Like most movie watchers of my generation, I probably first saw the actual Peter Lorre in Casablanca (1942). He doesn’t have a lot of screen time, but he’s hard to forget. My first exposure to Peter Lorre, however, and perhaps also like a lot of folks my generation, was through the glory of Looney Tunes.
So when I saw him in Casablanca, and then in The Maltese Falcon (1941) and M (1931), I might already have understood what a big deal he was. But I couldn’t have understood how amazing Peter Lorre is, because I hadn’t yet seen the glorious Mad Love (1935).
As a villain, Peter Lorre’s Dr. Gogol might be a distant relative of Udo Kier’s Baron Frankenstein. On his best day, Dr. Gogol has at least one foot in la-la land. Far more refined than the putatively aristocratic Baron, he’s got Lorre’s soft, soothing voice and self-effacing manner. Gogol is, however, equally likely to slip into hysterics at the drop of a hat. He is, after all, an unhinged doctor, also a surgeon, like Baron Frankenstein. Very much unlike the Baron, we see Dr. Gogol using his surgical gifts for good, helping crippled children walk and so forth. Mad Love is so effective as a horror film in large part because Lorre somehow endows Dr. Gogol with a glimmer of humanity, and we empathize with it. It’s an amazing trick—more difficult, I think, than what he does as the murderer in M, simply because we know Gogol so much better. We hear him talk to others, and to himself; we see him do good, and we see him luxuriate in the suffering of others.
Mad Love is a delirious adaptation of a French novel, Les Mains d’Orlac, by Maurice Renard, a story that has been adapted no fewer than eight times (though the English translation is now out of print). The first was in 1924, a silent film starring Conrad Veidt and directed by Robert Weine—which is not a bad way to start a second life in celluloid. Here in 1935, it’s astonishing how much plot director Karl Freund has been packed into a mere 68 minutes (though I’ve no idea what’s from the novel and what might not be).
When we meet Dr. Gogol, he’s attending a performance at the Théâtre des Horreurs, a popular Grand Guignol-type entertainment starring his favorite actress/torture victim, Yvonne Orlac (Frances Drake). The camera takes us through the entrance, past the goblin selling tickets and the headless hatcheck girl. Yvonne plays a Duchess who is tortured on stage by her husband as an adulteress. Gogol attends this performance every night, and when Yvonne begins to scream as she’s being stretched on wheel, he closes his eyes in rapture. Ick. (Below the box he sits in every night is a nurse, as there was usually a nurse in attendance at such theaters, the better to create the illusion of unendurable horrors.)
In quick succession the following happens:
Yvonne quits the stage to be with her successful pianist husband, Stephen Orlac (the twitchy Colin Clive). Gogol is devastated, and to compensate, he buys the wax figure of Yvonne that has been gracing the entrance of the Théâtre des Horrors. A murdering American knife-thrower from the circus is guillotined (Edward Brophy), witnessed by Gogol and a scandal-mongering American journalist (Ted Healy). Traveling to meet her, Yvonne’s husband, Stephen, is in a terrible train wreck in which his hands are crushed. And that’s the set-up.
After Yvonne’s final performance, she is fêted by the company, complete with a going-away-wedding cake.
Now, things get weird.
Stephen’s destroyed hands will have to be amputated. In a panic, Yvonne takes her husband to Dr. Gogol, in the hopes that the famous doctor will be able to find a way Stephen can keep his hands. Desperate to please her, Gogol agrees to take a look. He comes to the same unpleasant pro-amputation conclusion. But while washing up before the operation, he has a flash of inspiration, if by “inspiration” one can mean a man’s reflection audibly urging him to acquire a handy corpse and replace a pianist’s crushed hands with the hands a guillotined knife-thrower no longer needs. Gogol follows this sage advice, assuring the reassembled Stephen that his new hands are truly his own.
The American newspaperman gets wind that Gogol has taken the beheaded corpse, and when he swings by Gogol’s house to find out what the good doctor might be doing with it, he meets Françoise, Gogol’s perpetually drunk housekeeper. Who has a cockatiel on her shoulder, because why wouldn’t she? Françoise (May Beatty) assumes the newspaperman is asking about the wax figure of Yvonne, and she regales him with tales of grooming “it,” and of Gogol playing music to it every night. You know, on his chamber organ. But Gogol comes home and prevents the newspaperman from seeing any corpses with his own eyes.
I suspect that, in the novel, as in other adaptations of the original story, the main character is Stephen, the hands-less piano player. Here, it is the mad Gogol, and it’s an excellent choice. Clive is always effective as a gifted man losing his marbles, but Lorre is the main attraction, and his super-creepy obsession with Yvonne is certainly the stuff of horror movies. In fact, his super-creepy obsession has a long and proud literary heritage, to which the movie does a fine job of alluding.
As Stephen and Lorre mirror each other in their mad spiral, Gogol, a well-educated and cultured fellow, after all, takes to quoting poetry to articulate his feelings about Yvonne. He has, from the beginning, thought of the wax figure as Galatea and himself Pygmalion. Gogol recites some of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese, which narrate her courtship with the poet Robert Browning.
Straightaway I was ‘ware,
So weeping, how a mystic Shape did move
Behind me, and drew me backward by the hair;
And a voice said in mastery, while I strove,–
Guess now who holds thee?—Death, I said, But, there,
The silver answer rang,–Not Death, but Love. (I.9-14)
The face of all the world is changed, I think,
Since first I heard the footsteps of thy soul
Move still, oh, still, beside me… (VII.1 – 3)
When the real Yvonne is locked in Gogol’s study by Françoise, Yvonne pretends to be his Galatea. When Gogol realizes she has “come to life,” she faints in his arms. He knows she will never accept him. What else to do but reply to Barrett Browning’s hopeful sonnets with the words of one of Browning’s madmen?
…I foundA thing to do, and all her hairIn one long yellow string I woundThree times her little throat around,And strangled her. No pain felt she;I am quite sure she felt no pain.(from “Porphyria’s Lover”)
Both verses mention hair and Yvonne’s has been called to our attention repeatedly throughout the film. When we first see her, the long, wavy black hair has been brushed out to the point of frizziness.
The movie is full of mirrors (with and without talking ids) and the plot itself is wonderfully symmetrical, opening with Yvonne’s stage performance at the Théatre and closing with her performance in Gogol’s study. In each she is persecuted by a man who claims to love her, wearing strikingly similar gowns/robes. During her first performance, Stephen is performing a concert of his own—his music plays over the radio during Yvonne’s first encounter with Gogol, backstage. During her last performance, Stephen comes to the rescue with a new performance courtesy of his new hands.
There is a simply fantastic moment at the beginning of the movie when Gogol is in the lobby of the Théatre, mooning at the statue of Yvonne, and a similarly dressed inebriate reels out of the auditorium as though from a mirror reflecting Gogol. The fellow drunkenly professes his love for the wax effigy.
The staging in this scene is also wonderful. As the drunk begins to speak to the statue, Gogol turns away, so we can focus on what the second man is saying. As the declaration of love continues, Gogol turns slightly, drawing our attention back to him, and his distress at what the drunk is saying. There are a few “reaction” shots of the statue—and when it’s in close up, it’s not an “it” at all, but the actress, Frances Drake, standing in for the statue, prefiguring the end of the film, when the character will do so.
Lorre was never even nominated for an Oscar, which strikes me as scandalous. If TCM has ever devoted a Summer under the Stars day to Peter Lorre, I’ve missed it. If they haven’t, it’s long overdue.
The film is the last of nineteen that famed cinematographer Karl Freund directed. Like Lorre, Freund was an Austro-Hungarian ex-pat with a background in Expressionist film (and the film has some great shadows and dark staircases). Freund did ground-breaking work on F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924), and was also the director of photography on Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), and later, Dracula (1931).
Mad Love also features Keye Luke, a Chinese-born American artist-turned-actor, as Dr. Wong, Gogol’s much more sensible colleague. Luke played Charlie Chan’s Number-One Son, Kato, the Green Hornet’s side-kick, Master Po in “Kung Fu,” and was in Gremlins (1984) and Woody Allen’s 1990 Alice. He amassed a ludicrous 211 credits, with a guest spot on what appears to have been every television show in production during his career. “The Ray Milland Show”? Check. “Gunsmoke”? Check. “Mike Hammer,” “General Hospital” and “Perry Mason”? Check, check, and check. “Jonny Quest,” “The Andy Griffith Show,” “Star Trek,” “Hawaii-Five-O,” and on and on through “M*A*S*H,” “Remington Steele,” “Charlie’s Angels,” “The A-Team,” “T. J. Hooker,” “The Golden Girls,” and “MacGyver.” Sheesh. No Emmy, but he did get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame the year before he died. Luke and Lorre co-starred again in Mr. Moto’s Gamble (1938).
**This post was originally intended to be part of a blogathon that took place in—holy cow—April. I didn’t realize it had been that long. Anyway, life intervened and I changed jobs and we moved and everything all went screwy for a couple of months. Things are settling down, so here we are again.