Friday, November 20, 2015

Past Misdeeds: Mad Love (1935)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

Yvonne Orlac (Frances Drake), the lead actress in a rather dubious looking play, is the not so secret object of affection for the genius but mad surgeon Doctor Gogol (Peter Lorre). Yvonne doesn't do anything to dissuade Gogol, because to her knowledge he is not doing anything more creepy than visiting each of her performances and sending her flowers every night without trying to meet or molest her. What Yvonne doesn't know is how affectionate Gogol is when he's slavering over that wax figurine of hers that's standing in the theatre's foyer.

The two finally meet on the day of Yvonne's final performance. It is only then that Gogol realizes that his object of obsession is married to the pianist Stephen Orlac (Colin Clive) and is really quite repulsed by the good Doctor's less than model-esque appearance and creepy demeanour when confronted with it closely.

Still, Gogol does take the whole business with as much composure as someone with his mental problems is able to show. The surgeon seems willing to be content with buying wax Yvonne (who at least has a reason to be as lifeless as Drake is) and leaving the breathing woman in peace.

That could be that, but unfortunately, Stephen's oh so precious hands are hurt in a train accident and the only way to save his life seems to be amputation. Yvonne goes to Gogol and begs for his help. The surgeon can't resist the woman's shrill, melodramatic exclamations, but he knows he can't save Stephen's hands in the way his object of adulation wants him to.

What he can do, and secretly does, is give Stephen new hands. Too bad that those are the hands of the knife-throwing killer Rollo who just had a close acquaintance with the guillotine.

I say too bad because Stephen very quickly develops the tendency to throw knives at people that displease and annoy him while losing the ability to play his beloved piano again. When he goes to Gogol for help, the by now quite mad surgeon gets a brilliant idea how to acquire himself a real, breathing Yvonne.

Mad Love is the last directorial effort of the brilliant director of photography Karl Freund, and I would call it his best work in the position. To me, it is possibly his only film as a director where he isn't a director of photography trying his hand at directing, but a real director, by now knowledgeable enough to put state of the art cinematic techniques and his experience in German expressionist filmmaking to excellent use. When it comes to visual style, Mad Love is one of my favourite films of the era, full of little details that heighten the tension and bring Gogol's state of mind to the front.

There is also much to love on the design front - I'm especially enamoured of the insane costume Gogol dons to try and fool Orlac into thinking he is Rollo, back from the dead with a freshly stitched-back head, and the set design for Gogol's home, all its rooms a little too empty, all doors a little larger than they should be.

Even better than Freund and the art design is Peter Lorre. Lorre is doing another step on his way to be forever typecast as the psycho here, but his performance is so nuanced that even the worst moments of over-ripe dialogue (and gosh, there's a lot of that here) just plain work. In fact, the purpleness seems to be part of the way the doctor defines himself. As Lorre plays him, Gogol is as frightening as he is pitiably, and I think the way he creates a very human monster and not just a monster is something people doing serial killer movies today should really take a good look at, instead of just looking at Anthony Hopkins doing the bug-eye. Of course, there's always Criminal Minds doing it right/more interesting, but I digress.

What for me put Mad Love down below the status of lost classic are two things. Firstly, Lorre's performance might be a career high, but he is the only one really doing much of anything with his role. Drake's only mode of acting is being shrill and melodramatic, and Colin Clive, as we know from Frankenstein perfectly capable of doing an excellent job, is badly hampered by the second - and bigger - one of the film's problems, a really bad script.

Sure, as you can see from the plot description, there are a lot of great, even subversive ideas in it, but the execution is in parts execrable. This begins with the overblown-even-for-1935 dialogue and ends with the absurd way poor Colin Clive's role is handled. In theory, he is slowly driven mad by his inability to learn playing the piano again, hurt by money troubles and the feeling that his hands just aren't his own anymore, but as the film shows it, he goes from "person we have never seen" to "mad, tittering wreck" in seconds. And, you know, that's quite a problem when your film wants me to believe in a plot that hinges on his state of mind. Instead of exploring Orlac deep enough to make him as interesting as Gogol, the script prefers to waste its running time on throwing two OCR characters at us in the form of Gogol's alcoholic (and what could be funnier) housekeeper and an especially dreadful comic relief reporter.

It's a wonder that the film still is as good as it is, really, but the raw talent and determination of Freund and Lorre win out over the trite and the unfunny.

Just don't think about how great the film could have been with a good script.

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