Monday Movie: Mad Love, by David Bax
1935’s Mad Love has kind of a crazy plot but it has an even crazier pedigree. The final film directed by Karl Freund, the brilliant cinematographer of The Last Laugh and Metropolis fame, Mad Love is also the Hollywood debut of Peter Lorre. It features Colin Clive, fresh off his two turns as Dr. Frankenstein and, finally, Freund hired as his own directory of photography (for a short time, at least) Gregg Toland. The resulting film is so striking—even if it was critically unpopular at the time—that Pauline Kael would accuse Orson Welles of lifting not just Toland but much of the aesthetic of Citizen Kane from it whole cloth.
Clive plays a famous pianist named Stephen Orlac whose precious, talented hands are mangled in a train wreck. The brilliant Dr. Gogol (Peter Lorre) assures Orlac that he can repair them and, based on the initial results of his surgery, he appears to have done so. The hands are like new. Except they’re not so good at playing piano anymore but rather are shockingly capable of throwing knives. The scenes contrived to allow Orlac to discover his deadly new skill are worth watching for alone. It turns out that Gogol has transplanted the hands of recently executed murder and circus performer Rollo the Knife Thrower (Edward Brophy) onto the ends of Orlac’s arms. Even stranger, everything I’ve just described is essentially a subplot. The main story concerns Gogol’s obsession (which he would style love, hence the title) with Orlac’s wife, Yvonne (Frances Drake). This mystical evil hand gambit was all a part of his plan to win Yvonne’s love somehow.
As evidenced by Kael’s accusations, Mad Love is more memorable for its arch style than its narrative or character depths. But it’s also notable for its other most stylized element, Lorre’s performance. Great acting can be about things other than subtlety, nuance, verisimilitude or any other methodly concerns. For proof, look no further than Lorre, one of the greatest actors of all time.