I saw this film this evening with ms_siobhan
at the Cottage Road cinema. It was actually being shown as part of the Headingley Literary Festival (oh yes - we have one!), on the grounds that it is based on this short story
(thanks to ms_siobhan
for the link!) written by an author who grew up here: William Fryer Harvey
The evening began with a short talk by a local lady who is researching Harvey and his family. She told us all about the house where he grew up, and his Quaker up-bringing, during which he was never punished, but if he cried he had to collect his tears in a jar so that the quantity could be measured. Apparently, he also read prodigious quantities of Edgar Allan Poe and prayed every night that he would never see a ghost - which probably explains quite a lot about his later output as an author.
The film seems to be pretty different in both tone and detail from the story (though I've only skimmed the latter briefly), but it is a great piece of cinema in its own right. The print we saw wasn't brilliant quality, but it clearly had the slick, stylish aesthetic that you expect from a 1940s black and white Hollywood movie. There were some really nicely-composed shots, and good use had been made of the light and shade - lots of flickering lights, faces distorted by shadows, people coming out of the darkness and that sort of thing. The special effects were extremely
impressive for the time, too. Given that much of the story revolves around a severed hand which is scuttling about the place murdering people, it could all have gone rather horribly wrong if it hadn't looked convincing. But it really did - much more so than its 1965 equivalent in Dr. Terror's House of Horrors
The suspense was built up really well, so that some parts were genuinely scary even to a cynical modern viewer. And yet there was time for little touches of detail to lighten the mood - like the cigar-smoking local Commissario handing his cigar to a waiting police-man as he enters a morgue in the course of his investigations, and calmly and smoothly collecting it back again afterwards. Like all the best ghost stories, we remain unsure for a long time about whether the severed hand is really alive or not, and whether Peter Lorre's character is an innocent victim or a terrifying psychopath. (I won't spoil it for you by giving away the answer.) And he really adds to that uncertainty by serving up a particularly enjoyable mixture of fantastic creepiness tempered by occasional moments of pathos and outbursts of petulant temper.
There was only one female role with more than a few lines - Andrea King as Julie Holden, the former nurse-maid of the disabled concert-pianist whose severed hand is at the centre of the mystery. But she was far from being a mere passive foil for the male characters' interests and desires, actually. At one point, left alone in the house with Peter Lorre, she first challenged him about his exact role in all the murders which had been going on, and then managed to fight him off all by herself when he responded by attacking her. Shortly afterwards, finding herself locked in a room with him approaching her with a knife, she manages to persuade him that he should really be off somewhere else looking for the severed hand - thus saving herself for a second time. And at the end of the film, she makes an entirely independent decision about what she wants to do with the rest of her life, and goes off and does it, with the male lead trailing vaguely along behind her. So I was pretty impressed by her - not to mention the fact that (as ms_siobhan
pointed out as we left), she really did wear some very nice frocks.Click here if you would like view this entry in light text on a dark background.