The Beast with Five Fingers is a 1946 horror movie from Warner Brothers, a studio that was not exactly renowned for such movies.
Francis Ingram (Victor Francen) is a famous and wealthy concert pianist who lives in a small village in Italy around about the beginning of the 20th century. His concert career was all but ended by a stroke that left him paralysed on one side. He can still play the piano, but obviously only with one hand. He lives in querulous and dissatisfied retirement. The only thing that keeps him going is the devotion of his nurse Julie Holden (Andrea King). Ingram is perhaps too dependent on her, to an extent that has been making her increasingly uncomfortable. She has finally decided to leave.
The other members of thus uneasy household are Conrad Ryler (Robert Alda), a once promising composer who now exists on Ingram’s charity plus whatever money he can make selling phony antiques to tourists, and Ingram’s secretary Hilary Cummins (Peter Lorre). Hilary has been a useful secretary but his real passion is for astrology. What keeps him in Ingram’s house is access to the house’s matchless library of astrological and occult volumes. Hilary dreams of rediscovering the lost wisdom of the ancients.
Hilary is a little eccentric and perhaps even just the tiniest bit unbalanced, but the same could be said for Francis Ingram. Conrad is perhaps not the most stable individual either. It’s the sort of household that you would expect to coalesce around a string but eccentric character like Ingram - Hilary and Conrad are essentially weak characters who would have trouble surviving on their own.
Ingram’s decision to alter his will has fateful consequences although it’s Julie’s threatened departure that is the catalyst for tragedy. Ingram is found dead at the foot of the staircase.
Ingram had only two living relatives, his brother-in-law Raymond Arlington (Charles Dingle) and Arlington’s son Donald (John Alvin). The Arlingtons are crass and greedy and never cared about poor old Ingram when he was alive but they are determined to get his money. That will stands in their way. They intend to challenge it. It’s a pity that a dead man cannot do anything to thwart the schemes of unscrupulous grasping relatives. Or perhaps he can? It soon appears that he most certainly can.
It’s not Ingram or Ingram’s ghost that commits the subsequent murders - it’s his disembodied hand. Someone or something is also playing Ingram’s piano and Conrad, a trained musician himself, swears that it must be Ingram - the style is unmistakeable. There’s no-one at the piano - just the hand.
Making a disembodied hand convincing has always been a challenge to special effects department but in this film it’s done remarkably well. It’s not only convincing - director Robert Florey knows just how to use the hand for maximum creepiness and shock effect.
Florey was a quite prolific director of mostly B-features who made a handful of notable horror films. He does a good job here, laying on plenty of gothic atmosphere and conveying a sense of both dread and madness. The madness comes from the fact that we’re not quite sure if something supernatural is occurring or not.
Curt Siodmak had many science fiction and horror screenplays to his credit. His basic idea here is a good one and his script is polished and literate.
Robert Alda gives a personable enough performance as the pleasant if indolent Conrad. Victor Francen is excellent as Ingram while Andrea King is a quite adequate heroine. Peter Lorre is in fine form as Hilary. Hilary is really a fairly sympathetic character - he’s weak and sometimes manipulative but all he wants is to be left alone to continue his occult studies. Unfortunately it seems that no-one understands how important his work is. He becomes increasingly frustrated and starts to lose his grip. His slow psychological unravelling is handled brilliantly by Lorre who knows when to underplay and when to start really going over the top. J. Carrol Naish provides some gentle comic relief as the charming but increasingly frustrated local police chief.
Horror movies were very much out of fashion in Hollywood in 1946. On the rare occasions when horror was attempted it was almost invariably undercut by providing non-supernatural explanations so the films ended up being merely horror-tinged mysteries, and more often than not second-rate mysteries. Happily there’s nothing second-rate about The Beast with Five Fingers. As to whether it succumbs to the lamentable temptation of providing a rational explanation - you’ll have to watch the movie for yourself.
On the whole this is a surprisingly effective and very entertaining movie, extremely well made and featuring a terrific Peter Lorre performance. The Beast with Five Fingers is highly recommended.