Not even halfway through Mad Love’s sixty-seven minute runtime it’s clear all the film’s going to have to do to succeed is not to fail, which isn’t going to be easy. The film’s about a brilliant surgeon (Peter Lorre) who’s sort of publicly stalking married stage actress Frances Drake. Now, he falls in love with her during her performance at a “theater of horrors” where an audience full of men get off on Drake being tortured for cheating on her husband. There’s a lot to unpack right off in Mad Love, it’s awesome.
Right at the end of her performance, it appears Drake—in character—confesses her lover’s name so the husband can go and kill him, having sufficiently literally branded his wife into place. That moment’s when Lorre gets the most excited.
Off stage, Drake has been married to successful pianist Colin Clive for a year and they haven’t been able to even honeymoon yet because he’s touring and she’s acting. It’s finally time for them to meet up, right after her cast party (the theater is closing for the season too) and getting to finally meet Lorre, after he’s rented out the most expensive box in the theater for almost fifty performances in a row.
Lorre—rather appropriately given he’s about to buy a wax dummy of Drake (without her knowledge)—creeps Drake out. But she’s got the medical connection when it turns out she’s going to need it because husband Clive has been in a train accident and his hands are mangled. Only Lorre can save him. And he’ll move heaven and earth for Drake’s gratitude.
He’ll even, maybe, cut the hands off a recently executed murderer to give them to Clive. After all, the murderer was an expert knife thrower; might come in handy for a concert pianist. Lorre has no way of knowing Clive has already met the “donor” (Lorre knows about their availability because in addition to watching women pretend to get tortured, he never misses an execution).
When the hands seemingly take a life of their own, Lorre sees another opportunity to get close to Drake, who’s still just trying to help suffering husband Clive, and, well, as they do… complications ensue.
There are a lot of constraints on Mad Love. A lot of impossible (thanks to the Production Code if not moral decency) outcomes and quite a few unlikely ones. So a satisfactory resolution is always in question. But the film gets there all right. It’s got some genuine humdingers of scenes—no other word—when Lorre all of a sudden pivots to another extreme and is fantastic in it. The whole movie rests on him.
Not to discount the other actors, who are all great—Mad Love’s got an amazing cast—but it’s the Peter Lorre show and no one can pretend otherwise.
Drake’s really good—she’s got an incredible suspense sequence to get through in the third act and nails it—Clive’s good, though he gets the least material of the three leads. Then there’s the supporting cast and it’s a doozy. Because even though Mad Love is set in Paris and tries its best to be (broadly) European, it’s also got some American flavor. Starting with Edward Brophy in a jaw-dropper cameo as the convicted murderer on his way to the guillotine. Brophy turns the Hollywood New Yorker to eleven and has a ball. It’s astounding director Freud is able to maintain it without just breaking the film in two.
While Brophy isn’t in the film for very long, the film moves the American bull in the Parisian china shop chores along to Ted Healy, who plays a pushy New York reporter in town to cover the execution (Brophy’s an American citizen being executed) and also to get famous philanthropist surgeon Lorre to write some articles for his paper. See, Lorre doesn’t accept any payment and instead uses his skills and develops these miracle procedures to help children and maybe soldiers. He’s a saint.
Who just happens to get off on torture and death, which none of the locals really notice since he’s such a saint but Healy thinks something hinky is going on.
It’s so good, so weird, so not.
Excellent direction from Freud, photography from Chester A. Lyons and Gregg Toland, and editing from Hugh Wynn. Wynn’s got some exquisite sequences, including a downright successful dream montage.
Just for being itself, Mad Love has a bunch of hurdles to clear and it sails over them, finishing better than one could hope given said hurdles. Its snaking to get through the Code is an achievement on its own, but Lorre, Freud, and Drake all score big by the end.
Lorre’s simply magnificent.