While The Amazing Exploits of the Clutching Hand doesn’t start strong, the first chapter certainly isn’t any indication of how bad the serial is going to get over its fifteen chapters and five hour total run time. It’s never Amazing, there are rarely Exploits, but there is some Clutching Hand. The Hand himself is the mystery villain, always shown from behind or in shadow. The hand shows up as a threat to various characters, sometimes a shadow with a… well, a clutching hand. Sometimes the clutching hand will strangle someone, sometimes it’ll grab a piece of paper. It’s always silly but by the end of the serial, it’s no longer dangerous.
Probably because it never goes ahead and kills any of the annoying cast.
Clutching Hand‘s lead is Jack Mulhall. He’s a master detective, or so he and everyone (and the opening title scrawls) keep saying. But he starts getting duped in the first chapter. His plans are usually dumb and never work out. He regularly lets suspects go free and never calls in backup for when he raids the gang hangout. There’s only one gang hangout. It’s a sailor bar with a bunch of offices upstairs. Both the Clutching Hand and nondescript criminal Jon Hall use the bar for their base of operations. So there are lots of fist fights in the bar. Lots of them. Like probably half the chapters have fist fights in the bar. Eventually involving Mulhall in makeup. Though no one at the bar remembers anyone so it’s unclear why the makeup is so necessary.
Mulhall’s got to wear makeup because he’s trying to find a missing gold formula. Scientist Robert Frazer has discovered a way to turn metal into gold, exciting his corporate overlords and various other peoples. The same night he discovers the formula, he gets assaulted, is apparently dead, but then is kidnapped. Clutching Hand is looking for the gold formula, which also goes missing, and Frazer.
It really is thirteen chapters of those searches too. There’s one main subplot in the serial, involving ex-con Robert Walker (who is pals with Hall) and Frazer’s possible widow, Mae Busch. Walker and Hall are always mysterious, at least until they come across some mysterious guys scamming Busch. But daughter Marion Shilling? She gets nothing to do the whole time. She kind of gets to date reporter Rex Lease, who drafts himself as Mulhall’s sidekick, but there’s no story to their relationship. Clutching Hand is five hours of thin plot contrivances.
Unfortunately, it’s not just fisticuffs, plot contrivances, car chases, and whatever other stupidity the two screenwriters and two adaptation writers come up with. It’s bad enough I’m curious how much of that badness came from Arthur B. Reeve’s source novel, but… you know… not really. Five hours is already way too much time to invest in Clutching Hand.
With a couple exceptions, every chapter is just Clutching Hand spinning its wheels and killing time. Someone has the formula, let’s chase them, no wait, they don’t have it. Same goes for Frazer. Someone sees him–or not, really, Mulhall and Lease spend a lot of time just chasing old men–he’s not really there, or he’s a young guy disguised as an old man, Mulhall and Lease lose track of him because they’re really bad at the detective game. Over and over and over again.
You’d think Busch’s subplot with Walker or the con men would be a relief, but no. Busch gets zip to do in her scenes. It’s always the guys, who are just plodding through the plodding scene. When Clutching Hand actually has decent–read, not godawful–pacing, at least it doesn’t go on forever. It usually just goes on forever. The acting, of course, doesn’t help. Everyone’s bad. Mulhall and Lease get laughable after a while. Busch doesn’t make an impression. Shilling certainly doesn’t. Ruth Mix, as Frazer’s secretary, is kind of likable. She’s unlikable or trying, which goes for in Clutching Hand.
For intrigue, Clutching Hand relies mostly on the Clutching Hand talking to his legion of agents via television monitors–I think Mulhall has a scene where he barges in on him mid-villainy conference and both neglects to identify his enemy or call the cops about the gang hangout–or Frazer’s corporate overlords plotting for their outrageous fortune, once they get the gold formula back. On and on it goes. For hours. In the exact same places. Lease almost gets poisoned twice while loitering around Mulhall’s apartment. The last few chapters–finally–introduce a new setting (a boat), but it doesn’t make much difference. It’s not like the locations are inherently bad–well, they are bad but the sets inadequacies don’t matter anywhere near as much as Herman’s weak direction. The constant fist fights are always terrible, only ever amusing when they get really stupid. Like Lease shooting up the sailor bar with a couple revolvers.
The serial’s resolution manages to be stupid, incomplete, and exasperating all at once. Clutching Hand isn’t one of those serials where you could basically skip everything except the first, second, penultimate, and final chapters. There’s nothing important in the second or penultimate chapters here. Just more nonsense. Of course, one should skip Clutching Hand entirely. It’s wholly terrible (though, in all fairness to Herman, his bad direction is nothing compared to the script or the acting).
Directed by Albert Herman; screenplay by Leon D’Usseau and Dallas M. Fitzgerald, based on an adaptation by George M. Merrick and Eddie Granemann and the novel by Arthur B. Reeve; director of photography, James Diamond; edited by Earl Turner; produced by Louis Weiss; released by Stage & Screen Productions.
Starring Jack Mulhall (Craig Kennedy), Rex Lease (Walter Jameson), Mae Busch (Mrs. Gironda), Ruth Mix (Shirley McMillan), William Farnum (Gordon Gaunt), Marion Shilling (Verna Gironda), Bryant Washburn (Denton), Robert Frazer (Dr. Gironda), Gaston Glass (Louis Bouchard), Mahlon Hamilton (Montgomery), Robert Walker (Joe Mitchell), Yakima Canutt (Number Eight), Joseph W. Girard (Lawyer Cromwell), Frank Leigh (Maj. Courtney Wickham), Jon Hall (Frank Hobart), Franklyn Farnum (Nicky), and Knute Erickson (Capt. Hansen).