The Beast with Five Fingers (1946)


(director: Robert Florey; screenwriters: Curt Siodmak/from the story by William Fryer Harvey; cinematographer: Wesley Anderson; editor:Frank Magee; music: Max Steiner; cast: Robert Alda (Conrad Ryler), Andrea King (Julie Holden), Peter Lorre (Hilary Cummins), Victor Francen (Francis Ingram), J. Carrol Naish (Commissario Ovidio Castanio), Charles Dingle (Raymond Arlington), John Alvin (Donald Arlington), David Hoffman (Duprex); Runtime: 88; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: William Jacobs; Warner Brothers; 1946)

“Wastes a captivating original premise and some fine performances with a stiff script and a cop-out ending.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Robert Florey (“Murders in the Rue Morgue”) ably directs this stylish gothic horror Warner Brothers film; the screenplay is by Curt Siodmak, who based it on the story by William Fryer Harvey. Max Steiner offers a florid score, while Wesley Anderson provides some uniquely striking photography shot at odd angles. The action is set in the small village of San Stefano, in the Italian Alps, and takes place around 1896.

It, unfortunately, wastes a captivating original premise and some fine performances with a stiff script and a cop-out ending, supposedly imposed by the studio, that makes the ghost story into a mere hallucination.

Francis Ingram (Victor Francen) is a world-famous pianist who is paralyzed from a stroke and confined to a wheelchair, and also has one hand crippled. The grumpy, wealthy, American expatriate lives in a creepy spacious mansion where he has employed for the last year the sweet nurse Julie Holden (Andrea King), whom he has grown very fond of and dependent on to handle his eccentric whims. Besides the three servants staying at the mansion, there’s Ingram’s scholarly secretary for the last twenty years, Hilary Cummins (Peter Lorre), who lives for Ingram’s library that contains the best books on astrology since the ancient library in Alexandria burned down. Hilary is an obsessed lunatic trying to unlock the keys to the future that the ancient astrologers knew. The American artist and musical composer Conrad Ryler (Robert Alda) is a frequent visitor to the mansion, who has let his career go to seed to become a witty sycophant living off handouts from Ingram, hustling him into betting on chess games, and conning tourists to buy phony antiques.

The inquisitive police chief, Commissario Ovidio Castanio (J. Carrol Naish), tells Conrad that Julie plans to leave Ingram’s employment, being that she has just applied for an exit visa. Conrad confronts her, and she tells him she’s bored silly taking care of her impossible patient. After telling Julie that he loves her, Conrad urges her to either stay or leave without telling Ingram. Otherwise, he insists the cripple will pull the pity act to get her to feel so sorry for him that she will end up staying. That evening they are invited to dinner at Ingram’s, as he needs them as witnesses to attest that he’s of sound mind because he’s changing his will. Also, asked to be witnesses are Hilary and Ingram’s lawyer Duprex (David Hoffman). Later after playing a Bach arrangement, influenced by Conrad, with his good hand and afterwards trying to strangle Hilary with the same good hand for dissing Julie and saying she’s messing around with Conrad in the garden, Ingram accidentally tumbles down the long-winding staircase and dies (though there’s the possibility he was pushed by Hilary, still seething that he was asked to leave the residence and his books).

The new will is read by Duprex, and besides those already mentioned Ingram’s closest relatives arrive, Americans by way of England, his grasping repugnant brother-in-law Raymond Arlington (Charles Dingle) and his equally unlikable son Donald Arlington (John Alvin). When Julie inherits the whole works, the Arlingtons go into a snit and threaten to contest the will. The Arlingtons spook Hilary out, saying if they inherit the estate they will not allow him to keep the books–to make matters worse they insult him and rub it in that they plan to sell all of Ingram’s assets to the highest bidder in an auction.

Hilary overhears Duprex as he conspires with the Arlingtons, telling them that he made out an older will for Ingram that has them inheriting the estate and will locate it for them. But that evening before Duprex can deliver that will, he is strangled by a disconnected hand thought to belong to the corpse of Ingram. That severed hand, that made its way out of the coffin, plays the ivories like only Ingram can, which leads to speculation that it’s a ghost that’s responsible for the murder.

At that point the film is marvelously effective as a supernatural chiller. What remains unforgettable is Lorre’s fascinatingly demented performance, the severed hand strangling with the same hand it beautifully plays the piano with, and the dismembered hand walking around the mansion, looking for its next vic. The hand is a creation of the imaginative “special effects” department. The absurd ending is creation of some hack executives over at Warner Brothers.