Tourneur's film, made in occupied France, uses a Faustian pact and the idea of possession that would have resonated in those opposed to the Germans, as Frank Lafond argues.
While his son Jacques was injecting new blood into the American horror film with his first Val Lewton-produced work, Cat People (1942), Maurice Tourneur directed his first entry in the genre since returning home to France in 1928. La Main du diable (Carnival of Sinners [USA], The Devil's Hand [UK], 1942) is a modern and loose adaptation of Gérard de Nerval's short story La main enchantée (The Enchanted Hand), first published in 1832.
The film begins in the mountains on a dark and rainy night, when a mysterious man storms into an inn full of vacationers. The strange behaviour of Roland Brissot (Pierre Fresnay) catches everyone's eye. Compelled by the events as well as the hostility of the surrounding crowd, he reluctantly begins to tell his story. Once a failure as a painter—and as a man—he encountered Mélisse (Noël Roquevert), a restaurant owner who sold him a talisman that brought great success in both his personal and professional life. Unfortunately, as the viewer subsequently discovers, Roland cannot manage to get rid of the talisman—the left hand of a human being that is owned by the Devil himself (Pierre Palau).
Finding a helping hand
The theme of the alienated or "possessed" hand is not uncommon to the horror genre, the most famous narrative example being Les Mains d'Orlac, written by French science fiction novelist Maurice Renard and filmed for the first time by Robert Wiene as Orlacs Hände (The Hands of Orlac) in 1924. In Renard's novel, the hands of a murderer are transplanted to the protagonist, forcing him to kill. More generally in horror fiction, the hand often happens to be the first part of the human body to become altered by monstrosity. Thus, there are numerous cases of bodily alteration which are initially revealed to the spectator via the slow transformation of the protagonist's hand; consider, eg, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (both Stevenson's novel and various of the filmic adaptations), The Wolf Man (dir George Waggener, 1941), etc.
However, Tourneur's La Main du diable does not deal with any spectacular physical transformations. When Roland buys the cursed talisman, only his fingerprints change. Long before DNA was discovered, a person's fingerprints were considered irrefutable evidence of his or her identity. So Roland is not possessed by—let us put it simply—his dark or animal nature. Instead, he partially becomes someone else: an acclaimed painter and rich man who goes by the pseudonym "Maximus Léo," and who is adored by his mistress Irène (Josselyne Gaël).
The theme of the hand is first (positively) introduced by a pair of white gloves symbolising marriage. But as soon as Irène—the very incarnation of a woman shaped by an extremely misogynistic male mind—turns down Roland's proposal on the grounds that he will always be impotent and a loser, he purchases the cut left hand which will enable him to obtain everything he wants. The bargain made with Mélisse is indeed a union with the Devil, a point expressed visually through the black glove hiding Roland's stump.
The Devil and Roland Brissot
Central to La Main du diable is the film's depiction of the Devil and of the Faustian pact entered into. One can hardly guess in advance that the Prince of Darkness is embodied in the frail and insignificant little man who, according to Roland's cleaning lady, looks like a bailiff. All dressed in black, wearing a bowler hat, and described by the owner of an art gallery as "small-townish," he is anything but terrifying to look at. Even if some sequences make use of expressionistic lighting, Tourneur manages to instill a sense of fear by emphasising the concrete consequences of the Faustian pact rather than the supernatural powers of the Devil.
What frightens Roland most of all, apart of course from the terror of eternal Damnation that seals his deal with Satan, is the fact that the longer he keeps the hand, the more he goes into debt. Above all, the pact functions as a commercial transaction. When Roland purchases the hand from Mélisse, he learns that he will only be able to sell it at a loss. This will prove impossible, however, since there is no coin of lesser value still in currency. As a special favour to Roland, the little man in black allows him to buy his soul back. But time is on the Devil's side: each day, the amount that Roland owes him doubles, so that finally he is unable to pay his debt. Here, the diabolisation of the woman comes into play, since Irène unconsciously assists the little man by taking money from Roland's safe in order to indulge one of her expensive tastes. She thereby prevents him from paying back his creditor at a time when he can still afford it.
The last link in the chain
Roland Brissot's personal adventure is closely bound up with that of his predecessors. As the last link in a chain of men who took advantage of the hand's powers, Roland finally realises that he is the one who came into possession at the end of the tale and resents having to pay for all those who came before. By way of parallel, it is worth noting that the Vichy government of the time tried hard to convince the French that they were responsible for the Occupation, in order to make them accept it as a deserved punishment.
What is truly horrific about Tourneur's film is that the dismembered hand loses any connotation of subjectivity. With the passing centuries, it has become a part of many different bodies; the present beneficiary and carrier of the hand is therefore integrated into a kind of history. Moreover, Roland's possessed hand is not merely an improved instrument but something that has a life of its own: the paintings for which he becomes famous are in fact the creative expressions of the talisman's first owner, Maximus Léo—a Carthusian monk who stubbornly refused to use this gift from God.
La Main du diable was produced by Continental Films, the most important French production company during the German Occupation. Presided over by a German, Alfred Greven, Continental was financed by the occupying forces' money. It has been argued that the films made by this company were not, in fact, propaganda vehicles. Some scholars have also claimed that the horror films made during this time, like the period films, allowed for a bypassing of censorship restrictions.
If this latter is indeed the case, we might wonder what themes of contemporary significance Tourneur's film manages to smuggle in. As with other films made during World War II, there are no direct references to the military and political context of the time. But Roland's wild-eyed looks upon entering the inn at the outset of the film express a feeling of pervading paranoia that one can fully comprehend only by taking into account the extra-diegetic reality. The horror elements of Tourneur's La Main du diable may well express an anxiety experienced by every Frenchman opposed to the German invasion, in their souls if not through action.
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