The Hands of Orlac was a bit of a disappointment, to be honest. Directed in 1924 by Robert Wiene, who most famously directed The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, and reunites him with actor Conrad Viedt. It’s based on a novel by Maurice Renard, but it’s not half as good as Caligari. Wiene tones down the expressionism considerably, which makes it less interesting visually. There’s a bit there, but it’s watered down from the extremes that Caligari exhibits.
The film been remade several times, as it’s a good plot set-up. A pianist loses his hands, and they are replaced by the hands of an executed murderer. The hands turn out to have a mind of their own…or maybe they don’t? Soon he’s slowly going mad. Viedt is very good, as always. He’s what makes the film work, to the extent that it does.
The plot is kind of all over the place, and at 90 minutes it’s really dragged out, in contrast to Caligari’s lean 70 minutes. It really needed a trim, because all the padding makes it a bit boring. Wiene’s other well-known film was a version of Crime and Publishment in an expressionist style—I haven’t seen that one, but it has its fans; still, many people see Wiene as a “one-hit wonder,” and The Hands of Orlac doesn’t give a lie to that assessment.
There have been three official remakes, including Mad Love with Karl Freund (his American film debut). Peter Bogdanovich called that one of the worst films he’s ever seen, but it had mixed reviews; Pauline Kael tried to claim in her widely debunked essay that Orson Wells cribbed the look of Citizen Kane from it. However in recent years many claims it’s superior to the original film. There was also a British remake of The Hands of Orlac with Christopher Lee and and an American schlock horror knock-off, amongst others. It had an obvious influence on Oliver Stone’s second film as a director, The Hand, as well.
Even if it doesn’t live up to the hopes you would have after seeing The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, The Hands of Orlac is worth seeing—but it may be one of those cases where the imitators are better than the original. That said, the opening scene with the train is on such a grand scale that it’s very impressive just for that, despite the fact that it gets bogged down later wit the psychological impact of the lead character going mad.
The disc features a commentary track from Stephen Jones and Kim Newman, and a video essay by David Cairns and Fiona Watson. It also includes an alternative version of the film that’s 20 minutes longer, uses alternative takes of certain scenes, and has a musical score by Paul Mercer. A scene-by-scene comparison and a booklet with writing by Phil Kemp and Tim Lucas completes the package.