(1981) Written and directed by Oliver Stone; Based on the novel The Lizard’s Tail by Marc Brandel; Starring: Michael Caine, Andrea Marcovicci, Annie McEnroe, Bruce McGill; Available on DVD
“The film has a weird schizophrenia to it because… part of it is psychological inside of Michael Caine, and part of it is outside Michael Caine, as if there is an objective manifestation of his rage – call it ‘The Hand’” – Oliver Stone (from DVD commentary)
I’m excited to contribute to The Marvelous Michael CaineBlogathon, celebrating the work of one of cinema’s hardest-working and most esteemed actors on the occasion of his 85th birthday. Many thanks to blogathon host Gill Jacob from RealWeegieMidget Reviews for the invite, and for suggesting the film for today’s review, director/writer Oliver Stone’s psychological thriller, The Hand. Two things immediately sprung to mind: a memorable segment from the 1965 Amicus horror film Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, in which Michael Gough’s hand takes revenge, and this little comic gem from the brilliant show SCTV…
But let’s get back to the movie at hand (Sorry!)… When someone like Mr. Caine has worked so long in show business, it’s a foregone conclusion that not everything is going to be Oscar material, and that’s okay. One thing we can count on is that Michael Caine, ever the consummate professional, will always give his best performance, whether he’s battling killer bees, or in this case, grappling with the loss of an errant hand.
Jonathan Lansdale is a successful cartoonist, renowned for creating “Mandro,” a Conan the Barbarian-like comic strip.* One not-so-successful aspect of his life, however, is his crumbling marriage. In an early scene, he bickers with his wife Anne (Andrea Marcovicci) after she plans to rent an apartment in New York City, and their argument escalates in the car. The ensuing sequence illustrates, in spectacularly bloody fashion, why it’s not such a bright idea to stick your hand out the window of a moving car. She narrowly averts a head-on collision, but brushes a work truck, resulting in the loss of his hand, with said appendage flying away into the countryside. Jonathan begins the slow process of recovery, gradually becoming resigned to the fact that things will never be the same again. He’s fitted with a prosthetic hand, stronger than his original appendage, but without the same level of dexterity. Thus, begins his slow spiral into bitterness, isolation and insanity, as he contends with the loss of his livelihood. As his frustration and paranoia escalate, the people who cross him end up dead.** But is it Jonathan, or his lost hand?
* Fun Fact: It’s no mere coincidence that Mandro resembles Conan the Barbarian. The cartoonist who did the actual artwork for the movie is none other than Barry Windsor-Smith, who illustrated Marvel Comics’ Conan the Barbarian.
* Bonus Fun fact: Watch for a director cameo as a homeless person who becomes Lansdale’s first victim.
Caine does a fine job, as always, despite some questionable material. He captures his character’s sense of loss* and anguish as everything that belonged to him is stripped away. We also feel his exasperation as he attempts and fails to return to his art, and is relegated to teaching the art of cartooning to a class of apathetic college students. Ultimately, the problem with Jonathan is he’s a selfish, unyielding creep. He’s not likeable to begin with, so we can understand why his wife is searching for other outlets. He has an affair with Stella (Annie McEnroe), a young co-ed, but can’t tolerate learning that Anne is doing the same thing with her yoga instructor.
* According to Stone, the role was difficult on Caine, who felt emotionally drained by his character’s mental disarray.
The Hand aims for psychological suspense along the lines of Hitchcock or early Polanski (Stone said he was trying to emulate Repulsion) but misses the mark. Most of the film’s attempts at ambiguity seem too obvious and ham-handed (Egads, another pun). There are far too many shots of a fake-looking crawling hand. In some shots, which required more dexterity from the title appendage, Stone resorted to a “ninja shot,” with an actor’s real hand protruding from a black sleeve to create the illusion that it was disembodied. To his credit, Stone owns up to the film’s shortcomings in his DVD commentary. As a young director (this was his second film), Stone tried to balance the demands of the studio to present a shock-laden horror flick versus a subtle psychological thriller (a scene where a giant hand smashes through a plate glass window stretches credulity to the breaking point). He also acknowledges problems with some “less than inspired makeup” and poor lighting of scenes. While many of the effects are unconvincing, there are a couple of notable exceptions: while Jonathan is in the shower, one of the faucet knobs turns into a hand, and in a restaurant scene, a shellfish appears to come alive on a plate.
The Hand works best when it’s trying to get inside Jonathan’s fractured mind. The story is full of Freudian themes, including castration anxiety, and a battle between the id and ego, as exemplified by a climactic scene where Jonathan grapples with himself. Critics weren’t kind to The Hand upon its release. While it doesn’t quite deserve its reputation as an abject failure, it’s difficult to overlook its many faults. It’s a curiosity that doesn’t quite work, but you’ve got to hand it to Stone and Caine for the valiant attempt (Once again, I apologize for the puns. I’ll go now).