Other Notable Performances: Peter Lorre (Crime and Punishment), Charles Laughton (Ruggles of Red Gap), Charles Laughton (Mutiny on the Bounty), Victor McLaglen (The Informer), W.C. Fields (The Man on the Flying Trapeze), Boris Karloff (The Bride of Frankenstein), Gary Cooper (The Lives of a Bengal Lancer), Ronald Colman (A Tale of Two Cities)
Peter Lorre an actor who has been remembered for his quirky voice and disturbing eyes that we often forget he was a fine actor. He came to Hollywood from Germany in 1935 and immediately turned in two fantastic performances. In some ways his portrayal of Raskolnikov in Josef von Sternberg’s adaptation of Crime and Punishment is meatier than the obsessed doctor in Mad Love. While Lorre has some great moments in Crime and Punishment – especially after he begins to overcome the guilt of his crime and toys with the inspector – his task is tougher in Mad Love.
Lorre pulls off the near impossible: he plays a crazed villain that the audience can empathize with. Dr. Gogol, a brilliant Paris physician known for performing daring and intricate experimental operations, is an awkward, socially inept man who can only love from afar. His love for actress Yvonne Orlac (Frances Drake) is unfulfilled. He has never talked to the beautiful woman; he only sits in the same box every night watching her perform. On the last night of the show he works up the courage to go backstage and introduce himself, eager to discuss her schedule for the next season. But Yvonne graciously explains that this show has been her last because she is going to England with her husband Stephen. Gogol is heartbroken.
Things change however when Stephen Orlac (Colin Clive) is seriously injured in a train wreck, his hands crushed beyond repair and Yvonne, anxious for her pianist husband to play again, goes to Gogol and begs him to help. Gogol reluctantly agrees, unable to say no to the woman he loves. What he doesn’t tell anyone is he has to amputate the hands and attach new ones onto Stephen – new hands salvaged from the body of a recently guillotined knife thrower which will have disastrous unforeseen consequences.
The plot about Stephen Orlac’s new hands is not what makes this picture compelling. Peter Lorre’s characterization of Dr. Gogol drives the movie. He is creepy but not inhuman. We can connect with his shyness and social discomfort. In fact, Gogol is acutely aware that he is unattractive and inarticulate; early in the picture we sense that he knows better than anyone Yvonne could never love him. Maybe it is this knowledge that pushes him over the edge when circumstances thrust her back into his life. He finally sees a way to have the once unattainable but the closer he gets to having her (in his mind) the more his own inadequacy is highlighted, pushing him further into obsession and psychosis.
What is so remarkable is that Lorre created a whole person who isn’t defined by his insanity. If things had gone a different way we sense he would have continued as the quiet and reclusive genius, without turning murderous. Lorre is alternately scary and sympathetic, though we know the scary will overcome as the picture progresses. With Mad Love Lorre proved that he was one of the most interesting and dynamic actors of the 1930s.