The Devil Made Me Do It: La main du diable (1943)

CARNIVAL OF SINNERS (1947)

Cinephiles and film aficionados come in all stripes. Some of us are drawn to the star quality of performers while others may obsess over scriptwriting, set designs or a director’s unique skill set. We’re often fond of particular genres and may gravitate to specific eras that we find especially rewarding. One of the many things that compel me is the thrill of discovery and the sheer delight I get from encountering an extraordinary older film that is new to me. This can be challenging but FilmStruck’s impressive library is introducing me to some marvelous movies that have managed to elude me in the past. My latest FilmStruck find is La main du diable (1943), also known as Carnival of Sinners or The Devil’s Hand, a fascinating and incredibly stylish French horror film involving an ambitious artist who makes an ill-fated deal with the devil.

CARNIVAL OF SINNERS (1947)

La main du diable was directed by the Parisian filmmaker Maurice Tourneur. Today his name is somewhat overshadowed by his son Jacques, who made some of the best horror films and thrillers of the 1940s and 1950s (Cat People [1942], I Walked with a Zombie [1943], The Leopard Man [1943], Night of the Demon [1957]). However, during his lifetime Tourneur senior was a prolific filmmaker and screenwriter who flourished during the silent era and eventually earned his own star on Hollywood Boulevard. He first came to America with his family in 1914 but following a few career setbacks, Tourneur decided to return to France in 1928 and pursue filmmaking there. Unfortunately, war would soon breakout in Europe and consume all of France.

In Harry Waldman’s book Maurice Tourneur: The Life and Films, the director described the horrific conditions he endured during the war explaining, “We survived complete starvation, being shot, or bayoneted, bombed from above, blasted from beneath, buried in concentration camps, shattered in fragments from V-1 or V-2 (rockets).” Despite this, Tourneur was able to continue directing with Continental Films, the only operational production company in Nazi-occupied France. It was during this trying period that Tourneur made La main du diable, a horror film that indirectly addresses the Nazi occupation of France and the hardships faced by its citizens who were desperate to regain their country.

As I briefly mentioned above, La main du diable is a Faustian fable involving an aspiring artist named Roland Brissot (Pierre Fresnay) who unwittingly makes a deal with the devil (Pierre Palau). We first meet him at a homey inn nestled in the French Alps. It’s a dark and stormy night and Roland arrives unannounced much to the surprise of the inn’s other guests. He’s a frantic figure, pursued by unknown demons and shouting accusations at strangers while carrying a small package tucked tightly under his left arm, which is missing a hand. When his package is stolen, Roland becomes distraught and in his despair, he confides in the concerned occupants of the inn. What follows is a terrible tale, about a cursed talisman in the shape of a human hand that can provide the owner with “skills, success, talent and women.” Sadly for Roland, he discovers much too late that the hand belongs to the devil himself and comes with a very high price.

CARNIVAL OF SINNERS (1947)

Based on a story by the celebrated French writer Gérard de Nerval, the film unfolds slowly and deliberately but patient viewers are well rewarded. Director Maurice Tourneur masterfully uses carefully chosen set pieces as well as the foggy streets of Paris to create an otherworldly atmosphere while skillfully employing shadows and light to build suspense. This accumulates in a wonderfully surreal and eerie finale that takes place during the Nice Carnival, where shadowy masked figures gather to initiate Roland into the mysterious cult of the hand.

One of the film’s strongest points is the way it employees the French arts to tell its story. Early on, Cocteau’s name is invoked when critics are trying to describe Roland’s expressive paintings. The devil, played perfectly by Palau, also resembles one of Rene Magritte’s faceless men in bowler hats. His costume is also similar to a bailiffs or government employee, suggesting that the film could be read as in indictment on the Nazi occupation of France and the citizens who collaborated with them. A decorative recreation of Gustave Doré’s Death on the Pale Horse took my breath away along with some creative animation sequences involving numbers that also recalled Rene Magritte’s work. Francophiles should appreciate these artistic touches.

La main du diable was released on PAL DVD in France but I don’t believe it has ever been made available in the U.S. Thankfully fans of French fantastique cinema can now find this exceptional film streaming on FilmStruck.

Kimberly Lindbergs

3 Responses The Devil Made Me Do It: La main du diable (1943)
Posted By Mitch Farish : November 10, 2016 10:40 am

I love this movie! Even without the political subtext, it’s a very stylish horror film from the days when eerie atmosphere was a way of creating a sense of dread in the audience – no decapitations or dismemberment except an already severed hand that works as a talisman. I’m a sucker for these films with chiaroscuro lighting in B&W. Maurice Tourneur did get a lot of his ideas from Dieterle’s All that Money Can Buy, but it’s still very effective, in the same way as his son Jacques’ The Night of the Demon.

Posted By Mitch Farish : November 10, 2016 10:44 am

I bought a blu-ray from France. Since it was region-free I thought it must have English subtitles, but it didn’t and I don’t speak French. I have have it recorded from TCM on DVR with subtitles. Watch for it when it comes on again.

Posted By caroline : March 27, 2017 3:15 pm

Watched this last night. It was engaging and I even found myself thinking how this film must have influenced Val Lewton (the lighting in particular). I see now that it’s a Tourneur connection, which makes me want to learn more about the dynamics of the father-son relationship. The scene in Nice is not to be missed. It takes an otherwise “pretty good” movie into a surreal, magical, and significant place.

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