Judge Clark Douglas is the beast with five senses.
Your flesh will creep at the hand that crawls!
If I had the time and energy, I'm pretty sure I could cut together a ten-minute highlight reel that would make The Beast with Five Fingers look like a pretty terrific slice of classic horror. The film contains some strong set pieces and a typically engaging performance from Peter Lorre (M), but it's surrounded by a whole lot of material that feels like filler.
Our story begins with an introduction to wealthy pianist Francis Ingram (Victor Francen, Hell and High Water), an invalid who now confines himself to his mansion. He's looked after by the good-natured maid Julie Holden (Andrea King, The Lemon Drop Kid), who has been his platonic companion for quite some time. He's also good friends with the dashing young musician Bruce Conrad (Robert Alda, Imitation of Life), who has recently developed a romantic interest in Julie. When Francis unexpectedly passes away, it's revealed that he has left everything in his will to Julie. This decision infuriates a man named Mr. Arlington (Charles Dingle, The Little Foxes), who had assumed that he and his son Donald (John Alvin, Somewhere in Time) would be the recipients of Francis' estate. As these individuals and a handful of others gather to debate legal proceedings, a member of the group is murdered. Francis' old friend Hilary Cummins (Peter Lorre) offers an unusual suspect: the severed hand of the late Mr. Ingram.
Unfortunately, the set-up described in the previous paragraph occupies roughly half of the film's running time, as the movie takes its sweet time establishing who's who and what their relationships are before people start getting picked off. Too bad that none of the character development really turns into anything substantial. In fact, the film doesn't really start cooking until rather late in the proceedings, as the film delivers a series of hallucinatory sequences highlighted by a handful of Peter Lorre's incomparable freak-outs. The movie is never particularly spooky, and it undercuts any chance it had to leave a lasting impression with an ending that turns the whole premise into a joke.
The film only works when it's focused on Lorre, who plays his role with an impressive level of conviction. He essays a man who is genuinely tormented by his visions of Ingram's hand; he's a figure worthy of Edgar Allen Poe. It's a shame that the film surrounding him is so bland and glib. Alda and King are technically the leads, but their playful banter and confident grins make them feel so phony. Lorre's the one who consistently draws our sympathy, even when he's the most diabolical character in the film. There's a reason he's so well-remembered while most of the other actors in this flick are largely forgotten.
The Beast with Five Fingers is a Warner Archive release, so little work has been done in the restoration department. Scratches and flecks are abundant, and the image is generally on the soft side. Still, it's hardly unwatchable. The audio is surprisingly crisp under the circumstances, and Max Steiner's feverish score goes a long way towards amplifying the film's gothic horror vibe. No supplements are included.
Lorre fans may want to give The Beast with Five Fingers a look, but it's a film that fails to live up to the promise of its strongest moments.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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