When you think of 30's horror, you can't help but bring to mind classics like DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN, and THE MUMMY. But there's a special place in my heart for MAD LOVE, directed by THE MUMMY's Karl Freund, and featuring Peter Lorre in his first Hollywood role as the sinister and quite insane Dr. Gogol. It was a featured film in my college film criticism class, and seeing it for the first on the big screen is one of those cinema moments I treasure as much as the first time I saw STAR WARS at the drive-in, or KING KONG with my Dad on a hot Sunday afternoon.
MAD LOVE is a twisted, surreal tale of madness and unrequited love. Peter Lorre plays Dr. Gogol, a brilliant surgeon who nightly visits the Theatre des Horreurs, modeled after the famous Grand Guignol in Paris where he sits in the same box every night, mesmerized by the beauty of Yvonne Orlac, an actress in the gruesome drama.
The opening scene as he enters the theater is wonderfully evocative of Freund's expressionistic background in the German cinema - among other works he was the cinematographer for Fritz Lang's METROPOLIS, and also for Tod Browning's DRACULA. Here he works with another great D.O.P. - Gregg Toland, who would make a huge splash a few years later filming CITIZEN KANE. The film opens with a close-up of a hanging man, and slowly follows Gogol into the theater, becoming more surreal by the minute, each images passing lazily by like some nightmare made manifest. Doormen wear frightening masks and carry bones to open the doors. And the coat check girl? Let's just say her head's not in the game.
One of the most startling images in the film is Gogol's half-eclipsed face in the midst of ecstasy as Yvonne's performance ends in a scream of agony as a hot poker is placed in, shall we say, a delicate area. I know a lot of this may sound tame in 2007, but in 1935? This was some crazy stuff, believe you me!
Elsewhere in the story Stephen Orlac (played by FRANKENSTEIN'S Colin Clive), Yvonne's husband and a gifted pianist, is riding the train to meet his wife and finally start their honeymoon. Also on the train is Rollo, a convicted murderer who made his living as a knife thrower in the carnival. One train wreck later, and Stephen's hands are crushed, as are his chances of every playing the piano again.
Or are they? After Yvonne runs to Gogol, he secretly grafts the hands of the executed Rollo onto Stephen. The operation is a success, and no one is the wiser until Stephen's hands begin to show some peculiar habits, such as the ability to throw a knife...
From here you can probably guess where things go, and that's okay, because the brilliance in MAD LOVE is not in it's story but in its execution. Freund lays on image after image of surreal horror. And in the face of Peter Lorre he has the perfect tool. The movie is full of close-ups of Gogol, exhibiting every kind of emotion, from curious inquisitiveness after witnessing Rollo's decapitation...
...to his final descent into madness while operating on a young girl:
Gogol's obsession with Yvonne leads him to convince Stephen that his hands, and him by extension, are dangerous to everyone around him. After murdering Stephen's step-father, Orlac meets a disguised Gogol, who tells him that he is the resurrected Rollo, and that Gogol has re-attached his head. Then, from out of the shadows perhaps one of the creepiest moments in film:
This is just one of many creep-out moments in the film. Shadows play across faces, accentuate and distort corridors and alleyways. There's a running motif of duality in the movie as well - numerous scenes make excellent use of mirrors (the operating room mirrors especially) to display the warring sides of Gogol's mind. Duality is made even more explicit in the climax of the movie, as Yvonne goes to confront Gogol, only to find a wax figure of herself in his drawing room. Gogol's madness by this time is complete - Yvonne, trapped in Gogol's drawing room looks on in horror as he slowly comes up the stairs:
Long tracking shots, dissolves from gargoyles to hideous masks, innovative use of shadow and light, and above all the totally twisted performance of Peter Lorre all serve to make MAD LOVE a delight watch over 70 years after its initial release. No, there are no real scares for an audience fed on torture horror and CGI splatter, but for pure mood and quirkiness MAD LOVE is hard to beat.