The Devil’s Hand directed by William J. Hole, Jr.
In the 1943 film The Seventh Victim, just one of nine brilliant horror films produced by Val Lewton for RKO that decade, a character played by Kim Hunter comes to NYC to look for her missing sister, and discovers that that sister has joined a secretive, devil-worshipping cult in the heart of Greenwich Village. It is a superior horror outing, as are all the other Lewton horror outings, featuring wonderful acting, a sharp and compact script, and – typical for these Lewton affairs – a deliciously eerie atmosphere throughout. Flash forward 18 years, and we find still another film dealing with a secret devil cult hidden away in the heart of a great American metropolis, but with nowhere near the previous film’s artful skill and enduring class. That later film is The Devil’s Hand, which was shot in 1959 but not distributed until two years later. Originally released as part of a double bill that included still another forgotten horror affair, Bloodlust (yet another remake of the great 1932 film The Most Dangerous Game), The Devil’s Hand quickly sank into relative oblivion, and perhaps justly so. Despite the presence of no fewer than three top-notch Hollywood players in its cast, it ultimately reveals itself to be a rather shoddily scripted, slow-moving, lifeless, cheapjack affair with absolutely no scares, little if any suspense, some confusing plot points, and oftentimes laughable dialogue. I shall try to find something to praise in this shoddy little affair, although that might take some effort on my part.
The film introduces the viewer to a man named Rick Turner, played by the 45-year-old Robert Alda. Although Rick is engaged to be married to Donna Trent (pretty Mexican actress Ariadna Welter), he is disturbed every night by reoccurring dreams of a gorgeous blonde woman who dances before him and beckons to him from the clouds. One day, he feels compelled to walk past a doll shop in a side street of Los Angeles, and notices a doll that is the exact likeness of his dream girl. The owner of the shop, Frank Lamont, played by the great character actor Neil Hamilton, tells him that Rick had ordered this doll days before, and that yes, his order is ready. Rick is understandably confused, as he had never previously been inside this shop before. The following night, however, his dream girl tells him to pick up the doll and bring it to her, which he does, being given an address by the shopkeeper.
This blonde, as it turns out, sports the exotic name of Bianca Milan (played by Ariadna’s older sister, the ex-Mrs. Tyrone Power, Linda Christian), and is an adept at using the power of thought projection. Bianca, it is also revealed, has seen Rick from afar, has fallen in love with him, and now wants him to join the cult that she is a member of; a cult that worships Gamba, the Devil God of Evil! Rick almost immediately falls under her spell, goes that very night to a meeting of the group in the basement of the doll shop – with Lamont presiding as high priest – and forgets all about his fiancée. To ensure that Donna is put out of the way, Lamont sticks a long pin into a voodoo doll of her, putting Donna in the hospital with heart problems for most of the duration of this film. But when Rick discovers what his happened vis-à-vis his ex-fiancée, he rebels, surreptitiously removing the pin from that doll, and setting himself up for trial by the angered high priest and the jealous Bianca….
Okay, as is my policy, I’m going to endeavor to find something nice to say about the film in question. The Devil’s Hand does sport at least two interesting scenes to captivate the viewer. In the first, a female cult member is put to the Gamba test. She is placed on an altar beneath a wheel studded with swords, only one of which is real, the others being made of rubber. The wheel is spun and, Russian roulette style, dropped on the possible victim, whose worthiness for sacrifice only Gamba can decide. In the other scene, a spy in the cult, a newspaperman, is put to death while he is driving, a long pin stuck right into his doll face back at the cult temple causing him to drive his car over a cliff. But other than these two scenes, the film is a rather lackluster affair, to put it mildly. The Devil’s Hand is lifeless and slow moving, and its 71-minute running time feels like much longer. Its script is a lazy one, and we never get to learn anything about our hero Rick: his background, what he does for a living, how he and his fiancée met, etc. Likewise, we are never given any information about the Gamba cult, how it originated, what country it hails from and so on.
The viewer feels pretty much nothing but contempt for Rick, who callously dumps Donna in favor of his new paramour. We hope, as the film proceeds, that he is just playing along with Bianca, assuming the part of a vengeful agent of some kind as he attempts to infiltrate the evil cult, but those hopes are dashed when, midway through the picture, he tells his witchy woman, in one of the better-written bits of the script, “Every waking minute you’re on my mind. Even when I sleep I can’t shake you. You’re all around me … in the air, in the rain and the sunlight. You’re as much me as I am. I know what you are. I know what you’ve made me but it doesn’t matter. Nothing does. I can’t kiss you without wanting more. I’ll never have enough of you. If I thought I’d lose you I’d … kill you….” And, sadly, we realize that Rick does indeed mean every word he says. Talk about being infatuated, huh? But all told, two decent scenes and one nice snatch of dialogue do not a good film make. Hardly. For the rest of it, The Devil’s Hand is a rather tiresome affair, and sometimes a risible one. Toward the film’s end, which should constitute the most suspenseful and frightening moments of any horror film, when the dozen or so cult members start chanting “Gamba, Gamba” in fear, this viewer could only burst out laughing; never a good sign for a movie whose intent is supposedly to frighten.
Still, don’t blame the four lead actors for the end results here. Robert Alda had enjoyed a distinguished film and theater career previous to this film, and he does his yeoman best here, saddled as he is with a subpar script. Alda, of course, is perhaps best remembered for playing George Gershwin in the 1945 film Rhapsody in Blue, and had performed in at least one horror outing previous to the one here: 1946’s The Beast With Five Fingers. (His son Alan, by the way, was 23 when The Devil’s Hand was shot in 1959, and had already embarked on an acting career of his own.) Linda Christian looks very nice (although not quite as physically stunning as one would have preferred, given that her Bianca Milan character is supposed to be overwhelmingly beautiful) and her thesping is certainly adequate, if barely. Ariadna Welter, whose work I had previously enjoyed in the great Mexican horror picture The Vampire (1956), is unfortunately given little to do other than lay in bed and act listless. But fortunately, we also have Neil Hamilton here, a terrific character actor with an enormous filmography preceding this picture, and who, seven years later, would embark on the role for which he is probably best remembered today, playing Commissioner Gordon in the Batman TV series. Hamilton adds what little class is to be found in this piffle of a film, intoning his lines with great intensity, especially during those cult ceremonies. And sharp-eyed viewers will also notice the hulking Bruno VeSota, playing one of the cult members, and his is always a welcome presence.
No, I suppose the bulk of the blame for the lameness of this picture must rest squarely on the shoulders of its director, William J. Hole, Jr., whose only other film that I had heard of before is 1959’s Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow. His direction here is flat, styleless and wholly uninteresting. Producer Alvin K. Bubis must also share some of the blame, for his cheapo sets and costumes (a product of Bubis & Hole … that should have perhaps told me something!), as does the film’s screenwriter, Jo Heims, for her lazy script that leaves so many questions unanswered. I must say that that last name surprised me, as Heims is also responsible for the screenplay for one of this viewer’s favorite films of all time, 1971’s Play Misty for Me; a film whose script is sharp, witty, exciting and suspenseful, all of which attributes are wholly lacking in her 1959 screenplay. Go figure. As for the cinematography of someone named Meredith M. Nicholson, let’s just say that I could have been given a camera and done just as effective a job myself, and that’s not saying much. And while I’m harping … what’s up with the rock & roll music that wholly inappropriately gets this film going, during the opening credits? Wouldn’t some eerie or unsettling music have been a better choice, to set the mood and hopefully engender some tension? No such luck. The bottom line: Viewers who are looking for a quality film featuring devil worship in the big city are best advised to watch The Seventh Victim for the seventh time and leave this one alone. Unless, that is, they are in need of a good soporific. And may your dreams be better than poor Rick Turner’s!