Classic Review: Mad Love (1935)


Director: Karl Freund

Starring: Peter Lorre, Frances Drake, Colin Clive

Release Date: 12th July 1935 (US)

Horror films often confound our expectations; we think we know what a horror film should contain, yet we include films such as Mad Love under that label, a movie without werewolves or vampires, gothic castles or haunted swamps. Yes, there is a mad scientist, but he begins as sane, only to destroy himself through through that most human of emotions, love. The progress of the protagonist’s mental decline is demonstrated in terms that even eighty years later feel credible; the unreasonable is kept reasonable; we empathize as we decry.

Almost nothing happens in Mad Love which is pure fantasy to us in 2015. Peter Lorre, who plays the skilled surgeon Dr Gogol, claimed late in his career he’d never made a horror film, including the Roger Corman adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe, a writer of whom Lorre was very fond. Such films, Lorre believed, were of the suspense genre, more interested in the workings of the human mind rather than the trappings of cemeteries, torture chambers and fume-filled labs. In a way, Lorre was right; settings, such as Gogol’s surgery, where pain pushes back pain in our hopeless mission to defeat the grave, act as a twisted reflection of the journey an idea takes to improving the human condition, be it misguided or otherwise.

Yet we are all subject to the passage of time and a clock makes for a damning mirror. The Paris of Mad Love is one of horse-drawn carriages, executions by guillotine and police officers proffering cigars and cognac, and, as with many fantasy films of the 1930s, a need to believe in science and medicine to save mankind from itself, a desire for the future, today. We laugh at their customs, and their trust in us.

We live in their future, our age in which surgical transplants are commonplace and mental health issues better understood. Their present we see as crucibles, their speculative films a meeting point for fact and fiction, pushing their fear towards us in time, yet leaving a space where new suspicions grew. This area is where art conducts its own experiments on matters uncovered by technology from which the shadow of the supernatural has yet to flee. Mad Love, caught between the path to the past, and the trail to the future, conducts psychological tests with the cutting edge of physical science, its lead character in charge of the project in which he is the unwitting specimen.

Mad Love grabs at us, breaking the barrier between can and can’t, as a fist punches through the window upon which the opening credits are projected. The first image tricks us, as we see a body hanging from a noose (suicide, or an execution?), but this is a model, part of a ‘theater of horror’, a living exhibition of fake monsters and ghouls, “a new shudder,” as one customer puts it to his unimpressed date. New, but also a re-staging of old tropes, the past repackaged for the present, its centerpiece a play Catherine Morland might have thought old hat, as a woman is tortured by her wicked husband into revealing the identity of her lover.

Hoary stuff, but Dr Gogol (Lorre, in his first American film) is a great fan, of leading actress Yvonne Orlac (Frances Drake), if not the play. Gogol has attended the play for 47 nights straight, and Yvonne reads a note to her dresser Marie (a droll performance from Sara Haden) from the famous surgeon expressing his admiration for her acting skills. Well, that’s what he calls it anyway. Arriving for the night’s performance, Gogol stops to admire a waxwork of Yvonne in the foyer, but is harassed by a drunken patron who knows ‘admiration’ when he sees it; “she’s for neither of us,” he advises, but Gogol is already too far gone to take heed – ugliness’s love of beauty is always unrequited, and the bald, eye-bulging Gogol resembles an overgrown kindergarten bully. Watching Yvonne from his private box, director Karl Freund hints at Gogol’s true nature, as Lorre biographer Stephen D Youngkin explains: “a shadow vertically splits his moon face and gleaming bald head, masking one side of his divided psyche,” for Gogol is a man of contrasts and contradictions, between which he will reach his downfall.

Gogol doesn’t know Yvonne is already spoken for, and she and Marie tune into the radio to listen to her husband, Stephen Orlac, a talented pianist and composer, perform live from Fontainebleau. Yet even here, a note of caution is sounded, when Yvonne asks Marie for the correct frequency. “After one year of marriage,” observers the dresser, “I remember things like radio stations. And forgot my husband.”

After the play, Gogol visits Yvonne in her dressing room, where the actress thanks the surgeon for the notes and gifts, but casually reveals she is married. The camera closes in on Gogol and we can almost see his heart breaking with this news, worsened by Yvonne adding that tonight’s was her last performance before departing with her husband of twelve months to England for a belated honeymoon. “But I must see you – I must,” declares Gogol, his pleasantries turning subtly into threats.

The manager interrupts; the theater is throwing a party to celebrate the play’s last night, and invites Gogol to join in the festivities (Drake has Yvonne gesture her unease, unseen by the manager, but noted by us). At the party, Yvonne is presented with a wedding cake topped with a decorative guillotine, and ‘sells’ slices of the cake to the assembled, a kiss for each slice. Gogol, already drifting towards the door, as many a lovelorn science nerd has done at a party, is called back by the manager to claim his slice. The doctor is unable to restrain himself, and kisses Yvonne passionately, to the cheers of the crowd and to Yvonne’s discomfort.

The forlorn Gogol wanders outside, where he sees workmen packing away the theater’s waxworks, for melting down. Waylaying the bemused foreman with the Greek myth of Pygmalion and Galatea (the latter the creation of Pygmalion, a statue which came to life through the power of her creator’s love), he pays a hundred francs for the waxwork of Yvonne and its delivery to his home.

Meanwhile, Stephen Orlac (Colin Clive, the original titular Frankenstein [1931]) is on a train heading for Paris. Boarding the train are two policemen escorting a murderer, an American named Rollo (Edward Brophy), who has stabbed his father to death, having learned to throw knives while growing up in a travelling circus. A fellow passenger borrows Stephen’s pen for an autograph, but angers Rollo when they discuss the murderer’s girlfriend, and throws the fountain pen into the side of the carriage. “The old hands can still do their stuff,” says Rollo, impressed with himself. “This happens to be my pen, gentlemen,” mutters the worried Stephen, little knowing how fate will bring Rollo and he together – literally.

Waiting for Rollo in Paris is Reagan, an American journalist, and every inch the over-friendly, fast-talking, gum-chewing ‘yankee’ so beloved of Europeans. Reagan is to cover Rollo’s execution for his newspaper, but has a weak stomach. Rosset, the police Prefect (Henry Kolker) advises he take a flask of cognac to the execution. “Nah, gin, chief. Gin for executions, beer for birthdays, wine for weddings, and champagne…” What of champagne, asks Rosset. “You ask that and you’re a Frenchman?” I like Reagan, a man after my own liver. The police prefect puts a call through to Gogol at his clinic, where he is caring for a little girl who requires surgery. The girl is sleeping, but awakes when Gogol’s voice rises with excitement on learning of the forthcoming execution. Gogol is a man who is as interested in watching lives end as he is skilled at saving them. Other films might have made Rollo the villain, and Gogol his accomplice, but Mad Love plays a more interesting game with its characters, mind games in which the dead stay dead, but exert a powerful influence on the living.

At the station in Paris, a commotion breaks out at the news that the Fontainebleau train has crashed. The wreck, although seen only briefly, is staged with conviction, as men with axes attempt to hack open the wooden carriages piled on top of each other. Later, at the local hospital, a doctor tells Yvonne her husband’s hands require amputation with somewhat serious consequences for his chosen career. Marie reminds Yvonne of Dr Gogol, and a call is put through to Paris.

Now it’s time to meet that old staple, the comedy drunken housekeeper, whose vulgar physicality throws Reagan’s patter into sharp relief. Francois (May Beatty), a rolling, rollicking old lady forever with a bottle in her hand, and a parrot on her shoulder, tells the caller her employer is at the execution, as “he never misses a headchoppin’.” Indeed, Gogol is watching Rollo’s last moments with cold satisfaction as the condemned is permitted a last cigarette. There’s a brief, but touching scene, when the two Americans, Rollo and Reagan, are allowed to talk: “Hey, tough luck, buddy,” says Reagan. “Thanks, pardner,” replies Rollo, who asks Reagan about the new dam built near his home town of Las Vegas. Madame Guillotine has no patience for such things however, and the execution is carried out, viewed with a clinical eye by Gogol, as if trying to work out the surgery required to put Rollo back together – or perhaps thinking of the ‘headless’ cloak attendant at the theater. Knocking back his gin, Reagan asks Gogol if he’ll contribute medical articles to the magazine section of his newspaper, but the doctor is neither interested in fame or money, and refuses.

The waxwork of Yvonne is delivered to Gogol’s quarters, just as the Orlacs’ ambulance arrives at the adjoining clinic. Gogol inspects the unconscious Stephen’s injuries, but can only tell his surgical team to prepare for amputation. Meeting with Yvonne, Gogol tries to comfort her by suggesting Stephen find other outlets to express his musical talents, such as concentrating solely on composition, or playing the triangle with his feet, or head-butting a bass drum. Ah come on, cheer up. Laughter is the best medicine.

Gogol brushes up for the operation with his colleague, Dr Wong (Keye Luke, better known as ‘number one son’ in the Charlie Chan films of the time), and bemoans his inability to help Yvonne. “It’s impossible, professor,” replies Wong, but inspiration strikes Gogol, who cries “Napoleon said ‘impossible’ is not a French word!” True, but looked what happened to Napoleon, not to mention France – people were losing their heads all over the place. Gogol contacts the police and requests Rollo’s body be delivered to the clinic…

As the hand transplant proceeds, Yvonne sleeps fitfully and experiences a dream, better composed than most in film, in which piano keys merge with railway sleepers, sunsets fade to black, ending with Gogol’s leering face closing in upon her. As an essentially two-dimensional visual medium, film struggles to depict the intimate world of the psyche, but as we see with Gogol’s hallucinations later, Mad Love does its best to cross the divide of the personal (one’s own experience of mental disturbances) with the universal (the ‘props’ film uses to show a disturbed psyche: dissolving visual effects, skewered camera angles, or tricks with mirrors).

The transplant is a success, though the Orlacs are unaware Stephen now has Rollo’s hands. Some weeks pass, and Stephen undergoes various expensive therapies (one of which seems to involve Stephen placing his hand over a lit gas ring), placing the Orlacs in financial difficulties. To make matters worse, Stephen cannot play the piano with his former skill, causing him to muse “the phonograph keeps a man alive long after he’s dead” as he plays an album of his music. Yvonne suggests Stephen go to his stepfather for help, but he refuses to consider the idea. A shopkeeper arrives, demanding the latest installment on Stephen’s piano, only to find the pen mightier than his words; the furious Stephen hurls his fountain pen like a knife, into the room’s wooden paneling. “This happens to be my pen, gentlemen,” he mutters, perplexed.

Unbeknownst to Yvonne, Stephen does go to his stepfather, an antique dealer. Henry Orlac (Ian Wolfe) has only scorn for his stepson, angry at Stephen’s refusal to enter the family business,. Mr Orlac refuses to give his stepson money, suggesting instead Stephen’s “actress wife” supplements their income in “other ways,” and I don’t think he means setting up a pop-up cupcake business. Losing control, Stephen hurls an antique dagger at the old man, but misses and flees.

Gogol visits Yvonne and discusses his feeling for the actress, who declines the professor’s overtures. “You are cruel,” Gogol says, “but to be kind.” The two appear reconciled. Later, we learn Gogol has purchased new clothes for the waxwork of Yvonne, much to his housekeeper’s chagrin – and possible jealousy.

The time has come for the little girl’s operation, and her mother attempts to pay Gogol: “I don’t operate for money,” she is told. Gogol’s professional pride turns to personal anguish when, in an exquisitely painful moment, he notices the woman’s wedding ring. This stranger, an ordinary middle-aged woman, has found love, but the brilliant professor has nothing.

Stephen Orlac arrives at Gogol’s clinic in a distressed state, demonstrating to the professor his prowess with knives, and claiming his hands “want to kill.” Gogol turns to Freud, and explains the condition as “arrested wish fulfillment,” and conjures up a possible incident from Stephen’s childhood. Sounds fair enough; who here hasn’t wanted to lob a knife at old Pa now and then?

Later, as Gogol’s team wait to perform the operation on the lame child, Yvonne returns, looking for her husband, but Gogol has sent him to the country for a rest cure, claiming the shock of the operation has disturbed his mind. “His life is ruined,” claims Gogol, “and he’ll ruin yours too…I conquered science, why can’t I conquer love?” You and me both doc, but I never got around to the science part. I didn’t even pass my high school science exams, despite watching all these mad scientist films. Yvonne, disgusted, pushes Gogol away for once and for all.

Defeated, Gogol slopes away to the surgery and plods through the preparation, looking every inch the depressive. No sooner has he begun to operate than he reels out of the surgery, crying and clutching his head. In the preparation room, Gogol hears Yvonne’s voice and sees his reflections taking on a life of their own; one whines and pleads his case, the other laughs at him. Wong saves the little girl, while all Gogol can do is watch a Venus fly trap eat a bluebottle. My brother owned a Venus fly trap once, and they’re not as interesting as the movies make out, but are useful as a sure sign of something awful about to happen (in my brother’s case, the awful thing usually happened to me).

In this case however, it’s Orlac senior who gets it, and the police suspect Stephen of the killing. It feels like a mis-step to have the murder occur off-camera; although supposed to prolong the mystery, the viewer’s suspicion never really falls on the musician. Stephen visits a shadowy figure lodging in a down-at-heel hotel, a man shrouded in a black cloak with metallic hands: “your hands were my hands once,” he whispers to Stephen. The mysterious figure knows who killed Stephen’s father – Stephen himself, who then blanked out the memory. “Who are you?” demands the confused musician. “I am Rollo,” comes the reply, as he removes his cloak to reveal a nightmarish figure in dark glasses and a neck brace. The image is an arresting one, and little wonder Stephen runs, while ‘Rollo’ cackles as if possessed – which in a sense, he is.

Stephen tells Yvonne it was he who murdered his father and that Rollo is alive, as Gogol surgically closed the inconvenient gap that had developed between his head and his body. The police arrest Stephen, but Yvonne protests his innocence; correctly suspecting head transplants are a little way off into the future, she sets off to investigate.

Our drunken housekeeper freaks out when Yvonne appears at the door, thinking her the waxwork come to life. Francoise runs for the police, leaving her parrot (a representation of mimicry) sitting on the waxwork’s shoulder, presenting Yvonne with a bizarre sight on entering Gogol’s rooms. Hearing the deranged surgeon walking up the stairs, Yvonne panics and knocks over the waxwork, whose face smashes on the floor. Gogol, still in the get-up he wore as the ‘disguised’ Rollo, raves about Galatea and the trick he has pulled on Stephen. “Orlac, shut away,” he laughs, “when it is I who is mad!” Yvonne nearly loses it as well on seeing Gogol’s shocking appearance, but has no choice but to pretend she is her own waxwork, a feat not attempted again until Micheal Jackson’s later years.

The police discover the fingerprints at the scene of Mr Orlac’s murder match those of the notably dead Rollo. Reagan, mistaking the housekeeper’s previous drunken ramblings about misplaced body parts (she meant the waxwork) for actual surgery, figures Gogol replaced Stephen’s mangled hands with those of the beheaded American, and they set off for the clinic.

Gogol plays at his organ, the lunatic’s musical instrument of choice. Yvonne tries to escape, but is scratched by the parrot, who lends a horrible comedy to the scene. Gogol looks on in wonder: “wax bleeds…Galatea…Pygmalion…your lips are mine.” At the same time, The Prefect drives to the scene and tells Reagan “there’s no hurry.” Sir, if a sexually frustrated madman is using lines like “your lips are mine,” a time machine can’t get you there fast enough.

Yvonne claims she is ‘Galatea,’ sending Gogol into a frenzy: “I love you, but you hate me!” Gogol hears voices, telling him that “each man kills the thing he loves.” Yvonne faints as Gogol tenderly places her on a coach and begins to strangle the young woman using her own hair. Impeded by a locked iron lattice door, it seems there’s nothing the police can do to prevent the murder, but Stephen uses his new knife-throwing skills to disable Gogol. The police break in, and the last image Gogol sees before he dies is of Stephen and his beloved Yvonne embracing.

If you’ve heard this story before, it’s no surprise; Mad Love is a remake of a 1924 film, The Hands of Orlac, which in turn was an adaptation of a 1920 French novel by Maurice Renard. The story served for two further remakes in the 1960s, by which time the motif of transplants going awry had been done to death, not least by the Bela Lugosi film The Raven (also 1935), which follows almost the same plot, if less convincingly, than Mad Love. Time acts against Mad Love in this regard, but tells its story with aplomb, while also examining, with some sympathy, the brittle nature of Gogol’s divided mind, as it craves the love his appearance ensures he cannot claim. Discussing Mad Love in his Guide for the Film Fanatic (1987), Danny Peary extols the cast: “Lorre dominates proceedings, but Clive and Drake, as one of the the strongest, most intelligent women in horror cinema, are superb. Down to the smallest role, the casting is thoughtful, and parts are well written and played.” To my taste, Colin Clive’s performance as Stephen Orlac hasn’t aged well; it’s very stiff-upper-lip and to-hell-with-it-all, but to say as much is to judge the past with the standards of the present.

Elsewhere, the likes of Ted Healy, Edward Brophy and May Beatty all make their smaller roles memorable, and Chinese-born Keye Luke is allowed to play the capable Dr Wong without any reference to race, a positive role in contrast to so many so-called ‘ethnic’ characters in films of this era.

Equally deserving of praise is Mad Love‘s director, Karl Freund, a Czech who worked in German silent cinema and was behind the camera for Der Golem (1920) and Metropolis (1927) among many others. In 1929, Freund moved to the US and served as cameraman on such horror classics as Dracula (1931) and Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), before turning his hand to directing, shooting The Mummy in 1932 for Universal. Mad Love proved his last directorial project before returning to his first love of cinematography. Youngkin praises Freund for the continental panache he brings to Mad Love: “for atmosphere, Freund looked to a past that he had helped make, steeping Mad Love in German traditions rich in dark, brooding territory…a miscellany of of sinister shadows, oblique angles, staircases and reflections.”

It’s a shame mainstream horror followed the story and trappings, rather than the techniques which made Mad Love, in Peary’s words, an “under-appreciated gem.” Far easier, to copy a film’s appearance rather than its feel, its symbols rather than the underlying symbolism. There’s also an irony in that what made Mad Love a failure at the box office are the reasons it receives praise today, but then, it is a film which, as I mentioned previously, is pulled by two different times.

Despite his protestations, Lorre, who is excellent as Gogol, utterly persuasive as a man capable of menace and compassion, became associated in the public’s mind with horror, remarkable when you consider he went on to make Casablanca (1942) and The Maltese Falcon (1941). Yet the trap which caught so many others – Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney, Vincent Price, John Carradine, and Sir Christopher Lee – also caught Lorre, even if just by the coattail, allowing him a little more freedom than those other celebrated actors. We like to see the same performers appearing in horror films, not only because a familiar face among the carnage can comfort us, even as it threatens to kill us, but also because it provides a reference point for us to process our own terrors. Mad Love, with its new, fresh-faced star, points in another direction, but we chose the road more traveled by. Perhaps we couldn’t face the idea there is no monster more terrible than the human mind. For as Mad Love posits, if the mind is the greatest machine of all, what happens if the machine that creates the world around us goes wrong?