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I saw this film this evening with ms_siobhan and planet_andy 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, anyway.

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.

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( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 22nd, 2011 07:13 am (UTC)
I remember watching it in my room as a teenager, and towards the end my father tapped on the door and then insinuated his hand round the doorframe, and I nearly jumped out of my skin.
Mar. 22nd, 2011 08:59 am (UTC)
Heh, that sounds like such a Dad-ish thing to do! Mine has done much the same on many an occasion. :-)
Mar. 22nd, 2011 10:07 am (UTC)
I'm just still full of the excitement that I saw my beloved Peter Lorre on a big screen!!!!, but you're quite right about the feistyness of the leading lady - she didn't faint or have to be rescued, she sorted it all out in a scared but I'm not standing for this kind of nonsense manner and she did have the most gorgeous dresses.

I loved it when she annoyed the nephew and father by saying she would accept the bequest after all and the effects were amazing - especially when the hand was 'dying' in the fire - I almost felt sorry for it.

But oh my word how fabulous was Peter Lorre? :-)
Mar. 22nd, 2011 10:14 am (UTC)
Yes, I'd forgotten about announcing that she would accept the bequest. In fact, now that you come to mention it, she did that right after the leading man had stated on her behalf (and without bothering to consult her) that she would not want to accept it. So actually that was well feminist! She might as well have stood up and said "Well, thank-you, man, for telling me and everyone else in the room what I think, but actually I think the exact opposite and am now going to act on it. Hah!"
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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