Sunday, October 21, 2012

Classic Films in Focus: MAD LOVE (1935)

Also known as The Hands of Orlac, Mad Love (1935) offers an unusually literate and even lyrical take on the mad doctor motif, a staple of the classic horror genre. This MGM production from director Karl Freund features well-known horror stars like Peter Lorre and Colin Clive in the leading roles, and it retains its creepy charms thanks to their performances and a number of startling flourishes that modern viewers will still find unsettling more than 75 years after the film's original release. Mad Love is an especially good place to enjoy the peculiar talents of genre icon Peter Lorre, here cast as a strangely sympathetic monster whose worst actions stem from passionate but unrequited love.

Lorre plays the brilliant but unhinged surgeon Dr. Gogol, who spends his days curing lame children and his evenings obsessing over the beautiful actress, Yvonne (Frances Drake). When Yvonne's pianist husband, Stephen Orlac (Colin Clive), loses his hands in a train wreck, Gogol secretly replaces them with the hands of Rollo (Edward Brophy), a knife-throwing murderer recently sent to the guillotine. Stephen soon becomes disturbed by his hands' predilection for hurling sharp objects, while Gogol hatches a plan to drive Stephen mad in order to claim Yvonne for himself.

In addition to his bald head and unnerving expression, Dr. Gogol possesses a curiously poetic soul. He seizes upon a wax figure of Yvonne as his personal Galatea, hoping that his love for the original will make him another Pygmalion. Later, having decided with Oscar Wilde that "each man kills the thing he loves," Gogol tries to strangle Yvonne with her own hair while reciting "Porphyria's Lover," the Robert Browning poem about a similarly homicidal lover. The literary connections underline Gogol's dual identity as a man who might give life or take it away. We see these opposing sides of him in various scenes throughout the film, as he operates on crippled children but also compulsively attends executions. Because he has the capacity to do good and appreciate beauty, Gogol demands our sympathy even as we recoil from his madness. He evokes the same conflicted response in Yvonne, a dangerous reaction given its results.

Colin Clive might seem an odd choice for the romantic lead, for he is not at all handsome, but there's great poetic justice in having the former Dr. Frankenstein fitted with a dead man's hands. The dead man, Rollo, is himself a character from Tod Browning's 1932 film, Freaks, with Edward Brophy reprising the role. Frances Drake makes a lovely heroine, especially in her costume from the theater of horrors where she performs, although some of her transitions with the wax figure can be jarring.

Don't miss the scene in which Gogol impersonates a resurrected Rollo, definitely one of Lorre's scariest and most hysterical performance highlights. Karl Freund is best remembered today as the director of The Mummy (1932). For more of Peter Lorre's villains, see M (1931), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), and The Maltese Falcon (1941). Colin Clive plays Dr. Frankenstein in both the 1931 film and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), but you'll also find him in Christopher Strong (1933) and Jane Eyre (1934).