Actress Yvonne Orlac (Frances Drake) rests after her final performance at the 'Théâtre des Horreurs' (styled after the Grand Guignol) in Paris, France. As she listens to her husband Stephen Orlac (Colin Clive) play the piano on the radio, she is greeted by Dr. Gogol (Peter Lorre), who has seen every show featuring Yvonne, and unaware of her marriage, is aghast to learn that she is moving to England with her husband. Gogol leaves the theater heartbroken, buys the wax figure of Yvonne's character, refers to it as Galatea (from the Greek myth), and arranges that it be delivered to his home the following day.
Stephen Orlac is on a train journey from Fontainebleau to Paris, where he sees murderer Rollo the Knife thrower (Edward Brophy), who is on the way to his execution by guillotine. (Gogol later witnesses the execution, along with the American reporter Reagan (Ted Healy)). Orlac's train crashes later that night, and Yvonne finds her husband with mutilated hands. She takes Stephen to Gogol in an attempt to reconstruct his hands, and Gogol agrees to do so. Gogol uses Rollo's hands for the transplant, and the operation is a success.
The Orlac couple are forced to sell many of their possessions to pay for the surgery, while Stephen finds he is unable to play the piano with his new hands. When a creditor comes to claim the Orlacs' piano, Stephen throws a fountain pen that barely misses his head. Stephen seeks help from his stepfather, Henry Orlac (Ian Wolfe). Henry denies the request, upset that Stephen did not follow in his line of business as a jeweler. A knife thrown in anger by Stephen misses Henry, but breaks the shop front's window. Gogol meanwhile asks Yvonne for her love, but she refuses. Stephen goes to Gogol's home and demands to know about his hands, and why they throw knives. Gogol suggests that Stephen's problem comes from childhood trauma, but later confirms to his assistant Dr. Wong (Keye Luke) that Stephen's hands had been Rollo's.
Gogol then suggests to Yvonne that she get away from Stephen, as the shock has affected his mind and she may be in danger. She angrily rejects Gogol, whose obsession grows. Henry Orlac is murdered, and Stephen receives a note that promises that he will learn the truth about his hands if he goes to a specific address that night. There, a man with metallic hands and dark glasses claims to be Rollo, brought back to life by Gogol. Rollo explains that Stephen's hands were his, and that Stephen used them to murder Henry. He also claims that Gogol transplanted his (Rollo's) head on to a new body...flashing a leather-and-metal neck brace as "proof!"
Stephen returns to Yvonne and explains that his hands are those of Rollo, and that he must turn himself in to the police. A panic-stricken Yvonne goes to Gogol's home, and finds him completely mad (after he has come home and shed his elaborate disguise). Gogol assumes that his statue has come to life, embraces her, and begins to strangle her. Reagan, Stephen and the police arrive, but are only able to open the observation window. Stephen produces a knife and throws it at Gogol, then finds his way in. Gogol dies as Stephen and Yvonne embrace.Peter Lorre as Dr. Gogol. Lorre originally came to Hollywood to star in Crime and Punishment. Crime and Punishment was delayed, and on April 23, 1935, MGM announced that Lorre would play the lead in Mad Love, which became his American film debut.
Frances Drake as Yvonne Orlac. The role was originally intended for Virginia Bruce. Drake also played Yvonne's wax figure in closeup shots.
Colin Clive as Stephen Orlac. Clive was on loan from Warner Bros. at the time.
Ted Healy as Reagan, an American reporter
Sara Haden as Marie, Yvonne's maid
Edward Brophy as Rollo the Knife Thrower
Henry Kolker as Prefect Rosset
Keye Luke as Dr. Wong
May Beatty as Françoise, Gogol's drunken housekeeper
Florence Crewe-Jones provided MGM with an original translation/adaptation of Renard's story "Les Mains D'Orlac". Writer Guy Endore, who worked with director Karl Freund on early drafts. Producer John W. Considine Jr. assigned the continuity and dialogue to P.J. Wolfson, and John L. Balderston began to write a "polish-up" of the draft on April 24, 1935. Balderstone went over the dialogue with Lorre in mind, and at points called for the actor to deploy his "M look". Balderston continued his re-write three weeks past the start of filming.
Filming started on May 6, 1935 with Chester Lyons as the cinematographer. Freund insisted on Gregg Toland, whom he got for a reported "8 days of additional photography". Actress Frances Drake recalled difficulty between Freund, Toland and Considine. Drake said that "Freund wanted to be the cinematographer at the same time", and that "You never knew who was directing. The producer was dying to, to tell you the truth, and of course he had no idea of directing." Several titles for the film were announced, and on May 22, 1935, MGM announced that the title would be The Hands of Orlac. The Mad Doctor of Paris was also suggested, but the studio eventually settled on the original title of Mad Love. Shooting finished on June 8, 1935, one week over schedule. After the initial release, MGM cut about fifteen minutes of scenes from the film. Cut scenes included the surgery to get Rollo's hands, a pre-credit warning scene similar to the one in Frankenstein, and Isabel Jewell's entire portrayal of the character Marianne.
Mad Love was released in the United States on July 12, 1935 and, as Hands of Orlac, in the United Kingdom on August 2, 1935. Official reaction in the UK was mixed with Edward Shortt of the BBFC initially declaring his intention to ban the film. The initial critical reception, however, was focused on praise for Lorre's performance. The Hollywood Reporter said that "Lorre triumphs in a characterization that is sheer horror", Time magazine called him "perfectly cast", Graham Greene described his performance as "convincing", and Charlie Chaplin called him "the greatest living actor". Reviews for the rest of the cast were less positive. The New York Times said that "Ted Healy, a highly amusing comedian, has gotten into the wrong picture", and The Hollywood Reporter said that Colin Clive "jitters his way through". The Hollywood Reporter wrote that the film was "neither important or particularly compelling ... falls right in the middle between Art and Box Office". Time magazine called it "completely horrible", and The New York Times wrote that "Mad Love is not much more than a super-Karloff melodrama, an interesting but pretty trivial adventure in Grand Guignol horror." Mad Love was not a hit at the box office, and had a small domestic gross of $170,000. Its foreign gross was larger, at $194,000.
Critic Pauline Kael's essay "Raising Kane", published in The New Yorker, accused director Orson Welles of copying the visual style of Mad Love for Citizen Kane. Kael noted that both Gogol and Kane are bald, Gogol's house and Kane's "Xanadu" are similar, and that Gogol and Kane both have a pet cockatoo. She also wrote that Toland had "passed Freund's technique onto Welles". Peter Bogdanovich wrote a rebuttal to Kael's statements in Esquire in 1972. Both writers had negative views on Mad Love. Kael called it a "dismal static horror movie", and Bogdanovich said that it was "one of the worst movies I've ever seen."
Recent reviews of Mad Love have been much more positive. At the online film review database Rotten Tomatoes, the film has a 100% approval rating, and a 7.5 critical average.
Mad Love was released on VHS by MGM/UA in late 1992 in the United States. It was released on DVD by Warner Home Video on October 10, 2006, along with Doctor X, The Devil-Doll, Mark of the Vampire, The Mask of Fu Manchu and The Return of Doctor X, in the six-disc Hollywood Legends of Horror Collection. DVD bonus material included film commentary by Steve Haberman, and the film's theatrical trailer.
Mad Love has been remade once, and was itself preceded by the 1924 Austrian silent film The Hands of Orlac, directed by Robert Wiene and starring Conrad Veidt. It was remade in 1960 as a French-British co-production that was directed by Edmond T. Gréville, and starred Mel Ferrer as Stephen Orlac and Christopher Lee as a new magician character named Nero.
Related films include Hands of a Stranger (1962) and The Crawling Hand (1963). One of Alfred Hitchcock's unproduced projects was The Blind Man, a variant of the theme in which a blind pianist receives implanted eyes whose retinas retain the image of their previous owner's murder. The Quinn Martin anthology TV series, Tales of the Unexpected includes the episode "A Hand for Sonny Blue", rehashing the theme once again.