(1935) Directed by Karl Freund; Written by P.J. Wolfson and John L. Balderston; Based on the novel Les Mains D'Orlac by Maurice Renard; Starring: Peter Lorre, Frances Drake and Colin Clive; Available on DVD
Rating: **** ½
“I believe in the low-spoken villain, who’s absolutely blasé about what he does, who works on the murder like a mathematical problem…” – Peter Lorre
Depending on your point of view, dear reader, you might say this review was long overdue, or two and a half years in the making. Personally, I like to believe the former, since the latter implies I’ve taken that long to craft this blog post, instead of employing the usual slap-dash effort. I’m not entirely sure how or why it happened, but Peter Lorre, specifically his character Dr. Gogol in Mad Love, became my blog’s official mascot. Maybe it was a Jungian collective unconscious thing, but he seemed to capture the Cinematic Catharsis zeitgeist, for lack of a better word. It’s as if one character represented the perfect distillation of the conscious and subconscious power that films wield. But enough of that… Let’s examine the movie a little closer, shall we?
I was first introduced to Mad Love through an unlikely source – TNT channel’s 100% Weird, a weekly showcase of unusual genre films. The show’s introduction featured a clip from one of the most famous scenes in the film. Just those few seconds of footage suggested this wasn’t an ordinary schlock horror flick, but a work to be reckoned with.
Following the heels of his English-language debut in the original version of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, Peter Lorre (born in Hungary as László Löwenstein) signaled his entrance into Hollywood with Mad Love. Lorre was perfectly cast as the obsessive surgeon Dr. Gogol, who becomes infatuated with Yvonne Orlac (Frances Drake), a performer in Le Théatre des Horreurs (a nod to Paris’ infamous Grand Guignol Theatre). During his nightly visits to the theatre, he witnesses various gruesome re-enactments, and takes perverse pleasure in seeing Yvonne subjected to sadistic torments. Gogol keeps a lifelike wax figure of Yvonne in his home – a constant reminder of what he cannot possess. Her inaccessibility merely strengthens Gogol’s resolve to pursue her relentlessly. In his DVD commentary, film historian Steve Haberman cited a critic of the time, who observed that Lorre’s performance vacillated between “dull apathy and hysterical outbursts.” This perfectly encapsulates his ability to create his signature brand of brooding menace, aided by his distinctive sleepy voice and hypnotic eyes. Lorre was keenly fascinated with mental illness, and once studied with Freud and Adler in Austria. With Gogol, he appeared to be channeling the darker recesses of the human mind. In his book Heroes of the Horrors, writer Calvin Thomas Beck opined that Lorre probably would have pursued a career in the field of psychiatry if he had not found success in film
Employing his twisted logic, Gogol finds what he considers to be the perfect way to win the affections of Yvonne – through her husband’s misfortune. When acclaimed concert pianist Stephen Orlac’s (Colin Clive*, best known for his role of Dr. Frankenstein in the first two Universal Frankenstein films) hands become irreparably damaged in a train wreck, Yvonne reluctantly turns to Dr. Gogol for help. Gogol transplants the hands of recently executed knife-thrower Rollo (Edward Brophy) to Orlac’s body. Shortly after the operation, however, Orlac’s new hands seem to take on a life of their own, displaying the homicidal tendencies of their previous owner. In one of the film’s most chilling scenes, Gogol tries to take Orlac out of the picture by convincing him that he has gone insane. He poses as the formerly dead Rollo, brought back to life by medical science, donning metal gauntlets, dark goggles and an elaborate neck brace. His ghastly visage and maniacal laugh contribute to one of horror cinema’s most unforgettable moments.
* Colin Clive, suffering from years of chronic alcoholism and generally poor health, died two years after Mad Love was filmed. In a sad, but morbidly fitting twist, Lorre served as one of the pallbearers at Clive’s funeral.
Another compelling aspect of Mad Love, aside from Lorre’s captivating performance, is the dazzling cinematography by Chester A. Lyons and Gregg Toland. It was said that Freund, with his years of camerawork experience, had trouble staying focused on his director’s duties, which makes it difficult to ascertain how much he contributed to the finished product. Mad Love certainly feels like one of the German silents, with its emphasis on expressionism and the distortion of reality. The scene in which Gogol argues with his reflection in a mirror would be copied many times over the years, notably by Sam Raimi (with Ash in Evil Dead 2 and Norman Osborn in Spider-Man confronting their respective doppelgängers) and Peter Jackson (Gollum/Smeagol’s schism, reflected in a pool of water, in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers).
While Mad Love received generally favorable reviews, it was not appreciated by the film-going public, bombing at the box office, and losing money for MGM. Perhaps Lorre’s portrait of mental illness, culled from his personal insights, was too much for audiences to take. The film’s subsequent revival, decades later, would ultimately vindicate Mad Love’s place in film history as a significant entry in the horror genre, and a successful melding of artistic ambition with mainstream filmmaking. Lorre’s characterization of unrequited lust and sadistic desire remains the gold standard, which other, mostly lesser, performances are compared against.