1 Hr., 28 Mins.
The Beast With Five Fingers January 27, 2020
o watch or read a whodunit is to know, with certainty, that the conclusion of its story will come with the unmasking of someone (or someones) as a villain. The fun of The Beast With Five Fingers, a horror mystery from 1946, is the muddying of the cliché. Do we in fact have just one villain to blame? Or do we have them plus the existence of, in a Kafkaesque twist, the severed and somehow-animated hand of a possibly murdered-for-
money character out for blood?
The movie, directed by Robert Florey and written by Curt Siodmak, is unusual in that it contains this creepy device but has otherwise been constructed with the authority of an Agatha Christie book. That makes it a hair disappointing. We want it to gravitate more toward the macabre (consider, too, that much of the feature is set in an echoey, darkly lit, and secluded mansion, the weather storming in the background much of the time) but more so feels like a customary mystery thriller with fantastical ambiguity tacked on. Still, the movie demands to be seen. This is what might have been a schlocky B movie turned into something more serious-minded and visually inventive — uncommon in a decade whose horror-leaning offerings were seldom given the treatment of The Beast With Five Fingers.
The film’s plot is set in motion when the wealthy and wheelchair-bound pianist Francis Ingram (Victor Francen) dies after falling down his mansion's staircase one evening. It’s unclear whether he simply couldn’t see the first step in the dark and as a result plummeted, or if he was pushed. We’re led to believe that his plunge was a consequence of foul play, and not just because it appears as though before the fatal descent, Ingram’s dinner had been spiked. As the film opens, lots of so-called friends are milling about the Ingram home: his musician and wannabe-astrologist pal Hillary Cummins (Peter Lorre), his trusted nurse and confidant Julie Holden (Andrea King), close acquaintance Bruce Conrad (Robert Alda), nephew Donald Arlington (John Alvin), and others. Everyone is likely to inherit something from Ingram if he were to die.
We’re wont to foremostly suspect Julie and Bruce, who have been having an affair on the sly. With Ingram so attached to Julie that he will probably gift her a lot, and with the latter speaking often about wanting to leave her employer and start her life anew, red flags abound. But then again, there isn’t anyone in the movie who doesn’t have a strong reason to want Ingram to meet his demise early. These people don’t seem to have much by way of affection for him, either — they seem to be around for the benefits a one-sided friendship with the pianist can provide.
Things are made interesting when a little into The Beast With Five Fingers, some characters visit Ingram’s mausoleum and find that his left hand has been cut off post-mortem. A series of attacks ensue. During all of them, all the audience can see is a hand, wearing Ingram’s trademark ring, make its way around someone’s neck or another vulnerable part. We can't tell for sure if it's connected to anyone. When we finally get an answer, it's deliciously morbid. But Siodmak’s screenplay, which is based on a 1919 short story by William Fryer Harvey, can’t conclude for sure whether what we’re seeing is as morbid as we think or if it's an extension of the busy imagination of the apparent perpetrator. This is a twist I loved, and one the film seems to love too. (The feature's final few moments contain a surprising amount of wryness.) Without the maybe-or-maybe-not disembodied hand aspect, the film would mostly be perfunctory. But the element imbues in The Beast With Five Fingers a nice ghoulishness — and makes wickedly literal warnings against biting the hand that feeds you. B