Feast your eyes on clenched fists: 'Borderline' and the characterization of the hands (6/8)

In Borderline (1930), the camera often lingers on certain resounding images, but prolonged eye contact and hand gestures/motions seem to be doing the most work. While it was necessary sometimes to hold onto these images longer than usual, since audiences could not hear characters express themselves, there is something overtly violent, emotional, and even sensual about the utilization of hands in Borderline

I asked myself, and am still asking myself, why hands? Is it because they could be seen as a separate member acting on their own accord before the conscious mind can take control? Is it because hands create and erase? Give and take away life? Perhaps it boils down to simple anatomical expressiveness and the multitudes contained therein. Hands pull, press, shove, punch, pinch, slap, feel. Life flows through them, evident in the veins that swell to the surface.

The vast capabilities of hands are unsettling, to tell the truth. What can caress at one moment can kill the next, and Borderline puts this duality on display. At 21:23, the old woman is pointing her lanky finger while expressing a troubling sentiment: "If I had my way, not one ***** would be allowed in the country!" Seconds later, the barmaid outstretches her hand and firmly tells the old woman to cut it out. Things get awkward, and the barmaid bites her forefinger, almost as if it was her feeble attempt to hold her tongue.

Another example of the characterization of hands comes not long after the bar scene when Pete comes home to Adah and lights the furnace for her with a smile on his face. When Adah presumably tells him about her affair (and I say presumably because this scene and the following confrontation scene were a bit ambiguous and hard to discern to me in terms of the sequence of events), we see his hands change before we see it on his face (25:17). For a moment, Pete's hand goes from relaxed to slightly clenched, from helpful to hurt. Mere seconds later, Pete's hands ball into a fist. Anger accompanies hurt. Or perhaps, it was a sign of garnering strength to oversee Adah's adultery. 

Another example occurs roughly around 38:00 when Thorne adoringly pets a cat. Exactly 10 minutes later, Thorne wields the knife that takes Astrid's life, and in between, there's so much being portrayed by the use and placement of hands.

There's more before, after, and in between the few examples I listed above, but that's all I got in me for now. I thought it was a cool technique, and I wondered how often and whether or not this dichotomy was implemented in other silent surrealist films. 


Lily, your analysis here is fantastic. The hands! My instinct was to view Macpherson's focus on hands in terms of labor, but your post helps me think in new ways.

In the context of surrealism, a quick google search indicates that hands refer symbolically to social/sexual interactions (Freud, ofc) which is yet another possible interpretation. I can't find anything veritable about it, but here's the link (https://boards.straightdope.com/t/meaning-of-hands-in-psychoanalysis/315134). Nevertheless, infidelity/sexual interactions would be a convenient explanation of hand imagery in the context of the film's plot.