Sunday, December 17, 2006

Films of Michael Caine #38: The Hand

Cast: Michael Caine (Jon Lansdale), Andrea Marcovicci (Anne Lansdale), Annie McEnroe (Stella Roche), Bruce McGill (Brian Ferguson), Viveca Lindfors (Doctress), Rosemary Murphy (Karen Wagner), Mara Hobel (Lizzie Lansdale).

Crew: Oliver Stone (director), Edward R Pressman (producer), Oliver Stone (writer), James Horner (music), King Baggot (cinematography), Richard Marks (editor), John Michael Riva (production designer).


Synopsis: Jon Lansdale is a cartoonist, writing and drawing the newspaper adventure strip Mandro. His wife Anne is unsatisfied with their life in the Vermont countryside. She wants a trial separation and intends to take their young daughter Lizzie to New York with her. The couple are arguing about the move when Jon’s right hand is severed in a car crash. The hand is lost and Jon is left handicapped, unable to draw for a living. He begins to have blackouts and sees visions of the severed hand. Jon accepts an offer to teach at a college in California, but Anne and Lizzie stay behind on the East Coast until Christmas.

Jon makes friends with another teacher, Brian, and has an affair with a pupil called Stella. Brian and Stella make plans to go away for two weeks to Los Angeles. Brian tells Jon the trip will be non-stop sex, unaware Jon is sleeping with Stella. But she disappears before the pair can leave. Anne and Lizzie visit Jon in California. Brian accosts Jon and accuses him of sleeping with Stella. Brian is murdered. Anne tells Jon she is leaving him for good and taking Lizzie with her. Jon is furious. Anne is attacked and nearly strangled to death. The police are called and discover the corpses of Stella and Brian concealed in Jon’s car. He is declared criminally insane and locked away…

Oliver Stone won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay in April 1979 for Midnight Run (1979). The filmmaker had already directed one feature, a horror movie called Seizure (1974). He wanted his next project to be an adaptation of a Vietnam memoir called Born on the Fourth of July. Stone spent a year writing the script and working with directors. At one point Al Pacino was attached, but finance for the project fell through. So Stone returned to the horror genre for his next feature.

‘Part of the reason I did The Hand,’ Stone told Playboy in 1988, ‘was that it was obvious studios weren’t going to do the more dramatic material. I thought as least they’ll do a horror movie. That’s why I compromised, and I made a serious mistake. I wanted to work as a director. I really should have been directing Platoon or Born on the Fourth of July. [Stone eventually got to film those scripts in 1986 and 1989 respectively.] But there was no way they were going to make those, let alone let me direct them.’

Instead Stone adapted a novel called The Lizard’s Tail by Mark Brandel into The Hand. Caine was cast in the lead for the low budget feature, shot in 1980. The actor recalled working with Stone in an interview with Venice magazine in 2002. ‘He was a very well know screenwriter at the point. He decided he was going to direct this screenplay himself. I’ve always had a thing where I’ll work with a first-time director sometimes. I did it with Ken Russell and I did it with Oliver. [In fact both Stone and Russell had directed a feature before working with Caine.] Ken Russell worked out alright with Billion Dollar Brian (1967), but The Hand didn’t work so well.

‘You’ve got to be willing to give people a shot in this business. Oliver, of course, has gone on to become one of the great American directors.’ Caine said he knew Stone had potential. ‘I just didn’t get it in my turn. He talked to me about Platoon quite a lot because I was an ex-infantryman myself, and so was he. There’s always a little bit of a bond between ex-infantrymen. We also talked quite a bit about the JFK assassination, and how there was no way Oswald could have been the lone gunman.’

Stone told Playboy he had spent half his time on The Hand arguing with Caine. At the 2000 Empire Awards Stone joked about making the actor so depressed that Caine required medication to get over the experience. Close to the end of shooting the production was temporarily shut down by an actors’ strike in Hollywood.

The R-rated film was released in US cinemas during April 1981. Critics were not kind to The Hand and it grossed just under $2.5 million. The movie is a rare example of a Caine film that never received a cinema release in the UK. It turned up on video several years later, rated 18 by the BBFC. The Hand has long been deleted in Britain, but remains available on VHS in the US. It is one of only two Oliver Stone films never issued on DVD.

Reviews: ‘Stone takes a considerable risk in making his hero a bastard. Caine gives a creepy flaring-nostril-and-bared-fang performance.’ – New York
‘Michael Caine … spends most of his time sweating and grimacing into the camera lens. It’s not a pretty sight.’ – Variety

Verdict: The Hand tries to be both a psychological thriller and a slice of shlock horror. The movie never definitively states whether it is Caine’s character or his disembodied hand killing people. Such ambiguity is an admirable goal, but Stone fails to achieve it. The special effects hand by Carlo Rambaldi (who next created ET for Spielberg) is clumsily rendered, while all the gushing red blood just screams tomato sauce. Stone’s attempts at adding psychological depth are only puddle deep. Caine plays his part with conviction, but cannot save the film. He wisely stayed away from horror hereafter. The best fun is to be had with this film is laughing at the risible effects and Caine’s extraordinary hairstyle. The madder his character gets, the bigger his hair. By the end of The Hand, the actor is almost sporting a white man’s Afro.

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