Saturday, October 11, 2003

MAD LOVE (1935)

The rare MGM horror film that can be ranked with the best of the Universal horror films of the period. An atmospheric visual treat directed by Karl Freund (who, for Universal, directed THE MUMMY and was director of cinematography for DRACULA). Peter Lorre gives one of his best performances as Dr. Gogol, a surgeon with an obsession for Frances Drake, a performer at the Theatre of Horrors (inspired by the real life Grand Guignol). Lorre's a regular, watching from his box, and when Drake announces her retirement to spend more time with her husband, pianist Colin Clive, Lorre buys a wax statue of Drake that the theatre was going to melt down, and puts it in his chamber. An early scene of Lorre watching, with growing sadistic pleasure, Drake being tortured onstage, is quite creepy. Clive, a bit of a neurotic, as he is in most of his pictures, is in a train wreck; his hands are destroyed and Lorre amputates them, attaching the hands of an executed killer (Edward Brophy, normally known for his comic cops or thugs) who was handy with knives. Clive doesn't know his hands aren't *his* anymore, but he does notice that, while he can no longer play piano, he does seem to have a new fondness for knives and begins to think he's going insane.

The real story here isn't that of the pianist with the transplanted hands, but of the obsessed doctor, who hatches a plan to hasten Clive's insanity, hoping to get Drake by default. There are two spectacular scenes in the last half: one has Clive meeting a person he thinks is the beheaded knife killer come back to life, with a strapped-on head and robot-like hands; the climax has Drake in Lorre's rooms, breaking the stature of herself and standing in for it when Lorre returns. The shadowy sets are expressionistic, as in CALIGARI, and there's a lot of play with mirrors. A scene of a cockatoo flying (more or less) directly at the camera may have inspired a similar shot in CITIZEN KANE (Gregg Toland was a cinematographer for both films). There is some blah comic relief from Ted Healy that does not intrude on the somber mood too much. Keye Luke (one of Charlie Chan's sons) is Lorre's assistant. May Beatty has a couple of good moments as Lorre's addled maid who keeps the cockatoo on her shoulder. Drake looks good but is rather bland, but it's all Lorre's show, aided by Freund and Toland. Well worth checking out.

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