Release Date(s)1935 (October 19, 2021)
Studio(s)Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (Warner Archive Collection)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: B+
Universal’s huge successes with Dracula and Frankenstein (both in 1931) caught the attention of other studios, realizing there were box office dollars to be made from horror. MGM produced Freaks, The Mask of Fu Manchu, and Mark of the Vampire. The studio also adapted Maurice Renaud’s 1920 novel Les Mains d’Orlac (The Hands of Orlac) into Mad Love, a bizarre tale starring Peter Lorre in his first American film.
Lorre plays Dr. Gogol, a genius surgeon living in Paris who becomes obsessed with Grand Guignol horror theater star Yvonne Orlac (Frances Drake, The Invisible Ray). He attends every one of her performances and sends flowers to her dressing room. Visiting her backstage on the night of her final performance, he’s devastated to learn that she’s married and abandoning the stage to travel with her husband, brilliant pianist/composer Stephen Orlac (Colin Clive, Frankenstein). Yvonne is chilled by Gogol’s creepy manner and appearance and disgusted when he force-kisses her passionately.
Stephen, meanwhile, is on his way to meet Yvonne in Paris when his train derails. He barely survives and his hands are badly mangled. To save his life, they must be amputated, ending his career at its most promising moment. Putting her personal aversion to Gogol aside, Yvonne visits the doctor and pleads with him to save her husband’s hands. He cannot, but that same day he had attended the execution of the knife murderer Rollo (Edward Brophy) and he transplants the hands of Rollo onto Stephen’s arms.
After weeks of extensive surgeries and rehabilitation, Stephen can’t play the piano but has become adept at flinging sharp objects with Rollo’s uncanny accuracy. Gogol sees this development as an opportunity to drive Stephen mad and win Yvonne for himself.
Unlike the novel and an earlier silent film based on it, which center on Stephen Orlac, Mad Love focuses on the character of Dr. Gogol. Lorre is excellent in conveying the doctor’s infatuation with Yvonne. In an early scene as her stage character is tortured, Gogol appears most excited at the moment of her greatest pain. Later, he purchases an advertising dummy of her and places it in his home as a kind of shrine, referring to it as his Galatea. Lorre’s bulging eyes, bald head, whispery voice, and intense performance are creepy and contribute greatly to the film’s atmosphere of unhealthy sexual passion.
Clive, so wonderfully manic in Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein, adds nervous tension, frustration, and despair to his portrayal of Stephen, yet never elicits chills when his new hands appear to act on their own volition. Considerable make-up was required to make his hands look horrible. Frances Drake is a lovely femme fatale and her expressions and body language when Gogol comes close to her at her farewell party convey Yvonne’s intense discomfort toward the doctor. Some largely inept comic relief is provided by May Beatty as Gogol’s constantly tipsy housekeeper and Ted Healy as a pushy reporter.
Director Karl Freund (The Mummy) draws on German expressionism for the look of Mad Love to create the right atmosphere for this tale of insanity, murder, dismemberment, and forced sex. This dark excursion into psychological torment and unrequited love is more disturbing than Universal’s monster films because it centers on a human being with twisted motives for its horrific effect.
Mad Love was shot by director of photography Gregg Toland (Wuthering Heights) on black-and-white 35 mm film with spherical lenses, finished photochemically, and presented in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1. MGM cares well for its older films, as evidenced by this nearly flawless presentation. For Warner Archive’s Blu-ray release, a new high definition master was struck from a 4K scan of the best preservation elements. The expressionistic photography of shadowy sets look great. Blacks are deep, rich, and velvety. Grey levels are well balanced. There are no visible imperfections, such as scratches, splices, or dirt specks. Details such as clothing patterns, paneling on the train, Drake’s hair, and scars on the transplanted hands are distinct. A scene with a crazed, hatted figure with a neck brace and dark cloak is shot from a low angle, giving him a horrifying look. Lorre’s bulging eyes communicate his lust for Yvonne.
The soundtrack is English 2.0 Mono DTS-HD Master Audio. Optional subtitles are included in English SDH. Dialogue is clear and precise throughout but there’s occasional crackling surface noise. Lorre’s distinctive speech pattern stands out. He never raises his voice above a stage whisper, suggesting his madness rather quietly. Though lacking the excitement of Franz Waxman’s score for The Bride of Frankenstein, Dimitri Tiomkin’s music enhances the dark nature of the story by suggesting an undercurrent of evil, particularly during a montage showing a passage of time during Stephen’s operations. Sound effects include shattering glass, high-pitched screams, a moving train, knives hitting their mark, horses’ hooves and carriage wheels, and footsteps on stairs.
Bonus materials on the Blu-ray release from Warner Archive include the following:
- Audio Commentary by Steve Haberman
- Theatrical Trailer (2:05)
Steve Haberman’s audio commentary from 2006 is thoroughly researched and highly informative. Mad Love originally opened on a black screen with a warning almost identical to Edward van Sloan’s opening in Frankenstein (written by John L. Balderston), but it was excised prior to release. This was Dimitri Tiomkin’s first film score. He subsequently wrote the music for films directed by Capra, Hawks, Hitchcock, and for many big Hollywood epics. The Grand Guignol theater lasted until 1952. Geared to adults, it presented short plays featuring madness, torture, and blood. Karl Freund’s career as director of photography includes Metropolis, The Last Laugh, Sunrise, Dracula, All Quiet on the Western Front, and Murders in the Rue Morgue. Mad Love was the last of 8 feature films he directed. Career overviews of Peter Lorre, Frances Drake, Colin Clive, and Ted Healy are provided. Lorre became known for M directed by Fritz Lang, who made the actor miserable during filming. Lorre would go on to appear in The Maltese Falcon, The Face Behind the Mask, Crime and Punishment, The Beast with Five Fingers, and several pictures with Sydney Greenstreet, among others. Mad Love had a production budget of just over $217,000 and a shooting schedule of 24 days. Reviews were favorable, especially for Lorre. There have been many versions of The Hands of Orlac on stage, in films, and on TV. In an interesting touch, Haberman does a pretty good Peter Lorre impression when he quotes him.
Though only 68 minutes, Mad Love contains plenty of thrills, palpable atmosphere, and psychological deviance. Not as famous as Dracula or Frankenstein, it nonetheless ranks high among 1930s horror films.
- Dennis Seuling