MAD LOVE. MGM, 1935. Peter Lorre, Frances Drake, Colin Clive, Ted Healy, Sara Haden, Keye Luke. Based on the novel Les Mains D’Orlac by Maurice Renard (The Hands of Orlac). Director: Karl Freund.

   Directed by Karl Freund (The Mummy), Mad Love may not be the greatest horror movie released in the 1930s, but it’s a must-see for Peter Lorre fans. In his Hollywood debut Lorre portrays Dr. Gogol, a strange bald man fixated on Yvonne Orlac (Frances Drake) an actress at a Grand Guignol-type Parisian theater. His romantic infatuation with the married Yvonne will plunge him deep into a living nightmare, one in which he will commit coldblooded murder to possess her like an object.

   Adapted from Maurice Renard’s Les Mains d’Orlac (1920), the plot follows Dr. Gogol’s attempt to win Yvonne’s affections by performing a radical experimental procedure on her husband, Stephen Orlac (Colin Clive). Orlac, a concert pianist, had his hands crushed in a train accident. So Gogol, in hoping that he can win Yvonne’s heart by performing surgery on her husband’s hands, does the unthinkable. He replaces Orlac’s hands with that of a newly deceased convict, one whose life has recently been taken by the guillotine. As one might imagine, this does not work out well for Stephen Orlac. Having the hands of a murderer isn’t exactly conducive toward rebuilding his career as a musician.

   But it’s not the plot that makes Mad Love worth a look. Rather, it’s Lorre’s performance, coupled with Freund’s direction and the general atmosphere of creepiness and dread that permeate the film’s aesthetic. Between light and shadow and close ups of Lorre’s deranged facial expressions, this movie captures what psychological horror ought to look like on screen.

   Although there’s some lighthearted relief in the form of Dr. Gogol’s inebriated housekeeper, the movie takes place in an off-kilter world, a land of mirrors and madness. Call it post-German Expressionism or proto-noir, if you will. And Lorre, as in Fritz Lang’s M (1931) and John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941), gives an unforgettable performance.