Mad Love (aka The Hands of Orlac) (1935): Freund’s Horror Film, Starring Peter Lorre

Mad Love, an adaptation of Maurice Renard’s story The Hands of Orlac, was the last feature directed by German-émigré Karl Freund.

Mad Love was preceded by the 1924 Austrian silent film The Hands of Orlac, directed by Robert Wiene and starring Conrad Veidt (who later became Hollywood’s most famous villain). 

Famed German actor Peter Lorre (M), in his American screen debut, plays Dr. Gogol, a man obsessed with the young and beautiful actress Yvonne Orlac (Frances Drake).

When the hands of  Stephen Orlac (Colin Clive) are destroyed in a train accident, Yvonne brings him to Gogol, who promises to repair them.  Stephen then finds out to his horror that his new hands have made him into an expert knife thrower.

Detailed Synopsis (Narrative Structure)

In the first scene, actress Yvonne Orlac (Frances Drake) rests after her final performance at the ‘Théâtre des Horreurs’ (styled after the Grand Guignol) in Paris. As she listens to her husband Stephen Orlac (Colin Clive) play the piano on the radio, she is greeted by Dr. Gogol (Peter Lorre), who has seen every show of her. Unaware of her marriage, he is aghast to learn that she is moving to England with her husband.

Gogol leaves the theater heartbroken, buys the wax figure of Yvonne’s character, names it Galatea (from the Greek myth), and arranges that it be delivered to his home.

Stephen Orlac is on a train journey from Fontainebleau to Paris, where he sees murderer Rollo the Knife thrower (Edward Brophy), who is on the way to execution by guillotine. Orlac’s train crashes later that night, and Yvonne finds her husband with mutilated hands. She takes Stephen to Gogol to reconstruct his hands. Gogol uses Rollo’s hands for the transplant, which is a success.

The Orlac couple are forced to sell many possessions to pay for the surgery, while Stephen finds he is unable to play the piano with his new hands. When a creditor comes to claim the Orlacs’ piano, Stephen throws a fountain pen that barely misses his head.

Stephen seeks help from his stepfather, Henry Orlac (Ian Wolfe), but the latter denies his request, upset that Stephen did not follow in his line of business as a jeweler. A knife thrown in anger by Stephen misses Henry, but breaks the shop front’s window.

Stephen goes to Gogol’s home and demands to know why his hands throw knives. Gogol suggests that Stephen’s problem comes from childhood trauma, but later confirms to his assistant Dr. Wong (Keye Luke) that Stephen’s hands had belong to Rollo’s.

Gogol suggests to Yvonne that she get away from Stephen, as she may be in danger. She angrily rejects Gogol, whose obsession grows.

Henry Orlac is murdered, and Stephen receives a note promising to reveal the truth about his hands if he goes to a specific address. There, a man with metallic hands and dark glasses claims to be Rollo, brought back to life by Gogol. Rollo explains that Stephen’s hands were his, and that Stephen used them to murder Henry. He also claims that Gogol transplanted Rollo’s head on to a new body, flashing a leather-and-metal neck brace as “proof!”

Stephen explains that his hands are those of Rollo, and that he must turn himself in to the police. A panic-stricken Yvonne goes to Gogol’s home, and finds him completely mad. Gogol assumes that his statue has come to life, embraces her, and begins to strangle her.

Reagan, Stephen and the police arrive, but are only able to open the window.

In the last scene, Stephen produces a knife and throws it at Gogol, then finds his way in.  Gogol falls down to his death, as Stephen and Yvonne embrace.

Cinematographer Gregg Toland, better known for his work on Citizen Kane, was involved in this production, co-credited with Chester Lyons.

Dimitri Tiomkin composed the impressive score.

Despite modest budget of $400,000, the film, which was released in July of 1935, was a box-office disappointment.

It was remade in 1960 as a French-British co-production, The Hands of Orlac, directed by Edmond T. Gréville, and starring Mel Ferrer as Stephen Orlac and Christopher Lee as a new magician character.

Running time: 68 Minutes