Although Universal was nearly dead in the water by 1946, RKO’s Val Lewton-Jacques Tourneur B-movie cavalcade was just a few years past its prime, and Warner Bros. The Beast With Five Fingers, released in that year, isn’t a patch on the dueling acmes of that cluster: the impossibly well crafted Cat People and the impressionistic, lyrical I Walked with a Zombie. So obviously, and honestly, we’re grading on a curve with The Beast With Five Fingers when we champion it – after all, this was a year in which the near-dead quasi-corpse of the genre was struggling to let its vaguely beating tell-tale heart be heard. But, with Warner Bros. playing Universal Horror for the only time in the whole decade, The Beast With Five Fingers is about as studious and sturdy an update of the even-then hoary Old Dark House format as you might imagine a struggling studio to release when they were stepping their toes in the sand of a genre that wasn’t really their own.
This is the Old Dark House subgenre, incidentally, that was arguably horror’s first lightning-in-a-bottle fad in the middle of the ‘20s and the early ‘30s, a closed-casket situation where the minimalist structure – a bunch of people in a house, terror ensues – carved out space for flirtation with film form and expressive, expressionistic visual flourishes. The progenitor of the form was The Bat, but the two pillars were Paul Leni’s The Cat and the Canary – an early exploration of the comic potential of the surrealism latent in horror – and James Whale’s post-Frankenstein film, and the near equal of that Shelley-adapted venerable fantastique chiller, The Old Dark House. By the early ‘30s, though, this trend was mostly a distant rumor as monsters supplanted mayhem as the order of the day, and Robert Florey’s tilted tale with Five Fingers doesn’t forego this supernatural side with its cadre of potential victims masticated by an, ahem, disembodied pianist’s hand.
The hand presumably belongs to deceased pianist Francis Ingram (Victor Francen), who passes away on the occasion of gathering many of his confidants together without having put the period on his will, prompting the arrival of two insidious family members who butt heads with Ingram’s long-term secretary Hilary Cummins (Peter Lorre) and raffish con man Bruce Conrad (Robert Alda), fellow traveler with the crew at Ingram’s.
Although director Florey remains mostly unknown today, he was one of those studio men who could pucker up any genre with finesse and care without sedimenting his films in an overly-fussy attention to auteurist detail. Beast, admittedly, isn’t a match for his deliriously disturbed Murders in the Rue Morgue from the pre-Code early ‘30s (arguably the greatest five-year run for horror in American history), with the more classical, reined-in Beast being a victim of horror’s domestication after the 1935 acme of Bride of Frankenstein. The hallucinogenic, psychotropic excess of Murders, a more conventionally “incompetent” film than Beast, is more vivacious and galvanic today, but Beast bears enough of an expressionistic tinge, especially for 1946, to pass muster. Certainly, the twitching climax of the film, which applies all of its fingers to outright horror, is stunning, punchy, gleefully cunning filmmaking of a decidedly nasty caliber with an inordinately greasy, grabby physical hand effect that plays like a phantom arachnid. It would do well to occupy a less phlegmatic register and ruffle itself up a bit, but again, it’s on the right side of the bell curve, especially for its year of release.
While a great early ‘30s horror might have been drugged-out, Beast is merely a little druggy, expending energy avoiding horror with a screenplay by Curt Siodmak that treats the genre more like a consolation prize or an addendum to the slowly encroaching character clashes – which, in an oddly thorny and unexpected way, personalizes Beast by shifting it partly away from its ostensible genre. While character in many horror films – especially horror on a budget – is a mirage, the insecurity and startled discomfort felt by Peter Lorre’s Cummings at having been excised from his boss’ will is no figment of the imagination. Instead, it’s a full-bodied pang of tragedy teetering on the knife’s edge of Lorre’s weaselly, wheezy dexterity slipping between boyish innocence and sinister desperation at a moment’s notice.
Dominating the film in a last-ditch effort to stave off his perpetual slide into the B-list, Lorre’s is an authoritative performance of regret and rage that may have mustered and energized his very real frustration at having been unceremoniously shunned by the Hollywood machine for years. A great film cannot be encapsulated or entrapped by one actor’s performance, and if Lorre’s alchemic role here divulges the film’s merely-good status, it is undoubtedly great whenever Lorre skulks into the frame like a knife ready to scrap away the flesh around your soul. The uncertainty about whether he will uncover that soul, laying it bare, or nullify it with a stab to the chest was Lorre’s insidious skill as an actor, and that question mark enlivens every single scene in which he appears.