Monday, March 27, 2017

Reeling Backward: "The Hand" (1960)

I encountered 1960's "The Hand" while looking to find a copy of the 1981 film of the same name starring Michael Caine.

The second feature film directed by Oliver Stone, 1981's "The Hand" has a trashy reputation as a piece of schlock about an egotistic cartoonist who loses his hand in an accident, only to the see the dismembered appendage start killing his enemies before turning its ire on him. It has one of those "It was all happening in his mind.... OR WAS IT?!?" type of endings.

It's a rather silly goose of a movie, but I remember it fondly from my childhood and wanted to revisit it again to see how it holds up. When I saw there was a 1960 British film with the same title, with posters of a looming disembodied hand, I knew I wanted to see it, thinking it must be related.

O.M.G. What an incredibly horrid piece of movie trash. Turns out the 1960 movie, directed by schlockmeister Henry Cass from a script by Ray Cooney and Tony Hilton, was not the fountainhead for Oliver Stone's film. "The Hands of Orlac," a silent film that was remade a couple of times -- and was featured in this spot awhile back -- clearly seemed to inspire Stone.

The Brit "Hand" was marketed as a horror film but contains about five seconds of anything that could remotely be dubbed scary (or even the attempt). Just 64 minutes long, it's actually an interminable crime procedural, with lots of middle-aged English gentlemen who look and sound alike trying to out-diffident one another.

Coupled with a terrible video transfer, complete with jumpy editing, "The Hand" isn't useful for anything other than prime candidacy for a "Mysterious Science Theater 3000" spoofing.

It starts out with an arresting premise. Three British soldiers are captured by the Japanese during the Burma campaign (which the opening title card hilariously attributes to taking place in "1946"). A snide Japanese officer (Walter Randall) threatens them to turn over the location and strength of their unit. Two NCOs refuse to do so, and have their hands chopped off by the enemy's katana sword.

The third one, a cowardly officer, knuckles under and saves his hand. Years later, he returns to London and starts cutting off people's hands... I think? Honestly, I'm not really sure. "The Hand" may set some kind of new standard for the impenetrability of its plot. At the end I was not entirely sure who was who, who did what, or why, and if they'd done this before or it was a one-off.

An old drunk named Charlie Taplow turns up with his hand amputated and 500 pounds stuffed into his pocket. He tells the police he vaguely remembers being taken to a hospital where the surgery was performed. The police eventually track down a young surgeon who's carrying on an affair with one of the nurses.

Apparently he performed the procedure at the behest of his uncle, who's the cowardly officer, now fabulously wealthy and operating under another name. When he's caught, the doctor kills himself out of shame.

Now, let's stop right there. So many questions.

Why is the villain, who was called Roberts during the war but is now going by Roger Crawshaw (Derek Bond), going around removing strangers' hands? Given his war trauma, wouldn't he want to exact that retribution on the Japanese? Or even on his fellow British soldiers, for reminding him of his cowardice?

Second: if someone were obsessed with hands, why the eff would you go through this elaborate affair of having it surgically amputated instead of just lopping it off with an axe or what have you? And why involve a family member who's obviously reluctant? And then why would you let the person live so the trail could lead back to you?

The two handless soldiers turn up, impeding the police investigation because Crawshaw has been threatening them. (Another question: how do they know Crawshaw is Roberts, unless he deliberately revealed himself to them? And why would he, unless he was going to kill them?)

One, Michael John Brodie (Reed De Rouen), is the surly man of the lot. He gives the Japanese plenty of lip in the opening sequence, and later becomes a morbid drunk. George Adams (Bryan Coleman) is more or less a good bloke, who shows up to check things out when Brodie is killed.

The movie is essentially one long talkie scene after another, with very little tension or suspense. It builds up to a shoot-out in a barn, but only three people present have a gun. Then another guy shows up near the end of it with his own gun to plug Roberts. I have no idea who this fellow was, though I think he may be the guy who was forced out the window of a train earlier.

Anyway, Roberts staggers away from the scene to collapse on the train tracks, with one hand dangling over the rail as a train comes screaming by to run over it in an ALL CAPS IRONY MOMENT.

I should mention that Ronald Leigh-Hunt plays the Scotland Yard inspector who actually answers the phone by saying, "Scotland Yard." Ray Cooney plays his young sergeant, who frets about how all the long hours on the case are damaging his relationship with his girlfriend.

"The Hand" barely survives as a piece of cinema, with only terrible quality versions available for home video. The one I saw was cropped on all sides, so some of the visual information is missing.

So obscure is this title, I couldn't even find a video of the trailer to accompany this piece. I actually had to grab screen caps from the DVD to get high enough resolution photos to use with this post. It registers one step away from being a "lost" film.

Normally I'm all in for film preservation, but in this case our collective culture might just benefit from a little addition by subtraction.

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