Hands of a Stranger
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Celebrated pianist Vernon Paris (James Stapleton) is at the height of his talent and fame when he is severely injured in a traffic accident and his hands are mangled beyond repair. Operating without authority, Dr. Gil Harding (Paul Lukather) decides to amputate the musician's ruined hands and replace them with those taken from a recent murder victim in the hopes that the experimental surgery will allow Paris to perform again. Although the transplant is successful, the pianist is so traumatized by the accident that he suffers a complete mental collapse, becoming increasingly violent with dark thoughts of revenge on those he holds responsible for his hated new appendages.
Based on the 1920 novel Les Mains d'Orlac by French writer Maurice Renard, Hands of a Stranger (1962) is probably the most obscure movie adaptation of this famous horror tale which has been filmed numerous times before and since. The Hands of Orlac, the 1924 silent version directed by Robert Wiene with Conrad Veidt in the title role, and Karl Freund's Mad Love (1935) with Colin Clive as Orlac and Peter Lorre as the demented Doctor Gogol still stand as the most memorable screen versions of the Renard novel while other renditions include the 1960 remake The Hands of Orlac with Mel Ferrer and Christopher Lee and numerous European television productions.
Hands of a Stranger is an effectively lurid B-movie take on the familiar story with atmospheric, noir-influenced cinematography by TV veteran Henry Cronjager, Jr. Writer/Director Newt Arnold provides some fresh variations on the Renard original that includes a close, almost incestuous relationship between Paris and his devoted sister Dina (Joan Harvey) and reverses our sympathies for the protagonists, making the pianist a raging monster and Dr. Harding the hero. Unlike Lorre's insidious surgeon in Mad Love who tries to drive his patient insane so he can possess his wife, Harding's intentions are noble and good, even though his romantic pursuit of Dina inadvertently pushes Paris to extremes.
While most of the pianist's homicidal behavior takes place off screen, there are two on-screen deaths that are still potent and disturbing [SPOILER ALERT]; the first involves former girlfriend Eileen (Elaine Martone) whose dress catches fire and she burns to death during a violent argument with Paris and the second is the demise of Skeet (child actor Barry Gordon), the son of the taxi driver who accidentally caused the fateful car accident. The child not only has his hands crushed by Paris but dies from a head injury while trying to flee the madman.
Although well-paced and appropriately doom-laden, Hands of a Stranger is also heavy-handed at times with often risible, theatrical dialogue that would not be out of place in a pretentious off-Broadway play. For example, Lt. Syms (Laurence Haddon), the detective investigating Paris's murdered donor, muses, "Hands. Amazing things when you think about it. A genius device of flesh and bone that can paint a beautiful picture, control a scalpel, press the trigger and perhaps the delicately lined pictures on the tips of those fingers can tell me all I want to know."
The performances also have the exaggerated, crisis-oriented quality of a daytime television soap opera with Paul Lukather maintaining a nervous, sweaty intensity throughout as the concerned doctor and Joan Harvey matching him scene for scene as the borderline hysterical sister and would-be fiancée. Some of their exchanges achieve the absurd deliriousness of Ed Wood's Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959).
Gil Harding: Don't let fear drive you into a pit of superstition. Dina Paris: But are we sure the soul really controls the outside? Or is what we call a soul really shaped by our own pleasures and hatreds of the outside and how they're shaped by the world?
Despite the camp aspects of Hands of a Stranger, the movie is still more offbeat and engrossing than you'd expect from a relatively unknown B-movie of the sixties. It also features an early appearance by Sally Kellerman in her second film role as the ill-fated girlfriend of an assistant surgeon and Irish McCalla as a nurse; McCalla was a former pin-up in girlie magazines whose main claim to fame was playing the title role in the TV series, Sheena: Queen of the Jungle (1955-56). Richard LaSalle, who composed the dramatic score, was unusually prolific in the sixties and seventies, scoring everything from The Flight That Disappeared (1961) to Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number! (1966) to The Thirsty Dead (1974). Also look and listen for jazz legends the Red Norvo Quintette in the background in one scene.
Producer: Newt Arnold, Michael Du Pont
Director: Newt Arnold
Screenplay: Newt Arnold
Cinematography: Henry Cronjager, Jr.
Editing: Bert Honey
Art Direction: Theobold Holsopple
Music: Richard LaSalle
Cast: James Stapleton (Vernon Paris), Paul Lukather (Dr. Gil Harding), Joan Harvey (Dina Paris), Ted Otis (Dr. Ross Compton), Michael Rye (George Britton), Irish McCalla (Holly), Sally Kellerman (Sue), Barry Gordon (Skeet Wilder).
by Jeff Stafford