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La Main du diable (1943)

A man arrives at an isolated mountain inn clutching a small box. During a momentary power-cut the box suddenly goes missing, and its owner is stricken with terror. To satisfy the curiosity of the guests at the inn he begins to tell his tragic story. The man, Roland Brissot, was once a struggling artist whose only talent was for painting pictures that no one wanted to own. One day, he meets an Italian chef who persuades him to buy a talisman from him for one sou. The chef assures Brissot that the talisman, a severed hand in a box, has magical properties, conferring on its owner a talent he can only dream of. Sure enough, on returning to his studio with the box, Brissot finds that he has become a great artist, and his paintings soon make him a wealthy man. One year later, Brissot is visited by a small man in a suit who offers to buy back the mysterious talisman for one sou. If he refuses to sell, the stranger says he will call back the next day, but will expect the artist to give him two sous in exchange for his soul. If again he refuses, the price of his soul will rise to four sous, and will go on doubling on successive days, right up to infinity. The artist hesitates but decides he must keep the talisman. If he loses his talent for painting he will lose everything - his reputation, his livelihood and his wife. As the days pass and the price of his soul increases inexorably, Brissot realises that sooner or later he must pay up and surrender the talisman, or else be damned forever.

The fantasy-horror film is a comparative rarity in French cinema. For some reason, the genre has traditionally had little appeal for filmmakers and audiences in France, whilst it has thrived in other countries, notably Great Britain and the United States. La Main du diable is one of the best-known, and most highly regarded, of French horror films, appropriately made during one of the darkest periods in the country's history, at the time of the Nazi Occupation. It was one of thirty films made by the German-run company Continental, whose raison d'être was to entertain the masses and take their minds off the small matter of occupation. As we now know, through Bertrand Tavernier's eye-opening film Laissez-passer (2002), Continental was not as politically neutral as its German paymasters had intended; indeed many of its staff (including directors, writers and actors) were either active in the French resistance or else sympathetic to its aims. La Main du diable demonstrates both the daring of its production team and the nearsightedness of the German censors, by passing off what is blatantly an allegory of the Occupation as a crowd-pleasing fantasy.

The film is based on La Main enchantée. a short story by Gérard de Nerval, first published in 1832, a retelling of the Faustian legend in which a mortal is persuaded to sell his soul to the Devil in return for earthly rewards. It was directed by Maurice Tourneur, then in his 69th year and near the end of an illustrious career that had started with distinction in Hollywood. Tourneur was the most prolific film director at Continental; he directed five films, the others being: Péchés de jeunesse (1941), Mam'zelle Bonaparte (1942), Le Val d'enfer (1943) and Cécile est morte (1944). As is recounted in Tavernier's film, ill health prevented Tourneur from completing the film, so it was his assistant, Jean Devaivre, who took charge of the last eight days of the 28 day shoot. Devaivre not only directed the most visually arresting sequence, in which the previous owners of the cursed hand tell their tragic stories; he also had the idea of showing the hand move within its box - it was in fact his own hand (don't worry, it was still attached to his arm).

The cursed hand concept has figured prominently in the fantasy-horror genre, the best-known example being Maurice Renard's novel Les Mains d'Orlac. which has been adapted several times for the cinema, most famously by Robert Wiene as Orlacs Hände (a.k.a. The Hands of Orlac ) in 1924. The more gruesome idea of the severed hand that moves of its own accord is most famously rendered in Robert Florey's The Beast with Five Fingers (1946), remade by Oliver Stone as The Hand (1981); it also features in the classic Hammer anthology film Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1965). In contrast to virtually all other hand-themed horror, La Main du diable derives its chills not by showing us physical manifestations of evil (gruesome transformations or severed hands wreaking mayhem) but by subtly tapping into our deepest fear, not of torment in this world, but of damnation in the next. In cinema, suggested horror is far more effective than explicit horror (something that today's filmmakers, with their love of gore and special effects appear to have forgotten). Apart from a fleeting glimpse of a moving hand, La Main du diable shows us nothing that is overtly horrific, and yet so effectively does it instil a feeling of fear in the spectator that it must surely rate as one of the most chilling of all horror films.

Given the film was scripted by a man who had every reason to hate the Nazis - Jean-Paul Le Chanois was both a Communist and a Jew - we would expect it to make at least one or two veiled allusions to the Occupation. France's capitulation to Nazi Germany in 1940 (and subsequent participation in Hitler's purification programme) has often been characterised as a Faustian pact, so it is pretty obvious where La Main du diable is coming from. The central character in the film, Roland Brissot, is revealed to be the last in a long line of men who have owned the cursed hand, and he must pay the price not only of his own folly, but also that of his predecessors. This resonates with the Vichy government's attempts to convince the French nation that its present predicament was the price that had to be paid for the moral, social and political failings of previous generations. It is unclear whether the film supports this idea or repudiates it - either interpretation is possible.

Maurice Tourneur was a profoundly moral man, as can be seen in his policier films, which show categorically that crime never pays. The moralistic tone of La Main du diable is hard to miss and would seem to be in perfect alignment with the traditional values that Maréchal Pétain was keen to promote as the head of the Vichy government. Fame and fortune, the film shows us, do not themselves bring happiness; they merely create a craving for more of the same - and so the cycle endlessly repeats itself, sending the sinner into a spiral of ever-growing greed that can only lead to damnation. As in Tourneur's next film, Le Val d'enfer. the sermon has a distinctly misogynistic edge to it, since the real villain of the piece is a woman of dubious morality who thoughtlessly drives a man to his doom. It is not the Devil we should fear, but this modern Eve who is the antithesis of Pétainist virtue, a symbol of a decadent society that must be resisted at all costs.

Yet whilst the film expresses some obvious pro-Pétain sentiment, it is also a pretty flagrant allegory for Nazi oppression. As in Marcel Carné's Les Visiteurs du soir (released just a few months previously), the Devil could only be interpreted (by a contemporary French audience) as a representation of Hitler - both are corrupting fiends who steal men's souls and delight in causing human misery. In La Main du diable. the Devil appears in the unlikeliest guise, as a rather unimposing, slightly comical, civil servant (complete with bowler hat), admirably played by the diminutive actor Pierre Palau. Despite his seemingly harmless appearance, this incarnation of the Devil has a very sinister air to it. With his complete lack of human feeling and his ability to perform mathematical calculations at lightning speed, he is the very epitome of the Vichy bureaucrat, cold, efficient and ruthless - a stealer of man's souls if ever there was one.

What makes La Main du diable such a particularly dark and disturbing film is the genuine sensation of terror that comes through the performances, especially that of its lead actor, Pierre Fresnay. In the opening and closing segments of the film, Fresnay appears like a man possessed, a man who genuinely believes he has the Devil on his back and knows that he is about to lose the one thing dearest to him, his soul. A major star of French cinema at the time, Fresnay was one of the most distinguished and committed players for Continental, although he would pay a high price for this after the Liberation (another case of life imitating art). Here he is partnered with the stunningly beautiful Josseline Gaël, who had a certain notoriety at the time after her marriage to Jules Berry, an actor 34 years her senior. The part of the Devil went to the aforementioned Palau (credited as 'Le petit homme'), and an array of very talented character actors (Noël Roquevert, Guillaume de Sax, Pierre Larquey, etc.) make up a superb supporting cast.

The film's visual style is atypical for a French film of this era and harks back to German expressionism of the 1920s - Robert Wiene's Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari (1920) and F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu (1922) being two obvious influences. The expressionistic set design and lighting work to create a mood of unrelenting oppression and lurking demonic menace, which is at its most intense in the chilling opening sequence and dramatic denouement. Long before Sergei Eisenstein made use of the 'living shadow' in Ivan the Terrible, Part I (1944), Maurice Tourneur had claimed this as his signature motif. He first employed it (to macabre effect) in one of his earliest films, a short titled Figures de cire (1912), his one other notable excursion into the fantasy-horror genre. He later used the same device in his first sound film Accusée, levez-vous! (1930), a huge shadow of the prosecuting counsel dominating a courtroom at the most dramatic moment.

La Main du diable features Tourneur's most effective use of the living shadow, the scene in which a huge shadow of a hand (that of the hero's guardian angel) is projected onto a staircase wall, a dire warning of the catastrophe that awaits the hero if he climbs the staircase and falls into the Devil's trap. In both its subject matter and expressionistic design, La Main du diable bears a striking similarity with a film that Maurice Tourneur's son Jacques had recently made in America for producer Val Lewton: Cat People (1942). The stylistic similarity of the two films (and the fact that the principal female characters in them have the same name) suggests that Tourneur may have been sufficiently impressed by his son's work that he consciously sought to emulate it. Certainly, La Main du diable would seem to fit more easily into the oeuvre of Jacques Tourneur than that of his father, although it is self-evident that both have a penchant for expressionism and a similar fascination for the darker side of human nature. Like his father, Jacques Tourneur would have a date with the Devil in the twilight of his career, and the result is every bit as blood-curdling and nightmare-inducing: Night of the Demon (1957). He who sups with the Tourneurs should have a long spoon.

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Next Maurice Tourneur film:
Le Val d'enfer (1943)