a strangler, as foregrounded in the alternative HANDS OF THE STRANGLER title – via a transplant.
This idea is actually something that can also be found, in an inverted form, in THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957) insofar as Peter Cushing’s Frankenstein seeks out a pianist’s hands to replace those of the hanged criminal whose body serves as the main basis for his creation. The crucial difference is that Hammer’s film didn’t exactly shy away from showing severed body parts and surgery. Here, by contrast, all this is skipped over. One minute Orlac has his accident; the next he’s waking up with his hands wrapped in bandages.
There is also exactly one murder scene in the entirety of THE HANDS OF ORLAC, a few minutes before the end. It leaves matters up to the imagination, a spreading pool of blood the indication that a magic trick involving sticking swords into a cabinet has gone wrong.
Again the more modern, explicit approach is lacking: There’s no shift from black-and-white to colour to emphasise the blood, as with JACK THE RIPPER (1959), while the position of the scene within the narrative means that there’s no exploitation of it (come and see a fatal ‘accident’), as with CIRCUS OF HORRORS (1959).
Much the same can be said of THE HANDS OF ORLAC’s attitude towards ‘sex’: Most notably, whereas Dany Carrell provided a brief flash of breast in MILL OF THE STONE WOMEN (1960), she doesn’t oblige us here.
Despite the datedness of the filmmakers’ approach, there are some moments when THE HANDS OF ORLAC is inadvertently modern almost despite itself, such as the frequent use of mirror-based compositions and the strangler’s fetishistic gloves, both of which seem to foreshadow 1970s gialli.
One place where the filmmakers make a more conscious effort to be contemporary is in their choice of a jazz-based score. While this makes for a nice contrast with the diegetic classical pieces played by Orlac, it doesn’t really help in terms of creating the right kind of atmosphere. Nor is it distinctive enough to be memorable, in the manner of Maurice Jarre’s deliberately idiosyncratic scoring for EYES WITHOUT A FACE.
It’s the perfect summation of THE HANDS OF ORLAC’s position: There were many classic horror films released in 1960, but it isn’t one of them.
THE HANDS OF ORLAC (1960). Directed by Edmon T. Greville. Adaptation by John Baines and Edmond T. Greville, dialogue by Greville; based on the novel by Marice rand. Cast: Mel Ferrer, Christopher Lee, Dany Carrel, Lucile Saint-Simon, Felix Aylmer, Peter Reynolds, Basil Sydney, Campbell Singer, Donald Wolfit, Donald Pleasence.