The Grand (Guignol) Finale: Mad Love and Film as Amputation

“He seemed to be present, and yet he did not seem to be present. No wonder a scientist the next day called it: ‘the nearest thing to a resurrection.’”

—Fitzhugh Green on the debut of synchronous sound in a short recorded speech by Will Hays

“Wonderful invention, the phonograph. Keeps a man alive long after he’s dead. Sometimes I feel that these records are all that’s left of Stephen Orlac.”

—Stephen Orlac (Colin Clive) in Mad Love

To get us warmed up, it’s trivia time, people. Who is the father of modern intelligence testing?

Alfred Binet, the brain behind the Stanford-Binet IQ test? Yes! Correct.

Okay, now for the tough one: what was his hobby?

No takers? Alright then.

It gives me great pleasure to inform you this eminent psychologist spent his spare time cowriting ultra-violent thriller plays for that notorious Paris establishment, le Théâtre du Grand Guignol—a famous horror theater which served as the inspiration for the macabre theater in Karl Freund’s 1935 Mad Love.

Really, chew on that for a while. I mean, what if you found out that, say, B.F. Skinner wrote torture porn scripts in between experiments? You must admit, that little fact does rather re-contextualize psychology.

I offer this factoid in order to suggest how deep and scientific terror really is, and how closely fear (and the perverse fascination with things that scare us) intertwines with other facets and phenomena of human psychology—like intelligence, genius, love, and hate. There’s something to be said for works of horror that don’t rely upon the supernatural, but rather sets out to examine the infinite cruelties which the mind inflicts upon itself… and on others.

Mad Love breathes life into the essence of sadism and lurid erotic fixations. This grisly tale focuses on Dr. Gogol, a gifted surgeon who falls in love with a horror actress, Yvonne. He initially tries to win her love when he saves Stephen Orlac, Yvonne’s famous pianist husband, by grafting on the hands of a guillotined murderer. That fails to get him the girl, so Gogol changes tactics and decides to try to drive the aforementioned pianist hubby bat-shit insane. It’s a quirky movie, full of weird, silly diversions, but isn’t that just like the brain of a madman?

Oh, the beloved bizarreness of this movie!

As I watch and rewatch this movie, feeling slightly dirty, like the Daughter of Dr. Gogol, I’ve come to notice the abundance of clever, mordant parallels that stitch the film together.

For instance, the opening credits end not with a simply dissolve, but with a hand punching through the glass on which the cast members’ names are written. Before Orlac even loses his hands, we get a terrific backstage scene where we see a prop severed arm in the foreground…

And then there’s this marvelous foreshadowing shot of Orlac using his fingers to wipe away the frost from his train window. It’s the moment he catches the first glimpse of the man whose hands he’ll soon be wearing…

Hands recur again and again, like hallucinatory iterations of a fevered ideé fixe.

Another sick joke: the knife-throwing murderer whose hands Orlac inherits gets guillotined… and Yvonne’s wedding cake bears a quaint toy version of this infernal contraption.

All of these gleeful patterns pop up as though reality were submitting to the delirious reasoning of a lunatic. When a man grows obsessed, he sees the object of his obsession, his mad love, everywhere. These neat visual echoes weave in this sense of inescapable fixation.

Mad Love was really decades ahead of its time. You see, it makes us conscious from the first that we the viewers are watching a horror show. The film begins with the spooky, caricatured façade of the Grand Guignol-esque Théâtre des Horreurs where Yvonne works. The camera pans from a hanged man dummy (rather reminiscent of Frankenstein, which Karl Freund shot) to a ghoulish arch, then goes to one of the costumed goblins that runs the box office.

It’s not only welcoming us into a place where people go to get scared within the film, but also knowingly beckoning us into the realm of terrors that is the cinema.

The camera then follows a young couple on a date. The girl balks at the idea of a horror show, implying that any man who wants to watch such things must be a pervert. (Well, I bet that didn’t go over too well for all of the 1930s guys who brought their dames to the movie palace for some low-impact snuggling!)

Really, although I’ve articulated my dislike for the coy term “meta” elsewhere, I’m forever impressed by how Mad Love serves up a horror show within a horror show, a Grand Guignol play within a Grand Guignol movie.

As for that play within the movie, the horror show that Yvonne stars in, it’s a Grand Guignol period drama about infidelity and torture that would deliver the requisite thrills on any stage.

But Karl Freund makes us see how the camera can actually enhance the horror. Especially a camera in the hands of brilliant cinematographer Gregg Toland, who shot this agonizingly beautiful and shadowy film.

(Digression: Pauline Kael has theorized that director and legendary cameraman Karl Freund’s expressionist influence on Toland came into full bloom with the noirish deep focus look of Citizen Kane, made just a few years later. So, in a way, Mad Love helped to shape one of the most influential films of all time. Think about that as you look at these gorgeously lit screencaps.)

During the theater sequence, close-ups and intercuts between a frightened audience and Yvonne’s torments revise and reframe stage horror as cinematic horror.

Staged horror: a static long shot

Movie horror: dynamic editing and the power of closer shots

The power of the camera and editing can intensify the rhythm of fear, kneading it into suspense or whipping it into a frenzy. It’s a great and awful power, and Freund wants us to recognize it—and examine the pleasure we derive from horror, from sadism and voyeurism, even as we experience those pleasures.

The villain of the piece, Dr. Gogol, comes across as the forefather of the modern-day “crazed fan” type—although Lorre’s performance trumps any imitations with his substance and subtlety.

Gogol consumes horror. He loves it. He’s creepy as hell in that audience, as he solemnly watches his muse Yvonne squeal in agony. His spooky half-moon face forces us as spectators to think, “Oh, dear God, I hope that’s not me…”

The dark side: track-in + stark shadows = movie stalker material.

After all, less than 10 years before Mad Love was made, a young man in London strangled his girlfriend in Hyde Park, and based his defense (in part) on the fact that he’d just seen Lon Chaney in London After Midnight, which had, he claimed, deranged his mind and spurred him to violence. As much as horror seeks to capitalize on hidden fears and fantasies that lurk in all of us, many people working in the genre had become aware by 1935 that the reactions unleashed by watching horror are a liability.

Indeed, this film both creates and breaks down illusions, as if to say, “Enjoy yourself, dear viewer… but not too much.” I love the introduction of Yvonne, with a dissolve from her screaming portrait on a poster, to her real, smiling, normal face. What a joyful demystification of the scream queen!

And yet, we feel the seductive force of images, too. Gogol falls in love with an image, not a real woman, as shown by the affection he devotes to her wax effigy. Freund simulates Gogol’s obsession, since, all close-ups of the wax figure actually are close-ups of actress Frances Drake. For us, the viewers, as well as for Gogol, Galatea comes alive.

Mad Love explores this idea of replacements, parallelism, and swapping: Gogol confuses the real Yvonne with his schema of her. A stage play transforms into a cinematic event. Freund cuts between a “high art” performance of Chopin at Fontainbleau to a “low art” cheap thrill show in Montmartre.

Amputation and then grafting presents the purest expression of this paradigm: something lost and something introduced in its place. It’s acquiring something foreign and taking it into oneself. It’s unremittingly weird to have something on you that’s not quite yours or, even if it is, doesn’t “live” where it’s supposed to, almost like a doppleganger you can wear. It’s always an “it,” an entity, an integrated other.

Sort of like a film of yourself? It’s you, but then again, it’s not.

Now, I’m about to go out on a limb here, but cinema is a violent art, it’s an art of scarring and replacement. You shoot it, you cut it, you take the skin off reality, chop it up, then put it back together. Even the whole negative-positive aspect of cinema recalls the concept of amputation and grafting. I think that the makers of horror movies in the 1920s and 1930s understood the uncanny nature of the cinema better, on average, than any other genre filmmakers. Rather than just trappings of terror, amputations, stitched-up beings, walking digests of other parts serve as the centerpieces of their films—driving the plots and evoking pathos.

And, no, I don’t think that every film coils up on itself to probe the nature of the cinema. I just happen to believe that, at the dawn of talkies, horror films and the people who produced them, like James Whale and Karl Freund, were highly attuned to the aspects of all and any cinema that shocked, scared, and moved people like nothing else ever had before.

These visionaries decided not only to use the disquieting resemblance of film to reality to spook us, but also to jolt us into consciousness of the death and fragmentation that nags at man in the age of mechanical reproduction.

Film is a monster of transplants. This spliced-up juggernaut can augment fear and it can seduce. It can conjure false visions then dash them to pieces. But it also confers eternal life. Remember the moment when Colin Clive as Orlac listens to one of his recordings and remarks on what amazing things they are—“keeps a man alive long after he’s dead.” If you know anything about the brief, tragic life of Clive, this moment resonates far beyond the framework of the diegesis.

Yvonne and we hear music playing… but we see that piano remains ghostly still. The recording makes possible this eerie juxtaposition.

Now, this film was made in 1935. Clive was dead less than two years later and, if I believe what I read (Frances Drake told a story about him practically passing out in her garden), pretty much anyone could’ve seen that coming. In a way, this film could serve as an elegy for him and for that ghostly life that he forever possesses.

He, by the way, was horribly creeped out by his fake hands, “almost a quarter larger than normal size,” and lamented in an interview: “All day and everyday I felt that I would give almost anything to be able to wash away the whole ghoulish mess and forget the rest of the picture.”

He claimed that looking down at the crude, bulky, built-up makeup made him “quite sick,” which certainly contributed to his rattled, haunted performance. He hated horror and he hated acting in film—perhaps because both of them abide in the realm of the uncanny.

When you act in theater, the past is past. On to the next! With film, you get to see another version of yourself. Part of you no longer belongs to you, but to anyone who watches the movie. It’s as though an appendage has been chopped off and preserved in a vault. Every film performance confers a kind of “wax figure” double, an extraordinarily lifelike replica to posterity.

But, then, film also cuts into the time of our lives. For the space of an hour or so, the movie replaces our normal existence with another world. The movie is ours, for we “recut” it again in our heads, and not ours, for it might affect us in ways we do not expect.

And no movie I know does that better than Mad Love.

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