Mad Love, one of MGM’s 1930s forays into the horror arena, was one of several film versions of Maurice Renard’s novel The Hands of Orlac. It opens memorably, with the famous surgeon Dr Gogol (Peter Lorre) visiting Paris’s notorious Grand Guignol theatre. He is obsessed Yvonne, one of the actresses at this theatre of horrors, but she finds him repulsive. When her husband, renowned concert pianist Stephen Orlac (Colin Clive), is injured on a train accident she is forced to turn to Dr Gogol for help. Orlac’s hands have been crushed beyond repair, but Dr Gogol believes he can replace them with the hands of a condemned murderer. Orlac soon comes to believe that these hands have a will of their own.
Unfortunately American studios in the 30s believed that horror movies had to have comic relief and Mad Love has two annoying characters, an irritating American reporter (Ted Healy) and Dr Gogol’s drunken housekeeper, providing supposed humour. Luckily the movie is good enough to survive this. Karl Freund directs with his accustomed skill and adds some impressive German Expressionist flourishes. Colin Clive overacts outrageously but his performance is nonetheless entertaining and effective. Frances Drake is also quite good, but Peter Lorre is very much the star of this movie. He is both creepy and sympathetic, a man driven to madness by rejection and lack of love. Lorre emphasises the sexual nature of Dr Gogol’s insanity, to an extent that is slightly surprising for a movie released after the imposition of the draconian Production Code. MGM had very little luck with horror movies, and Mad Love was an even bigger flop than Tod Browning’s infamous Freaks. Like Freaks it was regarded by exhibitors as being too extreme and too horrific for contemporary audiences. Despite its commercial failure at the time it’s one of the great American horror films and the DVD release in Warner’s Legends of Horror boxed set is highly recommended.