“Your flesh will creep… at the hand that crawls!” promises the poster for the 1948 The Beast with Five Fingers, a Warner Bros. production that, modest by studio standards, is one of the classier horror films of its day. Once a thriving genre, horror films had largely slipped into the B-movie units of the Hollywood majors by the 1940s, with the Poverty Row studios picking up the slack. This production, helmed by Robert Florey and featuring Robert Alda, Peter Lorre, and J. Carrol Naish, sounds on the surface like a twist on The Hands of Orlac, a chestnut of a thriller about the hands of a strangler grafted onto the body of a musician that have a murderous life of their own. And while The Beast with Five Fingers does indeed feature a famed musician and a killer hand crawling through the picture, it is also an old dark house thriller set in a turn-of-the-century Italian castle where friends and relatives gather for the reading of a will and start turning up dead.
That all comes later. The film opens with Robert Alda as an American in Italy fleecing tourists with ersatz jewelry and a line of malarkey sold with a devilish grin. That’s just a sideline for Conrad Ryler, a former musician who is now part of the retinue that serves Francis Ingram (Victor Francen), a piano maestro paralyzed by a stroke but for one arm, with which he uses to pound out Brahms on the grand piano that dominates the front room. Ingram’s nurse Julie (Andrea King) and his secretary Hilary (Peter Lorre), an obsessive who is usually squirrelled away in the library studying ancient astrology and magic, fill out Ingram’s staff, and it’s a rather strained sense of community.
It’s been a few months since I’ve surveyed the MOD market – that’s the manufacture-on-demand line that Warner, Fox, and Sony currently present as a way to release films that the sales market no longer supports – and there have been a lot of releases in that time. Not all are ‘classic” in the essential sense, mind you, but why should that be? The deluge of New Releases in any given month is filled with titles you’d never heard of before and will never hear of again. What’s so much fun in the stream of MOD releases is the ongoing conversation with old Hollywood movies and vintage TV shows, and the continued connection with favorite stars through their less familiar films. There are always films and filmmakers and stars waiting to be discovered.
Cry of the City (20th Century Fox Cinema Archives) is one that should be known better. It’s one of Robert Siodmak’s darkest film noirs, a gangster drama seeped in shadows, corruption, and psychosis, with Victor Mature as an Italian-American police detective who takes the pursuit of small-time gangster Richard Conte personally. Siodmak shoots much of it on location in New York but still manages to get those studio shadows and rain-slicked streets into shot after shot, creating a nocturnal underworld within the urban jungle of the city.
Conte gets the showboating role of the glib, smart-talking hood whose grinning charm and sardonic wit never flag, not even in custody, until that smarmy confidence gives way to panic and predatory self-interest under pressure. Mature’s stoic stillness gives a sense of gravity to a dour and humorless role: the martyr fighting the good fight in a neighborhood that has turned its back on him. Shelley Winters has as small but splashy role as another of her brassy dames, loyal and not too bright, and Hope Emerson is even more memorable as a hatchet-faced masseuse ready to choke the life out of Conte. This is the classic noir world of corruption and betrayal and desperation. It’s a good-looking disc, too, mastered from a good print with minor scuffing, with strong contrasts (and this is a film of dark, dark shadows) and a sharp image.
Moss Rose (20th Century Fox Cinema Archives) is in the British Gothic mystery tradition of Rebecca, Jane Eyre and Gaslight, set in turn-of-the-century Britain and starring Victor Mature as a prodigal son returned from Canada to his now-widowed mother (Ethel Barrymore) and their country manor. He’s the prime suspect in the murder of a London showgirl and Peggy Cummins blackmails him into passing her off as a fellow moneyed aristocrat. British-born ingénue Cummins, curiously enough, gets top billing over Mature (who was by far the bigger star in 1947) and Vincent Price is the wily detective who knows how to play upon the arrogance of the upper class as he builds his case against Mature. Gregory Ratoff directs with an understated sense of shadowy threat—he does love those hard shadows and partially obscured faces and stormy nights—and makes great use of the Victorian-era backlot street scenes and set. It’s a solid B&W transfer.
The 1948 The Beast with Five Fingers (Warner Archive) sounds like a twist on The Hands of Orlac—it does, after all, have a famed musician and a killer hand—but is actually more of an old dark house thriller set in a turn-of-the-century Italian castle where friends and relatives have been gathered for the reading of a will. They, of course, start turning up dead. Strangled, in fact, ostensibly by the disembodied hand of a crippled piano virtuoso. Robert Alda enters as an American con man and leaves a hero and J. Carroll Naish puts on his meatball Italian accent to play the village Commissario, but Peter Lorre makes the biggest impression as the personal secretary of the dead man, a scholar obsessed with the secrets of ancient magic. Robert Florey does just fine with the atmosphere and even better with the superb optical effects. While you can sometimes see the seams in this well-mastered edition, transferred from a preserved print, Florey makes the imagery of the disembodied hand skittering around like a spider so wonderfully weird that you hardly care. There’s a marvelous madness to it at its best and, true to the time, a little twist of humor in the epilogue, complete with ethnic flourish.
Spencer Tracy gets top billing in Frank Borzage’s 1932 Young America (20th Century Fox Cinema Archives) but the film is really about an orphan named Art (Tommy Conlon) who is called “the worst kid in town” but is really a good boy with bad judgment, loyal to his friends and uncompromising with bullies. Art is a hard-luck saint among kids, ready to sacrifice all to steal medicine for a dying friend or take on gangsters in the middle of a high-speed car chase. Tracy is a drug store owner with a streetwise attitude and a high society lifestyle. It’s amazing how many of the most widely parodied clichés of Hollywood melodrama are crammed into this one film (adapted from a stage play), and how enjoyable it is nonetheless thanks to Tracy’s lively personality and up-from-the-streets manner and to Borzage’s verging-on-sentimental-overkill affection for his working class characters. Seriously, at the risk of a spoiler, a dying child moans about flying through the air before croaking out “It’s getting dark…” Ralph Bellamy co-stars as a compassionate judge.