31 Days of Horror 2022 – The Performances That Make Us Scream – “Mad Love” (1935)

By Carol Borden

M (1931) might be Peter Lorre’s best performance and role, but Mad Love (1935) is my favorite. Lorre is an actor who is probably best remembered now for his character roles in film noir and campier horror. But in the 1930s, he had two roles that prefigured our modern sympathetic killers, especially serial killers. In Fritz Lang’s M, he plays serial killer Hans Beckert. And in Mad Love, he plays Dr. Gogol, a man who isn’t exactly a serial killer yet, but many signs are there.

Beckert in Lang’s M was terrifying not only in his stalking of children, but in his humanity. Beckert is horrified by what he has done and what he feels compelled to do, but it isn’t enough to stop him. Confronted by an underworld court who have taken action when the police fail, Lorre as Beckert howls, “Who knows what it’s like to be me?”  Lorre brings this same genuine, tragic and contemporary humanity to his role as Dr. Gogol in Karl Freund’s underappreciated Mad Love. Both films are excellently rife with Expressionism, but Mad Love is a much less “realistic” story than M. In Mad Love, Lorre plays something he would rarely play in later decades: a man of refinement and tragic depth, a man who is respected by others at the pinnacle of his career, a man who destroys his whole life and has far to fall. As much as I love Lorre in films like The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Black Angel (1946), The Raven (1963), and Tales of Terror (1962), they don’t give Lorre the same latitude for his talent.

After fleeing Berlin and then Paris in 1933, Lorre shot two films in Britain before Mad Love, including Alfred Hitchcock’s first take on The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934). Lorre was coming in hot after his success in M. Hot enough that he could receive top billing in his first American film. Mad Love adapts Maurice Renard’s 1920 novel, Les Mains du Orlac / The Hands of Orlac, a story often told from the perspective of Orlac, a talented pianist who loses his hands in an accident and becomes worried about the hands grafted onto him. This perspective is certainly on display in Robert Wiene’s 1924 Orlacs Hände and two later adaptations, Edmond T. Gréville’s The Hands Of Orlac (1960) and Newt Arnold’s The Hands of a Stranger (1962). These adaptations focus on Orlac’s response to losing his hands, his fear that he has been given the hands of a murderer and his belief that he is doomed to become a murderer himself. Instead, Mad Love switches the focus from Stephen Orlac (Colin Clive) to Dr Gogol, the brilliant surgeon who grafts the new hands onto Orlac. 

In Mad Love, poor Orlac’s suffering is almost an afterthought. The film spends more time with and sympathizes more with Gogol and the object of his obsession, the actress Yvonne Orlac (Frances Drake), than it does with Orlac himself. It is Gogol’s suffering and descent into madness that is the heart of the film. His antagonist is not Orlac, but Yvonne’s disinterest in him sexually and romantically. Orlac is not a rival, but an obstacle, as Gogol struggles to get Yvonne to accept, if not requite, his feelings and then to overcome the distance she deliberately puts between them.

Mad Love opens as the show is about to begin at the Théâtre des Horreurs paralleling our entry into a world of abstracted and Expressionist horror. The Theatre is a stand-in for Paris’ Grand Guignol–a theater dedicated to thrilling and terrifying audiences with grisly scenes of horror. Yvonne is being dressed for her performance. Gogol buys tickets from a demon, gazes upon a wax figure of Yvonne from her performance as a medieval duchess tortured for her infidelity, and leaves his coat and hat with a coat check woman dressed as a headless man. At the same time, we hear on Yvonne’s radio that her husband, pianist and composer Stephen Orlac, is about to take the stage. Dr. Gogol has his own usual box, where watches Yvonne, infatuated with the image of her as she appears on stage. Gogol is tremendously accomplished and tremendously lonely. As he wonders to himself after performing an almost miraculous surgery, “I, a mere peasant, have conquered science. Why can’t I conquer love?” While Gogol expresses himself in the language of mad science, Lorre makes the sentiment feel immediate and genuine. Gogol presents sympathetically as an affluent, elegant, compassionate, and philanthropic surgeon who can perform miracles at his private clinic, with his colleague Dr. Wong (a dashing Keye Luke). He appears shy and gentle–a man whose feelings for a beautiful woman are sadly unrequited. But Gogol reveals himself more and more over the course of the film.

Initially, Gogol plans to approach Yvonne and tell her of his love for her. He expects to win her—to conquer love as he has conquered science. When Yvonne invites him to listen to her husband’s piano concert on the radio, Gogol is stunned. He cannot believe she has a husband. Worse, this is Yvonne’s last night at the theater. Gogol has arrived late on all counts. Ignoring Yvonne’s urgent elbow-grabbing, a cast member invites Gogol to Yvonne’s farewell party and there the cast demands a kiss as the price for a piece of her guillotine-decorated cake. Thoughtlessly and unintentionally hurtful to both Yvonne and Gogol, the cast invites Gogol to kiss her. Gogol shoots his shot and it does not win Yvonne’s heart. Instead, she leaves to meet her husband and Gogol buys the theater’s wax figure of her and has it sent to his house. He calls the figure, “Galatea,” after the sculpture brought to life by the sculptor Pygmalion. But, as he tells us, he is no Pygmalion. He cannot make the wax figure come to life with his love, his organ playing, or his reading of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnets. Galatea is not enough and  Yvonne’s friendship is not enough. When Stephen Orlac’s hands are crushed in a train wreck, Yvonne has him taken to Gogol’s clinic, begging him to save Orlac’s hands. Gogol tries to win her heart by transplanting a new pair of hands onto Orlac. But they are the hands of a murderer Gogol recently watched executed, Rollo the knife-thrower (Edward Brophy). Yvonne admits she knew how Gogol felt and asked him anyway, but continues to affirm that they are just friends. While telling Yvonne that being near her is all he’s ever wanted, Gogol implements a final plan. He will drive Orlac mad and when Orlac is locked up, Yvonne will be his. Gogol’s tactics are gaslighting, the power of suggestion and a magnificently creepy outfit. But Gogol’s initial target is not Yvonne. It is her husband, Stephen. As his doctor, Gogol tells Orlac that he is suffering from a repressed memory involving knives and a wish he will not allow himself to express. Gogol tells Stephen that if he could just remember, he would be cured instantly. Gogol reinforces Orlac’s fears while seeming to assuage them. 

Lorre’s performance in Mad Love has layers. He brings both real human pathos and real human awfulness to Dr. Gogol. It becomes increasingly apparent that Gogol lacks empathy. He says the right things. He knows how to perform compassion and care when he must; but faced with conflicting desires, these emotions slide right off his face and out of his voice. Thankfully, Dr. Wong (a dashing young Keye Luke) is there to take over when Gogol walks away from his patients because of an opportunity to see Yvonne or attend an execution. There is a fantastic scene as Gogol watches Rollo’s execution. We do not see the guillotine fall. Instead we see Gogol’s detached, almost appraising gaze following the blade as it drops. Not horrified. Not visibly excited or aroused, as so much “madness” was depicted in American movies by 1935. Detached. Most of us have had unrequited feelings and Lorre embodies those feelings so well. 

At the same time, Gogol’s apparent worship of Yvonne obscures his entitlement and even a potential misogyny. Gogol is a man who says he has “never known the touch of a woman.” His implication is that he has been spurned and that Yvonne should take pity on him. Perhaps he has been spurned, or perhaps Yvonne is the first woman who has interested him.  His housekeeper claims to be the only woman who has ever been in his house, until he brings home “Galatea.” While he has a smoothly shaven head sans goatee, an elegant wool coat with fur collar, and quotes both Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning, Gogol feels like a very contemporary lonely, entitled and resentful man. He is not all that different from contemporary lonely, resentful men who feel betrayed by the objects of their obsessions and become cruel or violent. Gogol could be a “nice guy,” “incel” or a “man going his own way” today. When Lorre finally plays Gogol’s mad love with manic laughter and dissociation, it is because he has realized he cannot accept Yvonne as a person and her wax figure is not fulfilling enough. In the end, he reveals himself fully. As his housekeeper notes while feeding a fly to his pitcher plant, “He likes dead things.” Gogol has a standing date with Madame Guillotine because he likes to watch. He likes the idea of her more and he likes her dead. In the end, the theater, lawful killings, and possibly even the surgeries he performs are not enough and he gives in to his desire to kill Yvonne and keep her dead body with him always, telling himself, her and us, “She feels no pain,” quoting a poem from Robert Browning.

There is much of the grand guignol, the absurd, the stylized, and the bizarre in Mad Love and the film itself is so stylized that there is no reason the characters shouldn’t be as well. Lorre plays Gogol with an awareness of these elements but with an emotional fidelity–and even restraint–before Gogol’s madness reaches its final form. Lorre is remarkably skilled in conveying emotion with his eyes and even a sudden blankness on his face—Gogol’s tenderness toward Yvonne, the crushing heartbreak revealed on his face when she mentions that her husband, his blind longing, his belief that the feelings he has that are so powerful cannot be anything but returned. Peter Lorre didn’t have to play Gogol this way. Another actor might have chosen a less sympathetic, layered characterization. But Lorre brought someone recognizable–even now–to Mad Love. And I am glad he did. I only wish we got to see more of these kinds of starring roles for Lorre.

Carol Borden is an editor at and evil overlord of The Cultural Gutter, a website dedicated to thoughtful writing about disreputable art. She was a writer for and editor of the Toronto International Film Festival’s official Midnight Madness and Vanguard program blogs. She’s written a bunch of short stories including Godzilla detective fiction, femme fatale mermaids, an adventurous translator/poet, and an x-ray tech having a bad day. You can find them here.

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