Film

'Hands of a Stranger' Is a Psychological Hand Job

Hands of a Stranger never works as suspense or horror, but it is odd in its own way, particularly for those fixated on hands.


Hands of a Stranger

Director: Newton Arnold
Cast: Paul Lukather, James Stapleton
Distributor: Warner Archive
Rated: Not rated
Year: 1960
US DVD Release Date: 2013-08-13

This uncredited remake of Maurice Renard's oft-filmed novel The Hands of Orlac takes an entirely psychological approach to the story of a man who has a killer's hands grafted onto his wrists after an accident and finds the original owner's murderous impulses taking over. In fact, we never learn the identity of the hand-donor who gets murdered in the opening sequence, and therefore we never know if he's a killer.

Sensitive concert pianist Vernon Paris (James Stapleton, aka James Noah) is a beautiful fellow of delicate cheekbones. "I like music and I don't think I'm a sissy," he smiles. Even before the operation, he's established as a putative neurotic who may be too close to his doting sister (Joan Harvey) and overcompensating with his shallow girlfriend (Irish McCalla). When he's accidentally responsible for a couple of deaths -- including one of the quickest and most unconvincing in cinema, comparable to the absurd defenestration in The Man with X-Ray Eyes -- he blames the hands, the cursed hands!

This unbalances him sufficiently or gives him permission to go on the rampage. He may also be moved by jealousy of the other guy in the story with dexterous hands, the brilliant and egomaniacal surgeon (Paul Lukather) who instantly begins dating the piano man's sister. Now there's a fellow who knows how to flex his digits.

Writer, director and co-producer Newton Arnold and photographer Henry Cronjager Jr. adopt a strange, stark ambience marked by facial close-ups that often have the actors looking directly into the camera. And plenty of hand shots, of course. In addition to this unsettling approach are a few extremely stylized moments, such as an array of piano keys layered across the bottom of the image in one scene, and a funhouse mirror of distorted hands. A young Sally Kellerman registers in her brief scene as the naturalistically played girlfriend of a doctor.

Floating about in public-domain prints of variable quality, the film's best showcase is a good print on demand from Warner Archive. Hands of a Stranger is never quite good as drama or suspense or horror, but for connosseurs of the odd (and you know who you are), it's off-kilter enough to while away 90 minutes.

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