When a man with a missing arm is given the finest prosthetic available, it seems like the world is his oyster. Little does he know that his new arm has a mind of its own—a criminal mind! Delightful special effects and smart physical comedy elevate this horrifying little short.
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It’s a fact that early films could get pretty weird on a regular basis but if I had to pick the American studio that was most likely to head into bonkers territory, it would have to be Vitagraph. Their anarchic, effects-laden productions were always a sight to behold and 1900s titles like And the Villain Still Pursued Her and Princess Nicotine are now legendary examples of weirdness verging into the surreal.
The Thieving Hand is one of Vitagraph’s most popular productions from this era and it’s easy to see why. A little crime, some special effects and some witty sight gags, plus some extremely precise comedic timing… yeah, that’s a powerful brew there.
The film opens with a pencil vendor, who has lost one arm, working hard at his job. When a wealthy man drops a valuable piece of jewelry, the vendor rushes to return it. Touched by this act of honesty, the wealthy man takes the pencil vendor an artificial limb shop to purchase a prosthesis.
The shopkeeper shows them his top-of-the-line model, a remarkable piece of windup machinery that looks and acts just like a real arm. The pencil vendor is overjoyed but this quickly turns to horror when he realizes that his hand is picking pockets and stealing everything from handkerchiefs to wallets.
The vendor realizes that if this keeps up, he will end up arrested, so he takes the arm to a pawnshop to get rid of it. It’s not that easy, though, as the arm steals all the rings in the pawnshop, escapes and plants itself back inside his sleeve. The poor pencil vendor is arrested and thrown in a cell filled with criminals. The arm then returns to its original owner, a convict and the whole thing is explained. Well, not really but this is a split reel short, so it’s as close as we are going to get.
The special effects in this film are often praised but it’s important to remember that the main trick, a substitution splice, had been around since the dawn of film. (Stop the camera, substitute a thing for the other thing, start camera.) The rest of the picture relies on the physical prowess of its unnamed leading man, who does a smashing job of pretending that his arm has a mind of its own.
That’s not to take anything away from the film. We sometimes get hung up on firsts but a film that uses established tricks intelligently and in a polished manner is always a welcome sight. In other words, first is beside the point because the effects were employed so cleverly and smoothly. There will always be a small jump with a splice but it was kept to a minimum.
The painted sets are extremely obvious, and this was a bit of a crossroads for the film industry with some productions opting for more realistic scenery, some embracing the artificial completely and others going down the middle and using both, which is the case with this film. It’s likely that audiences accepted them much the same way we today generally accept unnecessary and obvious CGI scenery.
There seem to be two pieces of footage missing from the surviving print of The Thieving Hand. The most obvious is at the very end of the film, which just cuts off once the arm is reunited with its former master. The original version apparently showed the pencil vendor being cleared of all charges.
The second involves the scene in the limb shop. Views and Films Index describes the shop owner placing a slate in front of the hand and it writing the word “thief” in French, German, Spanish and Italian. I am not sure if this was a different version of the scene but there were no cuts in the shopping scene with the exception of the substitution splices that replaced the real arm with the fake and vice versa.
In the silent era, horror and comedy were often intertwined and we can see roots of the body horror genre in The Thieving Hand. An innocent person’s life is turned upside down when a sentient limb rebels and causes trouble. That can be either a comedy or a horror film, depending on the way it is presented.
While its crimes are against property, it was just a hop, skip and jump over to the dark side for the deadly digits in The Hands of Orlac. In that case, the hands were organic and transplanted—and the former owner was a killer, not a mere pickpocket, and the horrified new owner of the grafted hands has no way of escaping their menace.
This more malignant interpretation has become the favorite for filmmakers, though silly versions have famously cropped up over the years, most notable Peter Sellers’ wayward, fascist arm in Dr. Strangelove.
Reviews for The Thieving Hand were enthusiastic, with the picture’s special effects singled out for praise. The Moving Picture World did point out that it was inaccurate for the pencil vendor, merely accused, to be placed with convicted criminals before his trial. The review suggested that the film would have been flawless if the pencil vendor had met the criminals outside, rather than in the cell. Complaints like this are valuable because it shows that audiences and critics of the era were selective viewers who were not so caught up in the technology of film that they would ignore glaring flaws.
The Thieving Hand is a delightfully strange picture, though it clearly was not seen as particularly odd when it was released and, fair enough, there were some gloriously bizarre pictures made in the pre-feature era. The short runtime, light hand and the witty use of special effects make this a real crowdpleaser for modern viewers.
Where can I see it?
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