May 6, 2011

Everybody Needs a Helping Hand

Hands of a Stranger (1962)

So, imagine that you've been in a terrible car crash, and your hands have been pulverized beyond all hope. While you're unconscious, a brilliant, renegade surgeon unilaterally decides that your only hope for fully functioning hands and a normal life is immediate transplants-- and he just happens to have some very good candidates from an anonymous donor in the morgue. When you awaken and see the enormous braces and bandages, the good Doc tells a white lie -- for your own peace of mind --  that he was able to save your hands and that everything is just fine. Sometime later the bandages finally come off, and you're stunned that these are not your fingers and this is not your flesh… but then you realize you can move the new fingers and thumbs. The doctor shows you photos of the mangled, useless flesh that was the result of the accident. The operation has been a complete success -- with a little more practice and patience, your new hands will be perfectly normal! How would you react? Would you think you'd just won the medical equivalent of the Powerball? But then, what if you were one of the elite, talented few who use their hands to create sublime music or art, or wield scalpels with incredible, life-saving skill? And now, you can't get your clumsy new hands to perform worth diddly-squat. Would you still feel lucky?

Vernon Paris (James Stapleton), the recipient of the Hands of a Stranger, is not only ungrateful, he is utterly, irredeemably bummed. You see, he was a world-class pianist still basking in the glow of his greatest concert triumph when a careless cab driver lost control of the vehicle in which he was riding. Before he had even regained consciousness, a brash surgeon convinced his sister and business manager to allow the useless, mangled things that had once been his hands to be replaced with the hands of a unidentified murder victim. Now, weeks later, even though he has full movement in his hands, they might as well be hooks for all the good they do him. They're useless for the one thing he has spent a lifetime trying to achieve -- making the piano keys dance to create beautiful, otherworldly music.

This being a horror-thriller, we know somebody's going to pay for this sorry state of affairs. An almost suicidally-depressed Vernon first confronts his gold-digging former girlfriend (Elaine Martone), who won't return his calls now that he's a nobody. In a fit of anger, he shoves her into a table lamp, which somehow instantly lights her on fire (bad wiring??!) Next, he visits the home of the cab driver responsible for the accident. The driver's young son makes the mistake of inviting him in, explaining that his father's gone off to get him a dog, but should be back shortly. The chatty boy finds out from Vernon that he is (was) a pianist. When he innocently urges the sullen Vernon to play something for him on the family piano, very bad things happen.

Up to this point, the wretched man seems to be stumbling zombie-like through a waking nightmare, scarcely knowing what he's doing. After the tragedy in the cabbie's home, something in him snaps, and he transforms from a sleepwalker into a very aggrieved man bent on punishing everyone he blames for stealing his life from him. But instead of going after the arrogant head surgeon Gil Harding (Paul Lukather), he picks off low-hanging fruit in the form of the young doctors who assisted in the fateful operation.

This film-noirish version of The Hands of Orlac (Les Mains d'Orlac) by Maurice Renard downplays, but doesn't eliminate, the supernatural idea that the hands of a murderer are compelling their new owner to kill. Shortly after the operation, Vernon's distraught sister Dina (Joan Harvey) demands to know "whose hands he [Dr. Harding] put on my brother's arms!" Dr. Harding defends himself and medical science in his uniquely aggressive, clumsy way: "If you're concerned with the possibility that he [the donor] might have been some kind of madman, let me assure you that psychotic tendencies don't transfer themselves mystically to the physical extremities after death!" Even though Harding has given the police fingerprints from the donor hands, by the end of the film we still don't know the donor's identity, or if he was a solid citizen or a murderer. Part of the film's charm is that it leaves the viewer wondering.

The hands of a stranger: pre-op
Hands of a Stranger is something of a schizophrenic film (and I'm not referring to the mental state of the protagonist). The imagery is striking, the black and white photography by Henry Cronjager is superb, and parts of it are as suspenseful and well-crafted as anything in the A-list crime-thriller/film noir canon. On the flip side, the dialog is so ripe and over-the-top, I found myself in a more or less constant state of bemusement, thinking "did he/she really say that?!" The characters talk like second-rate college English professors who've smoked a little too much weed and are trying to impress each other with their wit and erudition. For example, the detective investigating the shooting of the unidentified man at the beginning of film seems to be something of a frustrated philosopher:
"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 a trigger. And perhaps the delicately lined pictures on the tips of those hands themselves can tell me all I want to know."
Or how about this exchange toward the end between the doctor and the demented Vernon:
Doc: "You're interested in nothing but vengeance? Beauty is no longer important to you?"
Vernon: "On the contrary, justice is a form of moral beauty, or is that too unscientific?"
Whew! The filmmakers should have let the great black-and-white imagery do more of the storytelling, and dialed back on the bombastic talk. And yet, when the film is good (and mostly silent), it's very, very good. The title sequence is particularly impressive. A timpani strikes an ominous note over a cityscape at night. Cut to a drainpipe dripping onto a discarded garbage lid on a deserted sidewalk. In the background, a neon hotel light is flashing. A man carrying a briefcase walks into the shot and heads down the sidewalk, away from the camera. Cut to a medium shot of two men in a car, their faces hidden in shadows. We see them glance at each other in close-up-- only their eyes are visible. We see the driver's hand start the car. We see the man continuing down the sidewalk. The car glides down the street as the music builds. The man with the briefcase pauses, looking over his shoulder… then suddenly, he bolts. The car picks up speed and the headlights pop on. Close-up of a hand and gun -- shots ring out. The man collapses dramatically against a streetlamp. The car screeches to a halt, and one of the dark-clothed assassins jumps out. He rifles through the dying man's coat, grabbing his wallet and other valuables. He jumps back into the car and it screeches away from the scene. Cut to the lamppost: the dying man's hands inch their way up the post as he desperately clings to life… the music swells as the main title appears.

The hands: post-op
I remember as a kid sitting open-mouthed in front of the TV during that opening sequence. After almost 50 years, it still packs quite a punch. Another great example of letting the pictures do the talking is the carnival scene late in the film. The Doc and Dina take the troubled Vernon to a carnival with the idea of easing his obsession for a couple of hours. In the midst of the bright lights and tumult, Vernon's tentative smiles quickly turn to frowns and despair as everywhere he looks, he's reminded of the gift that he's lost: a player-piano churns out honky-tonk music as if mocking him; a clown skillfully juggles with nimble hands; a fun-house mirror displays his reflection with monstrously-elongated hands and fingers… (See the clip below.)

Hands of a Stranger was Newt Arnold's first producing/directing job, and practically his last-- he only directed two more pictures, the Phillipines-based Blood Thirst (1971; he also produced) and Bloodsport (1988), a martial-arts epic with Jean-Claude Van Damme. His resume as an assistant or second unit director is much more extensive (55 films), ranging from The Godfather Part II (1974) to Blade Runner (1982) to A Simple Plan (1998). Given the promise of his directing debut, it's a shame he labored so many years in the relative obscurity of assistant/second unit work. But then Fate doesn't always lend us a helping hand.

A side note: The fictional Dr. Harding was nearly 40 years ahead of his time-- the first successful long-term hand transplantation wasn't achieved until 1999.

Hands of a Stranger is available from the Internet Archive, and on DVD from Alpha Video.

A fun night at the carnival turns creepy and disturbing as ex-pianist Vernon Paris (James Stapleton) is reminded at every turn of the precious gift he has lost:

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