The Beast with Five Fingers

This really should be titled, Why The Beast with Five Fingers is my favorite horror movie. The subject came up in a conversation over the weekend and being reminded of the movie twice in a short time, I had to look up some video on the internet to further refresh my memory.

First, if everyone remembers the movie in detail, I won’t have to take time for a recap, so raise your hands. Maybe to stay in theme it would be more àpropos to raise both hands. Anyone have a problem with this? Okay, it’s an even number of hands but not enough to skip ahead so here’s the skinny on this fantastic movie.

First the trailer (this is being blocked now but it leads you to YouTube where you can see it and other related videos):

If anything, this movie stars Robert Alda (for those of you who were weaned on M*A*S*H) but also Peter Lorre and the versatile J. Carrol Naish. The plot, as you probably surmised from the trailer, involves a famous pianist who dies and his severed hand continues to cause mayhem and death in the mansion. This severed hand business was redone in a later movie starring Michael Caine, The Hand (don’t bother).

The Beast with Five Fingers relies on what is now almost a literary cliché:  the unreliable narrator. There are other movies that use a variation on this technique with the recent Black Swan being one of the most memorable. In both movies, there is no voice-over or other commentary, just the visual on the screen. Shamefully, Netflix does not seem to offer this excellent old movie (1946, a very good year) but it is available if you look around (I saw a VHS copy being sold … how quaint).

The Beast with Five Fingers has a Wikipedia entry, but then, who doesn’t? Wiki in this case provides a good plot summary but doesn’t go further in analyzing the film:

Francis Ingram is a noted pianist who lives in a large manor house near a small, isolated Italian village. Ingram suffered a stroke which left his right side immobile and he has to use a wheelchair to get around. He has retreated to the manor house for the past few years—seen by only a few close friends. These include his nurse, Julie Holden; a musicologist, Hilary Cummins; a friend, Bruce Conrad; and his sister’s son, Donald Arlington. Ingram has fallen in love with Julie Holden, and has changed his will so that she receives the vast bulk of his enormous estate when he dies. But Julie is secretly in love with Conrad. The change in the will disinherits Arlington and Cummins, and Cummins tries to expose Holden’s affair. Ingram, outraged at the slander on his beloved’s good name, tries to choke Cummins to death. Only Julie’s arrival (after meeting Conrad in the garden) saves him.
Later that night, Ingram begins to suffer hallucinations from poison put in his food and drink. He climbs into his wheelchair, makes it to the top of the stairs, and calls out for Julie (who never comes to his aid). Ingram falls down the stairs, breaking his neck. (The audience does not see if Ingram was pushed or he fell.) Commissario Ovidio Castanio of the local police investigates the death, but finds little sign of murder.

A few days later, Raymond Arlington (Raymond’s maternal uncle) arrives, determined to ensure that his nephew gets the inheritance. Duprex, Ingram’s attorney, tells Raymond that there are suspicions regarding Ingram’s death that may lead to overturning the new will in favor of the old one. That night, Duprex is murdered by an unseen assailant. Commissario Castanio begins to investigate. The Arlingtons try to search for the old will, while suspicion falls on Cummins after he tries to remove several expensive old books from the manor house. That night, everyone hears Ingram playing the piano in the main hall, but when they go to check no one is there. Donald, too, is attacked and almost choked to death. Commissario Castanio discovers that someone has broken into the Ingram mausoleum and cut off Ingram’s left hand. But it seems impossible for anyone to have gotten in or out.

The audience now begins to see a disembodied hand moving around the manor house. The hand attacks Cummins, but he is able to assuage the hand’s quest for vengeance by giving the hand Ingram’s signet ring. He locks the hand in a closet, but when Conrad and Holden appear to see what has happened — the hand has disappeared. Meanwhile, Donald Arlington remembers the combination and location of an old safe in the house, and Commissario Castanio and his father accompany him to the room where it is located. They discover the old will. Again, Ingram’s distinctive piano playing is heard. In a fit of madness, Donald Arlington flees the house with Conrad in pursuit. He comes to his senses, and is not harmed. Cummins discovers the hand again, nails it to a board, and puts it in the safe. When Holden discovers the hand, Cummins (becoming more and more mentally unhinged) tries to burn it in the fire. But the hand crawls out and chokes him to death.

Commissario Castanio discovers that a hidden record player and concludes that Cummins was playing it to scare people. He theorizes that Cummins cut off the hand, killed Duprex, and tried to kill Arlington.

If The Beast with Five Fingers shows up on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) don’t miss it. True, it’s not Citizen Kane but it is a fun movie (not really too scary) and it is also one of the cinema’s best examples of using an unreliable narrator. It is in Black & White and has no gushing bodily fluids or nude shower scenes … but it’s still worth watching.

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