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Film / The Hands of Orlac

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The Hands of Orlac (German: Orlacs Hände) is a 1924 Austrian silent horror film directed by Robert Wiene and starring Conrad Veidt, Alexandra Sorina and Fritz Kortner. The film was also released as Die Unheimlichen Hande des Doktor Orlac. The film's plot is based on the book Les Mains d'Orlac (1920) written by Maurice Renard.

Paul Orlac is a world famous pianist. One day he is badly hurt in a big train wreck. He is in danger of losing both his hands so his wife begs the doctors to save them. They eventually manage to transplant his hands with those of another deceased person. After his recovery Orlac discovers that there is something seriously wrong with his new pair of hands — it is as if they had a will of their own. But Orlac doesn't know that they actually belonged to a dangerous murderer.

The film has been remade three times: as Mad Love (1935) directed by Karl Freund, as The Hands of Orlac (1960), a British/French co-production, and as a low-budget American company as Hands of a Stranger (1962) directed by Newt Arnold.

Tropes in The Hands of Orlac include:

  • An Arm and a Leg: Concert pianist Paul Orlac's hands are destroyed in a train wreck. Knowing that her husband values his hands over his life, his wife Yvonne begs their doctor to do whatever he can to save them. The doctor transplants a pair of hands from a recently executed murderer onto Orlac's arms. However, Orlac soon comes to believe that that his new hands are Evil Hands.
  • Artificial Limbs: Vasseur wears metal prostheses to replace his hands and forearms which were amputated. Actually a case of Obfuscating Disability as the man is not Vasseur at all.
  • Blackmail: Vasseur has some kind of hold over Regine, the Orlacs' maid. He uses this to force her into persuading Orlac that he needs to visit his father. Once there, Orlac walks into a Frame-Up that makes it look like he has murdered his father. Vasseur/Nera plans to use this to extort Orlac for 10 million francs in exchange for not going to the police.
  • Career-Ending Injury: Concert pianist Paul Orlac's hands are irreparably damaged in a train wreck. This leads to him receiving a hand transplant from an executed murderer, and to him gradually coming to believe that he possesses Evil Hands.
  • Clothing-Concealed Injury: Vasseur wears a neckerchief to conceal the scar on his neck that he received when he was guillotined. The scar is actually a fake.
  • Con Man: Nera, whom the police describe as one of the most notorious con men in Europe. He is posing as Vasseur, returned from the dead, as part of an elaborate scheme to blackmail Orlac.
  • Conspicuous Trenchcoat: When Orlac sneaks out of the house to investigate Vasseur's crime, he wears a dark overcoat and hat. Even though this is the 1920s when such dress was standard for men, he still stands out like a sore thumb as he is wearing a very dark heavy coat on a bright and sunny day.
  • Evil Hand: The Trope Maker. Concert pianist Paul Orlac has the hands of an executed murderer grafted on to his arms after his own hands are irreparably damaged in a train wreck. However, he soon discovers that his new hands seem to possess a will of their own.
  • Fingerprinting Air: One of the detectives runs his magnifying glass over a table and can not only detect fingerprints, but identifies them as being those of Vasseur.
  • Frame-Up: Orlac finds his father stabbed to death with a distinctive knife he had in his possession earlier. The fingerprints of his new hands are all over the crime scene, and the note that lured the old family retainer away is written in Orlac's new handwriting. Due to his Sanity Slippage, Orlac cannot be certain that he didn't do it. However, unlike most characters in this predicament, he chooses to go straight to the police and report the crime rather than trying to conceal it or fleeing. The scene was actually staged by Nera to make Orlac susceptible to blackmail.
  • Gaslighting: Nera has been carefully manipulating things to make Orlac believe that his hands have a mind of their own, so that Orlac will believe that he could have been responsible for his father's murder and be susceptible to blackmail.
  • I Have No Son!: Orlac's father despises his son for reasons that are never established. When Orlac's wife Yvonne goes to him to beg for help because they are on the verge of financial ruin because of Orlac's Career-Ending Injury, the father refuses because he wishes to see his son suffer.
  • The Man They Couldn't Hang: Vasseur claims to have survived being guillotined, and has the scar on his neck to prove it. It's fake.
  • Meaningful Background Event: Nera the blackmailer can be seen moving around with the rescuers during the chaos of the train wreck. Because his character has not been introduced yet, there is no reason to attach any special significance to him, although the camera does linger on him.
  • Obfuscating Disability: While posing as Vasseur, Nera wears fake metal prostheses over his hands and forearms to make it look like his hands have been amputated.
  • Ominous Opera Cape: Vasseur wears an opera cape to conceal his sinister metal hands and forearms.
  • Sanity Slippage: Orlac's sanity starts to slip from the time he wakes up in the hospital with his new hands. He becomes possessed of the desire to kill and believes that along with the hands he has acquired the murderer's predisposition to violence. He decides he can no longer touch anyone with his hands lest he be overwhelmed by the compulsion to kill them.
  • The X of Y: The Hands of Orlac