Movie of the Week: Hands of a Stranger (1962)
Updated: Apr 20, 2019
With its very noir pre-credits sequence, it seems like Hands of a Stranger (1962) might not be a horror film at all. When a man walking down the street realizes that a car is following him, he speeds his pace. The car also speeds, and then screeches to a stop beside him as shots sound loudly into the night. Not quite dead (yet), two hands reach into the air, their fingers crawling up a lamppost.
Cut to stock footage of an ambulance, siren blaring, alternating with the paramedics inside trying to save the man’s life. This is all filmed with interesting angles and close-ups. Unfortunately, post-credits, Hands of a Stranger devolves into a sub-standard independent horror melodrama that wears its low budget on its sleeve like a badge of honor. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth watching.
In a way, writer-director Newt Arnold attempts to make his first feature film interesting. I like the consistent shots that emphasize hands. For example, when handsome concert pianist Vernon Paris (James Noah) performs on stage, the camera pans down a row of the audience, focusing on what each person is doing with their hands. He incorporates similar shots frequently, but doesn’t overuse them.
Arnold began his career as an assistant to the producer for Zero Hour! (1957), which was, coincidentally, a film noir. After acting as associate producer for All the Young Men (1960), he made Hands of a Stranger, which wasn’t released until two years later. With only a couple of exceptions, he then spent the remainder of his career as an assistant director, ending with Rules of Engagement in 2000.
When Paris is involved in an automobile accident, Dr. Gil Harding (Paul Lukather) wants to perform “radical” surgery to replace his mangled hands, and our ears are assaulted for the first time with the script’s over-dramatized dialogue. For example, instead of amputating a concert pianist’s hands, it would be “better to drive a scalpel through his heart!”
Verbal exchanges escalate (as well as the overwrought score) in the operating room until Harding shuts it down with his declaration, “He’ll have hands!” Of course, these will be the “powerful hands, yet sensitive at the same time” of the stranger murdered in the opening scene. The movie barely mentions why these hands would take over Paris’s personality; however…
…the characters are quick to assume that’s exactly what happened when dead bodies start appearing around town. Something just dawned on me, although I doubt the filmmakers intended it. Maybe there is no physical influence of the transplanted hands on the mental state of Paris. The trauma of no longer being able to play the piano might be enough to drive this egotistical man crazy.
From that lens, I might need to reevaluate Hands of a Stranger. Plot-wise, it makes sense to view it as a strictly psychological version of the source material (the uncredited Les Mains d’Orlac). That does nothing to help the poor acting, particularly from the female characters, and the talky nature of the film. It would almost be boring if the heightened level of melodrama wasn’t keeping you awake.
Written by Newt Arnold Based on the novel "Les Mains d'Orlac" by Maurice Renard (uncredited) Directed by Newt Arnold Starring Paul Lukather, Joan Harvey, James Noah Released April 22, 1962 RT 85 min. Home Video Warner Archive Collection (DVD)