January 26, 2012
There are few events more horrific than war. Of course, when something is fear-inducing, there will always be filmmakers ready to make a movie out of it, and horror films have been effectively using the backdrop of war for years, from the classic Isle of the Dead to the more recent Dead Snow. Master British director Henry Cass (Blood of the Vampire, Last Holiday) made a film about a group of World War II soldiers in 1960 called The Hand that explored the physical and psychological scars of battle while scaring the heck out of its audience.
The Hand begins in Burma in 1946, where a handful of British soldiers have just been captured by the Japanese. The three men, including Corporal George Adams (Bryan Coleman from “The Further Adventures of Oliver Twist”), Private Michael John Brodie (The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw’s Reed De Rouen) and Lieutenant Roger Crawshaw (Derek Bond from The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby), openly defy the Japanese commander when he asks where the rest of their regiment is located. Before the captives can get their stories synchronized, the Japanese separate them and take away Private Brodie. When he refuses to talk, his captors cut off his right hand. They give Corporal Adams the same treatment, and then pull the lieutenant into the chamber.
The film then fast-forwards to present day London, where a policeman finds the town drunk, Charlie Taplow (Harold Scott from “Dixon of Dock Green”) passed out in an alleyway. When the constable rouses Taplow, he notices two things; his pockets are full of money and there is a crudely bandaged stump where his right hand used to be. Taplow is brought to a hospital where he is visited by Sergeant David Pollitt of Scotland Yard (played by screenwriter Ray Cooney). Taplow tells Pollitt that a stranger paid him 500 pounds for his hand. When Taplow ends up dead later that night, Pollitt’s boss, Inspector Munyard (Ronald Leigh-Hunt, better known as King Arthur in “The Adventures of Sir Lancelot”) takes over the case, and the two detectives find their way to a hospital where a man named “Roberts” checked in to have a hand amputated. Seeing the obvious connection, the men seek out the doctor who treated Roberts. The doctor remembers the nervous man and, knowing that there is more to the story than he wants to tell the police, shoots himself. Pollitt and Munyard are then left to find the man who paid Taplow for his hand, and figure out why he wanted it in the first place.
The Hand has a frightening premise and is a great idea for a horror film, but the big weakness in its execution is its script. The screenplay is the first ever written by Ray Cooney (Funny Money) and Tony Hilton (No Place Like Homicide!), and their inexperience shows. The plot is needlessly complex, yet leaves several holes unfilled and loose ends untied. The beginning war scene isn’t tied in to the rest of the movie very well, and that’s a real shame, because solidifying the connection would also clarify the villain’s motives and methods. Random occurrences seem to happen for no reason, and other events that would help the plot make sense are absent. For as short as it is (it clocks in at a little over an hour), it seems unfinished, as if somewhere there’s a director’s cut that explains away all of the mysteries that still linger long after the credits roll.
Even with the weak script, Cass and company still end up pulling off a very enjoyable film. Cass enlisted experienced film noir cinematographer Walter J. Harvey (The Terror, Stolen Face) and moody editor Robert Hill (The Monster of Highgate Ponds, The Ghost of Monk’s Island) to make The Hand look dark and spooky. The cast all turn in brilliant performances, seemingly needing to put zero effort into the poor script to make it work. There’s even a suitable jazzy-noir score from “What’s My Line” theme composer Wilfred Burns that gives the film a hip, cop-show vibe.
Perhaps the scariest thing about The Hand is what Cass does not show. The film has a knack of cutting away from the most gruesome parts a split second before they happen, leaving the action occurring just off camera or off screen. For example, during the opening scene, the viewer is never shown the soldier’s hands being lopped off. The camera shows the Japanese commander raise his katana, then the shot cuts to the soldier’s face while the chop is heard on the soundtrack (thanks to The Dirty Dozen and “Space: 1999” sound man Claude Hitchcock) and the man screams his head off. The technique is used with a similar effect during the doctor’s suicide scene; the camera shows the doctor reach for a gun, he and Pollitt wrestle with it, and the camera cuts to the next room where Munyard is interrogating a nurse when the gun goes off. The violence is implied, not shown, and what the audience imagines is far more graphic than anything that a movie made in 1960 can show.
Even with the flawed script and unsatisfying ending, The Hand is an interesting film. It effectively mixes the horrors of war with the unpredictability of crime, letting the viewer fill in the gaps (for better and worse).