Tuesday 15 November 2016

The Dark Eyes of London (1939)

Director: Walter Summers
Writers: Patrick Kirwan, Walter Summers and J. F. Argyle, from the novel by Edgar Wallace, with additional dialogue by Jay Van Lusil
Stars: Bela Lugosi, Hugh Williams and Greta Gynt

Looking back just over three quarters of a century on, the big name here is that of Bela Lugosi, a Hungarian actor who emigrated to the United States via Germany and found his future in 1927, appearing as Count Dracula on the Broadway stage. Adapting that role to film for Tod Browning and Universal in 1931, he revitalised the Universal horror movie for a new decade and became the first true heir to the throne of Lon Chaney. The Dark Eyes of London, however, came eight years later, at a time when horror films were being reduced in number at the major studios, and so Lugosi was finding himself mired in B-movies of decreasing quality. Even though it would be released Stateside by Monogram, this British picture, made by Argyle Productions and shot at Welwyn Studios in Hertfordshire, must have felt like a break for him. Certainly he sailed out on the Queen Mary to star in it, a holiday on the way to work. Perhaps he’d also enjoyed making The Mystery of the Marie Celeste in the UK a few years earlier for Hammer.

As much as Argyle were keen to capitalise on Lugosi’s legendary performance as Dracula in their advertising for the film, he was not the biggest star associated with the project, that honour surely going to Edgar Wallace, who had written the novel upon which the film was based. Sure, the script was adapted by three screenwriters, one of whom was the film’s director, Walter Summers, in a much more gruesome style than the original novel, but it was an Edgar Wallace picture nonetheless and that’s hard to miss. The success of Wallace, whose name is hardly remembered today, cannot be understated. In 1928, it was joked, believably, that one in four books being read in the UK came from his pen and he churned out material at an amazing rate, even for the pulp era. By the time he was done, he had written over 170 novels, 18 stage plays and almost a thousand short stories, reaching 50 million sales in the process. Over 200 films have been based on his works, though he’s mostly remembered today for creating King Kong.
Having read some Edgar Wallace, this rings mostly true to his novels even though it’s much more horrific. Wallace helped to shift British detective stories away from private investigators like Sherlock Holmes and towards policemen; the string of river murders is investigated here by Det. Insp. Larry Holt of C.I.D., the Criminal Investigation Department of the British police force. There are many scenes that explore the routine of police work, including the projection of crime scene photographs and tests run on a body to ascertain stomach contents. It’s also a fantastic opportunity for Bela Lugosi, who plays a double role well enough that it doesn’t even seem like a double role for the longest time. Monogram released the film in the States as The Human Monster, and while that title surely includes a nod to the morality of Lugosi’s character, Dr. Feodor Orloff, it really shifts the focus of marketing to Jake, a supporting character played by Wilfred Walter, though a few years later it would surely have been given to Rondo Hatton.

I’m watching today, however, for Greta Gynt, a Norwegian actress who lived in the UK as a young child and moved back again as her acting career got under way. She was a regular face in British films of the forties, often playing the female lead; she retired in the early sixties on a high note, playing the lead in The Runaway. She would have been a hundred years old today and, to celebrate, I chose one of the two films she’s best known for. While she was certainly not typecast in genre film, she’s remembered mostly for Sexton Blake and the Hooded Terror, with Tod Slaughter, and The Dark Eyes of London, often cited as the first film to be awarded the H for Horrific certificate by the British censor. That’s not strictly true but it ought to be, given what goes down at Dearborn’s Home for the Destitute Blind, an agreeable cover for the sordid goings on of Dr. Orloff. Most H for Horrific films are released as PG today, but this one still carries quite a punch because of that setting and what goes on there.
Gynt doesn’t appear for quite a while, as the story gets established through a number of plot strands. At Scotland Yard, the C.I.D. wonder if five missing persons showing up drowned in eight months is a coincidence. They’ve found no connections thus far but ‘the Home Office is kicking’. Three of those five were on Det. Insp. Holt’s watch, as the Commissioner is happy to point out, so he’s eager to break the case. Elsewhere in London, Dr. Orloff loans Henry Stuart $2,000 under the banner of the Greenwich Insurance Company. He trusts him, he says, because he can read it in his eyes. Meanwhile, on his way back from the States is a forger called Fred Grogan, being extradited and delivered into Holt’s custody. Bringing him is Lt. Patrick O’Reilly of the Chicago P.D., who will follow Holt around to study the methods of the British police. He’ll become the film’s comic relief, even if the Commissioner has a deliciously dry sense of humour. ‘I’ll attach him to you,’ he tells Holt, ‘so he won’t learn anything.’

So far, this feels very much like a detective story, the sort of thing that someone like, hey, Edgar Wallace might write, but there’s an edge that gradually grows as the picture runs on, one that’s quintessential early American horror. It reminds us that there are people out there in our world, not somewhere far away like Transylvania but right here in our town, that are not like us. They’re usually seen as sinister just for being different and the best movies that tread this territory use it as a means to examine what it is to be human. Lesser films merely conflate physical deformities with mental ones, suggesting that anyone different from us must be a monster, but the real classics like Freaks and Island of Lost Souls, highlight that the freaks can be more human than those we’re conditioned to see as their superiors, regular able-bodied folk who can be and often are the real bad guys. The Dark Eyes of London isn’t of the calibre of those two classics but it does try and it succeeds more often than not.
It helps that the ‘deformities’ are mostly ones that we don’t see in a horrific light any more. Orloff supports Dearborn’s Home for the Destitute Blind, where Rev. or Prof. Dearborn, depending on the source, blind himself, tries to rehabilitate the blind by giving them food, shelter and work. Having them shuffle around like zombies isn’t realistic but it certainly contributes to the freaky tone that’s being cultivated. Maybe they’re all newly blind and so haven’t yet found the sixth sense Dearborn suggests will develop. No, I don’t believe that in the slightest but maybe the scriptwriters did. Blindness isn’t the only lost sense here, as Orloff’s secretary is surely mute, as is Lou, the blind violinist who plays in the street outside Orloff’s office and delivers notes for him to Dearborn’s. At the home is Jake, who is not only blind but also looks like a cross between a werewolf and an acromegaly case. After the war, actor Wilfred Walter would have a leg amputated, highlighting in real life the difference between ‘physically different’ and ‘monster’.

The scam that’s going on behind all this isn’t hard to figure out and we follow the details of it through Henry Stuart, the imminent victim that will break the case for Det. Insp. Holt. His eventual death scene is fantastic, the abstraction required in 1939 adding to the effect. Jake looks rather like Leatherface as he lifts his apron, Stuart turns to run and Orloff closes the door on both him and us so that the scream echoes at us from the other side. The cinematography was by Bryan Langley, who had a decade behind him; he had co-shot Number Seventeen for Alfred Hitchcock in 1932. There are a number of highly effective and varied shots, including one shot through an archway and another through a doorway, both of which focus our attention magnificently. Some of the scenes at Dearborn’s are gorgeous too and they make the film often feel reminiscent of Bedlam, which wouldn’t be made for another seven years. Nicholas Musuraca’s camerawork there is legendary but I wonder if he saw this as an influence.
What breaks the case for Holt is the fact that Stuart has a daughter, Diana, something that Orloff hadn’t factored into his plans at all. Through the time honoured art of coincidence, she’s already on her way home from America and Holt actually treads on her foot when she alights from the train right before Fred Grogan; he’s immediately smitten and will have plenty of contact, starting at the morgue as she comes to identify her father’s body. Greta Gynt doesn’t get a huge amount of screen time but she does get to do quite a lot with it, because the role takes her through a variety of situations rather quickly. One minute she’s a potential love interest, the next she’s called on to deliver dramatic reactions, before being sent undercover in a police investigation. I enjoyed her performance but it’s not as consistent as it could be and would have benefitted from more screen time to allow Gynt to find her feet in each scene. When she gets that, she’s great and she’s a fun damsel in distress; without it, she’s not as good.

Lugosi makes the best of his double role, which is surely one of the best such performances of the era. As Orloff, he’s overdone in the traditional Lugosi style, hypnotising with his eyes and going all moody and dangerous when things don’t go to plan. However, his other role, which I won’t name to avoid spoiling the film for you, is thoroughly different and the costume is simple but neatly effective. To be fair, the biggest reason he gets away with it is that the voice of his alternate persona is dubbed by another actor, because Lugosi’s accent was not something he could switch off at a moment’s notice, but he lip synchs very well. Hugh Williams is the actor unenviably tasked with playing the routine, albeit talented, character in a film full of grotesques and so isn’t particularly memorable as Det. Insp. Holt, even though he does exactly what he needed to do. It’s always the case that the outrageous roles dominate in pictures like this and there are a whole slew of outrageous roles stealing those scenes.
Most obvious, of course, is Wilfred Walter as Jake, who would become the focus of the American marketing campaign. If Dr. Orloff is a human monster in a moral sense, Jake is certainly a human monster in the physical one. That’s his visage on the poster, under Bela Lugosi’s name; I wonder how many American filmgoers were confused when they saw The Human Monster in 1940 and found that Lugosi wasn’t playing Jake. While Walter is spot on as the lumbering assassin, I was impressed by Arthur E. Owen as Lou and Alexander Field as Grogan. The former initially seems like a throwaway character, but he keeps finding moments of importance, eventually writhing around on a hospital bed like he’s become Renfield. The latter nails the feel of polite disrepute that Leonard Rossiter epitomised much later on. He’s making the most of his fame, as dubious as it is, lording it over the cops who never fail to be in charge. He gets a memorable final scene too, which I also won’t spoil.

For a 75 minute B-movie that relishes its gruesome inventiveness, this is surprisingly effective and stands up well today, both as a detective yarn and a horror flick. Bela Lugosi had made some incredible movies in the thirties but he’d also made others that were horrific in ways that they never intended. I haven’t seen everything he made after this but I have seen the vast majority and it’s a rare one indeed that’s better than this. It could be argued that there are only two, The Wolf Man and The Body Snatcher, making this an important film in his career, the last of his good work of the thirties. I wonder if part of that was because this was a British film; while that meant that it didn’t have to cater to the American Production Code, the British censor was notoriously tough on horror and I’m honestly surprised this crept through their net. Destroying the hearing of a blind mute and then murdering him in front of our bound heroine is brutal and not what would be allowed at a time other than when the H certificate was brought back in.

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