The 1980s films of Michael Caine: The Hand

the hand michael caine
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Our voyage through the work of Michael Caine arrives at the 1981 psychological horror, The Hand – the debut of one Oliver Stone.

Michael Caine showed no sign of slowing down as he entered his third decade as a leading man. The 1980s would see him win his first Academy Award (Hannah And Her Sisters), tackle new genres such as horror (The Hand) and shark-based revenge movie (Jaws: The Revenge) while continuing to work with interesting new auteurs like Brian De Palma (Dressed To Kill) as well as old friends from classic Hollywood such as John Huston (Escape To Victory).

Film by film, I’ll be taking a look at Caine’s 1980s filmography to see what hidden gems I can unearth alongside the more familiar classics. Note that Spoilers for The Hand lay ahead…

Directed by: Oliver Stone (Platoon, Wall Street, JFK, Natural Born Killers)

Tagline: It lives. It crawls. And suddenly, it kills.

Nothing will prepare you for The Hand *
*…apart from perhaps… The Foot?

Other Featured Geezers: Andrea Marcovicci as Anne Lansdale, Annie McEnroe as Stella Roche, Bruce McGill as Brian Ferguson, Charles Fleischer as David Maddow

What’s it all about, Alfie?: Michael Caine plays Jon Lansdale – comic book writer, illustrator and creator of the hit Mandro series (think a cut-rate Conan the Barbarian – Mandro is more Conan the ‘Bit of a Blighter’). He’s got a successful career, a big house and a loving young daughter, but his marriage to Anne (Andrea Marcovicci) is on shaky ground which isn’t helped after he loses his favourite hand in a nasty car accident.

Now unable to work, and his life derailed, this unsurprisingly takes a psychological toll on poor Jon. He’s blacking out and having increasingly strange and disturbing nightmares about his missing limb going walkabout and getting up to mischief (defacing drawings, hiding objects, a cheeky spot of murder etc). Or, are these actually not nightmares at all but the real acts of a rampaging hand acting out Jon’s worst impulses?

Caine-ness: After a supporting turn in Dressed To Kill, Caine is back as a leading man and is thus onscreen for the bulk of The Hand’s runtime. We first see him just a couple of minutes into the movie working on his comic books in his gazebo.

And we also see the titular hand, which is Caine’s (I think, but it could be a hand double), in a close-up early doors too. Now, I don’t want to hand-shame, but it’s a very chunky and unappealing hand. It’s got a bit of the King Charles’ sausage fingers going on. Normally I wouldn’t make a big deal of this but this film is The Hand and so I felt obliged to point it out. Also, Jon Lansdale has a terrible taste in signet rings. His hand deserved better which perhaps explains why it became so vindictive.

If pressed to list careers that you can imagine Michael Caine having, I think that it’s fair to say that comic book artist would be pretty low down on the list. Off the top of my head, the only other on-screen profession of his which is perhaps less believable is that time he played a car in Cars 2.

This is one of Caine’s self-confessed pay cheque movies (this one paid for his garage), but even though it was material that he was not invested in it (other than financially), he still very much doesn’t phone it in. Instead, he gives a nicely nuanced and subtle performance of a psychologically broken man. There’s an underplayed sadness to him throughout and quite a few times you can see him holding back tears. Caine crying always gets to me, and I found the scene where he breaks down in bed with his wife, sobbing “It’s so ugly”, shortly after losing his hand to be particularly affecting. Although, this could have been an unscripted reaction of Caine seeing in the mirror what the film’s hairstylists had done. I’m not sure if he did something to offend them but his hair game in this film is truly dreadful, leading him to often resemble an unkempt Cocker Spaniel.

Caine, committing fully to the role, delivers nonsense lines such as “Mandro isn’t Pogo!” with utmost sincerity and conviction. I haven’t the foggiest what “Mandro isn’t Pogo!” means, but when Caine says it, I can fully get behind it.

He fares less well in the climatic fight scene with his own severed hand, where he has to roll around on the floor slapping a clearly rubber hand that’s been attached to his neck, hit his own crotch as his severed hand climbs up his trouser leg, and then try to arm wrestle it. This is all played completely straight and not for laughs in an Evil Dead 2 fashion. But to be fair to Caine, I don’t even think Daniel Day Lewis or Meryl Streep could have made that scene work.

Anyway, let’s get back to what this film is really about, which is Jon’s cartoon character Mandro. Jon is very passionate about his creation and there’s significantly more Mandro chat in this film than you’d expect. It leads to some classic signature shouty and pointy Caine acting after he’s presented with some new drawings of his character by a different artist; “This isn’t Mandro. I invented Mandro. I’ve lived with him for 10 years” he shouts. He’s right to be angry because this artist has made Mandro look a bit like Tilda Swinton.

He also doesn’t like the young artist wanting to write a more metrosexual Mandro. A Mandro who explores himself and ask questions. “Mandro knows what he wants. Mandro doesn’t think,” Jon argues before saying, “You don’t cut the balls off Superman”. These are all things I never expected to hear Michael Caine say, and say so passionately, but he truly commits to earning his garage down payment.

The Mandro artwork seen in the film was drawn by actual Conan artist Barry Windsor-Smith, and Oliver Stone has a connection to Conan too, having co-written the 1982 Schwarzenegger movie. If you Google Mandro the first result is for “the best pizza and kebab takeaway in Maryhill Glasgow”. Whether or not the owners of that establishment were inspired by this film I can’t say, but what I can say, based on a customer review, is that their “Chicken kebab meat was a bit hard in certain bits.” Make of that what you will.

My last thing to say on Caine’s performance is that, for the ladies, there’s a superfluous scene of him vigorously chopping some wood. There’s also a scene of him trying to make burgers with his robotic hand before squeezing the patties too hard and dropping them on the floor (for anyone who is into that).

Caine-nections*: In his previous movie, Dressed To Kill, Caine played a murderous psychiatrist and in The Hand his character refuses to see a psychiatrist, and has a little rant about them, suggesting that perhaps Jon Lansdale had seen Dressed To Kill and it really put him off.

*I’m only counting from Caine’s first starring role in Zulu onwards.

Best Non-Caine Actor: Caine is the only big star, and the only standout performance, in a small cast. The supporting performances aren’t particularly memorable and the only actor that I recognised was Bruce McGill (who has had small roles in tons of movies including Animal House, My Cousin Vinny and Collateral) who plays a fellow teacher at the bizarre woodland community college where Jon goes to teach. Charles Fleischer, most famous for being the voice of Roger Rabbit, plays Jon’s young rival comic book artist, but seeing him in non-rabbit form I didn’t realise who it was until the credits.

I was unfamiliar with the two female leads; Andrea Marcovicci as Jon’s wife Anne, and Annie McEnroe as his lover Stella (although McEnroe does have a small role as the estate agent in Beetlejuice). Their filmographies are short and don’t contain much of note, but Marcovicci does seem to have had more success in TV and theatre. Based on their lacklustre roles in The Hand I can unfortunately see why neither of them were able to set Hollywood alight. To be fair to them, a big issue lies with Stone’s script as these are underwritten and cliched female roles (the unfaithful wife and the feisty student with an inexplicable attraction to the middle-aged male lead).

Neither of them has much chemistry with Caine (although Anne and Jon’s marriage is meant to be on the rocks) and Stella deciding to drop round Jon’s cabin to seduce him comes completely out of the blue leading to some uncomfortably passionless sex scenes. Annie McEnroe’s eyes were clearly elsewhere as she met her future husband, the producer Edward R Pressman, on the set of this film.

The best performance outside of Caine’s is Oliver Stone’s cameo as an incoherently ranting one-handed homeless man, looking the worse for wear, that Jon bumps into.

Is The Hand a Christmas Movie?: I’m tired of the yearly argument over whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie (it is), and so I’m hoping to move the debate on to whether The Hand is a Christmas movie. Caine already stars in the best Christmas movie (Muppets Christmas Carol, of course) and so it was a nice surprise to see that he has another film that could potentially become a future festive family favourite.

Points in its favour: the last third is set at Christmas and there are plenty of shots of fairy lights, a Christmas present is a plot point, a murder takes place beside a prominently featured Christmas tree.

Points against: the bulk of the film doesn’t take place at Christmas and this is a film about a killer hand (which isn’t the most festive of topics).

Anyway, I’ll let you mull this over yourselves, it’s something to discuss with your family over dinner this December.

My Bleedin’ Thoughts: I was surprised, and admittedly a bit disappointed, that this film was not nearly as bad as I expected it to be. Although it’s certainly nowhere near their best work, this isn’t a film that Stone or Caine should be too embarrassed by. Saying that, it’s still too fundamentally silly a premise to entirely work as a straightforward psychological thriller, which Stone seems to want it to be. It’s never actually scary and it’s not dumb or goofy enough (apart from the final fight) to work as an unintentional comedy and so it falls somewhere in the middle of being a decent watch but unremarkable.

The script, by Stone, was based on a novel called The Lizard’s Tail by Marc Brandel. Given his later career, and extracurricular interests, it’s not a film that you’d immediately identify as an Oliver Stone picture apart from perhaps the theme of trauma which The Hand does explore. He was doing a lot of cocaine at the time, and going through a messy divorce, which may go some way to explaining the odd creative decisions and why he decided to take a story about a killer hand so seriously (and why there’s so much focus on a marriage breakdown when really the audience just wants to see a hand throttle people). This was his second feature film after his 1974 independent horror Seizure, and his first film for a major studio, but considering his relative inexperience, it’s a competently made film for the most part.

However, whether because of his inexperience or studio meddling, the film doesn’t entirely make sense. By the end of the movie, I had no idea whether Jon’s hand was actually killing people or whether it was a figment of his imagination. During the climax a psychiatrist tells him that it doesn’t exist and we see flashbacks of Jon committing all the murders but, while he’s tied securely to a chair, the severed hand pops up behind the psychiatrist and kills her. Also, some sequences of the hand getting up to its antics are in black and white, clearly suggesting they’re taking place in Jon’s imagination, but then other times they’re in colour. It’s all a bit messy, but not in an intriguing thought-provoking way and instead in a way that suggests that Stone didn’t really know what he was going for.

There are quite a few “excuse me, what just happened?” moments such as when the Lansdale’s cat (called Amanda!) jumps straight through a plate glass window for no reason (I’m guessing because it saw the hand, but that’s still an overaction from the cat, it needs to chill out) and we never see Amanda the cat again.

We also get a point of view shot from the hand ogling Jon’s bum (which being a hand, obviously wouldn’t have a point of view) when it’s watching Jon search for it in the field beside where the accident took place. Also, the hand appears to scream when it is stabbed with a knife, and laugh when the psychiatrist’s killed. I’m no professional biologist (although I did get a B in AS Level Biology), but I’m pretty sure these are all things that a hand can’t do.

Special effect icons Stan Winston and Carlo Rambaldi worked on the film and sadly it’s not their best work (although perhaps this can be blamed more on the way it was shot) as the hand does mostly look very fake and rubbery. Although the car accident scene’s done well and there are some creepy and inventive visuals, such as when Jon hallucinates the shower knob turning into a hand and imagines a lobster clenching like a fist.

Perhaps the thing that works best is the lush orchestral score by James Horner in one of his earliest roles as composer (before going on to work on such iconic films as Aliens, Braveheart and Titanic). I also enjoyed the inclusion of the Blondie song Union City Blues during a nighttime driving scene.

Trivia (courtesy of IMDb): Seeing as I can find no corroborating details online, I find these two pieces of trivia incredibly dubious, almost as if they were written by a mischievous severed hand:

-Barbara Streisand was present on set the day the restaurant scene was shot.*

But why?!?! This raises much deeper and more disturbing questions then anything posed during the film.

-Eddie Deezen auditioned for a part but didn’t get it because Oliver Stone didn’t like the way he walked.

*In the immortal words of the Bee Gees “You can tell by the way I use my walk, I’m not suitable for a role in Oliver Stone’s The Hand.”

Overall Thoughts: Not as bad as you’d expect, but also not entirely successful, The Hand is a moderately enjoyable psychological thriller with a very committed central performance from Caine (and his hand).

Rating: 3/5 Mandros

Where You Can Watch This: This is currently available to rent or purchase from most streaming services but seems to be out of print on PAL physical media.

Up Next: Let’s hope there’s no handballs as Caine, alongside the unlikely pairing of Sylvester Stallone and Pele, team up for a game of footie against the Nazis in Escape To Victory.

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