Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Dark Eyes of London (1940)

aka The Human Monster

DI Larry Holt (Hugh Williams) of Scotland Yard has a difficult case to crack. A surprising number of drowned gentlemen has drifted onto the banks of the Thames in the last few months. His boss - who does not seem to like him too much -  wants the Inspector to prove that there's nothing untowards about these deaths, but Holt is soon convinced that the drownings are in fact murders. Together with an American guest copper from Chicago (Edmon Ryan; mostly there to demonstrate the superiority of the British over the inhabitants of the US), the Inspector goes to work. It turns out that quite a few of the victims were insured through the company of kindly and helpful Doctor Orloff (kindly Bela Lugosi), and that said Doctor Orloff himself was wont to lend money to them, with the proceedings from their life insurances as securities.

While Holt now has his suspect, he still can't prove anything. There's also a mysterious connection between the deaths and a home for the blind Orloff kindly finances. Fortunately for the policeman, extra-kindly Doctor Orloff invites the daughter of one of his victims, Diana Stuart (Greta Gynt), to work for the home as a secretary. The spunky Diana is just too willing to do some snooping for Holt. Of course, this is more dangerous for her than anyone could have expected.

Who knew that one of the three films Bela Lugosi made in England is in fact one of his good ones?

The Dark Eyes of London is based on a novel by Edgar Wallace, and as such a mystery with horror elements instead of a full-grown Bela-thon, but it truly is quite a good film, even good enough to make up for Lugosi's final British film, the intensely painful Mother Riley Meets the Vampire that is the nadir of the great man's career (don't try to sell me on his work with Ed Wood as Lugosi's worst, those films at the very least aren't good reasons for self-mutilation, unlike Mother Riley).

Dark Eyes shows its strengths especially when compared to Lugosi's Poverty Row work. Although I'm quite sure that the budget and production circumstances of this film weren't much better than those of its US counterparts, it has the strong smell of a film made by people trying to make the most of their means. I wouldn't exactly call the film fast-paced or clever, but it never gets bogged down in unnecessarily long dialogue sequences, and has only one or two plot points that don't make much sense.

A lot of the film is not impressive to look at, but from time to time its director Walter Summers (a UK B-picture work horse, it seems) rises to creating atmospheric and even somewhat creepy scenes. If you squint (and I'm always willing to do that for a director who is making an effort), you can see an expressionist influence especially in the scenes taking place in and around the home of the blind, which incidentally is also a very Gothic looking set (even with the mandatory verticality of such a place).

The film is also surprisingly ruthless and cruel in the misdeeds it insinuates more than shows, with some ideas that would have fit nicely with the most production code skirting efforts from the US.

Bela is in fine form here, giving one of his better performances. He presents his mad scientist persona with his usual relish, but (something he was always particularly good at) also gives Orloff a certain degree of pathos that hints at the fact that he has not always been a monster without ever explaining what happened to make him one.

For once, I don't even feel the need to complain about Lugosi's counterparts in a film. I wouldn't call Hugh Williams exciting or all that charismatic, but he's convincing enough as a comparatively competent police officer. He certainly beats the pieces of wood Lugosi usually fought.

Greta Gynt also sells herself well enough by avoiding too much of the melodramatics her role could have descended into.

The less said about the odious comic relief the better, so suffice it to say there's relatively little of it on display, and what is there is neither too painful nor too misplaced.

All in all, I'd call The Dark Eyes of London a minor, well-hidden classic in Lugosi's body of work, as solid and entertaining a little thriller as one could hope for, and certainly still worth seeing.


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