All things considered, 1946 was a pretty good year for movies. It's a Wonderful Life, The Best Years of Our Lives, The Big Sleep, Notorious, The Beast with Five Fingers. Maybe you've heard of some of those. The last one is among the more obscure horror movies about a disembodied hand playing piano and strangling people. It stars the inimitable Peter Lorre, and belongs to a rarefied class of weird old movies that were somehow taken seriously by those involved, despite their inherent preposterousness.
Despite how bizarre and absurd it is, The Beast with Five Fingers is one of those bizarre old movies you might be inclined to include in the annals of classic horror films, despite a general lack of horror-ness as per 21st century standards. Like Universal monster classics The Mummy and Dracula, The Beast with Five Fingers is a genre hybrid, existing somewhere between thriller, horror, and drama, with prominent elements taken from horror mystery movies for good measure.
If you ever found yourself kicking around a department store looking for cheap movies on VHS in the early-to-mid '90s, you may have purchased The Beast with Five Fingers, and various other 1940s horror movies, without really knowing what you were getting yourself in for. Depending on your taste and appreciation for WTF cinema, you might even count The Beast with Five Fingers as one of the best movies of the '40s. How often do you get to see an actor as good as Peter Lorre encounter a scuttling disembodied hand, let alone wrestling with said appendage? "This guy is in The Maltese Falcon, Casablanca, and M and he's wrestling with a f*cking disembodied hand!" you might have said to yourself.
Beyond its unique merits as one of the weirdest horror movies to ever exist, you could argue The Beast with Five Fingers paved the way for David Levy's The Addams Family series (specifically Thing) and Oliver Stone's The Hand (1981). Which, yes, before you ask, is a real thing. Influenced at least in part by the Gothic motifs of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell Tale Heart," Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and Bram Stoker's Dracula, The Beast with Five Fingers is a titillatingly bizarre masterpiece carved out of a short story by WF Harvey published in 1919.
If your head is exploding with questions right now, if you're dying to learn about the time Peter Lorre was choked IRL by a co-star during a take, this is the list for you. Prepare yourself for the madness.
What, exactly, is The Beast with Fiver Fingers about, other than a disembodied hand? Glad you asked. You see, it all takes place in a resplendent Italian manor in an isolated town, where famed pianist Francis Ingram (Vincent Francen) lives with his nurse Julie Holden (Andrea King) and musicologist and amateur astrologer Hillary Cummins (Peter Lorre). Because who doesn't need an amateur astrologer around? Ingram's friend Bruce (Robert Alda) and nephew Donald (John Alvin) are also in the mix, though why they (maybe?) live in Italy remains unclear.
Ingram falls in love with his nurse and changes his will so she gets his sizable estate when he dies. He then dies falling down the stairs - whether or not it was an accident is unknown. A police officer, a lawyer, and Ingram's brother-in-law all get involved with the death and inheritance, as do all the characters mentioned above. So far, a standard mystery, right?
Things are about to get really weird. The lawyer dies, and people suspect Cummins did it, because he's taking rare astrology books from Ingram's library for secret research he's conducting (what?). Everyone in the house hears music coming from the piano, but there's no one playing it. Then, a cop discovers Ingram's left hand was removed from his corpse. Ingram's brother-in-law is almost choked to death by an unseen assailant. At this point, there's a nice scene of Ingram's disembodied hand running amok all over the house. Cummins sees it and gives it Ingram's signet ring, which calms it down for long enough for him to throw it in a closet.
Later, some characters open a safe looking for an old copy of Ingram's will, only to find the hand in there. Cummins tries to burn the hand in a fire but it crawls out and chokes him to death. At some point while all this is happening, you see the hand going through Ingram's bookshelf, hiding in a weird little hand-sized compartment in the wall, playing the piano, scuttling around on a desk, doing solo jazz hand on the carpet, and being nailed down by Cummins (it's quite Christ-like; can severed hands get stigmata?).
In a final, tacked-on scene added by the studio after the movie was complete, a detective holds court as one might in an Agatha Christie novel, explaining that Cummins lost his mind, cut Ingram's hand off, and killed everyone (and also choked himself to death? is that possible?).
The Beast with Fiver Fingers was created by a number of extremely talented people, which you might not expect from a film with such a preposterous premise. Imagine, if you will, Marvel pouring its resources into a Captain America movie in which the titular hero fights a severed hand that may or may not exist while also losing his mind.
Director Robert Florey, who had extensive experience in horror - he was tapped to direct the original Frankenstein but replaced by James Whale - brought a strong sense of Gothic atmosphere and German Expressionism to The Beast with Five Fingers. If you're inclined to travel down the insane horror movie rabbit hole, check out Florey's Murders in the Rue Morgue, starring Bela Lugosi (just a year after he played Dracula) as an insane scientist who kidnaps women and injects them with blood from a crazed ape he keeps in a cage, a movie so demented and violent it had 20 minutes cut before movies were censored by anyone. That film was adapted from a story by Edgar Allan Poe, and, like Murderers, The Beast with Five Fingers has a very strong whiff of Poe about it.
Screenwriter Curt Siodmak seems to have thought he was writing a searing psychological thriller about a man losing his mind and grip on reality. This, and the possible involvement of surrealist Louis Buñuel, gives the film a surreal, intensely internal feel you might argue is proto-Lynchian. This aspect of the script played right into Florey's interest in expressionism, which used camera and set to physically recreate a character's mental state. Yet, despite how internal it is, the film has a fair amount of (very tame by contemporary standards) physical violence that calls to mind traditional, violent horror.
And finally you have Peter Lorre, a man whose performances were typically pitched so far at the edge of sanity he always seemed to be losing his mind. His performance gives The Beast with Five Fingers the frantic, frenzied feel of the work of Roman Polanski. To top it all off, it's a monster movie, a mystery, a melodrama, and a prestige B-picture (if that's even a thing).
If you're new to the world of bizarre and bonkers B-and-C-grade horror pictures, you can be forgiven for not knowing there's a subgenre of films about severed hands, and a number of other horror (and at least one mainstream adventure) films featuring, but not built around, such lopped-off appendages.
Film historian Bartłomiej Paszylk credits The Beast with Fiver Fingers with "starting the killer hand trend." Prominent films in the subgenre include The Crawling Hand, Dr. Terror's House of Horrors, And Now the Screaming Starts, Oliver Stone's The Hand, Severed Ties, Idle Hands, and Demonoid: Messenger of Death. You'll also find severed hands in Evil Dead 2, Bride of Re-animator, and even the 1999 Mummy reboot.
Peter Lorre plays Hillary Cummins in The Beast with Five Fingers, and his character suffers from a hallucinogenic perspective that, at least before the movie was heavily edited by Warner Bros, gave the movie a sense of uncertainty and psychological dread. As it turns out, The Beast wasn't the only insane movie about severed hands to star Lorre.
In 1935, Lorre played the lead in Mad Love, about an insane surgeon obsessed with an actress. As you might expect, he decides to replace the hands of her husband, a pianist, with those of a knife thrower (which still have the urge to throw knives). Mad Love was directed by Karl Freund, who also directed the Boris Karloff-staring 1932 version of The Mummy and was the cinematographer on Robert Froley's Murders in the Rue Morgue.