The small, rotund man cannot see, although the light is on. He stands in a basement and in a few moments, his enemies will descend to kill him. But he’s not concerned. He taps his cane around the ceiling, listening to the sound it makes on the pipes, until he finds the suspended single-bulb lamp. And with a wry smile and a swing of his cane, he bashes it and plunges the room into total blackness.
“You haven’t got a chance, blind man.” Two shots peal into the darkness: tiny, instantaneous streaks of light. A metallic noise jangles from one part of the room. Another futile shot. Another clanging feint. Another shot.
“Where are ya?” The adversary’s voice calls, suddenly frightened.
“In the dark… in the dark. In my kingdom.”
As this tense confrontation plays out in Eyes in the Night, the screen remains almost totally black, punctuated only by a few sparks of gunfire. This film about Duncan Maclain, a detective with a visual impairment reaches its climax by forcing the viewer to live his condition for a nail-biting few minutes. By doing so, this MGM thriller establishes a striking bond of sympathy between the audience and its protagonist and shocks us by denying the visual clarity and self-effacing continuity that we expect from a classical Hollywood film.
Usually, we movie spectators feel by seeing. We let our eyes supply the necessary information to our sensory memory to understand what the characters are experiencing and our vicarious impression of action, whether it’s a slug to the jaw or a smooch. Our blind protagonist reverses this sensorial metonymy: he sees by feeling. Whether using an awl and a braille template to take notes or stroking the floor of a crime scene to determine which way a corpse was dragged, his fingers guide our eyes in haptic contemplation and force us to recognize the strange link between eyes and touch, a relationship inverted between the seeing audience and Maclain.
When Eyes in the Night aired on Turner Classic Movies this past autumn, I tuned in, anticipating a run-of-the-mill potboiler. I was quite surprised how much this yarn has stayed with me since then. During a dark evening spent at a tense house where Nazis lurk behind every balustrade, Maclain’s sightless eyes paradoxically “see” more than anyone else can. He navigates the blackness with ease and skill; his enhanced senses cloak him with an almost uncanny power.
The plot offers up one of those odd mashups of domestic drama and international intrigue, in varying degrees, that you get in the 1940s (think The Stranger, Ministry of Fear, Secret Command, or even Mrs. Miniver). In this case, Duncan Maclain, a detective who retired after losing his sight, is asked by a friend to put an end to her stepdaughter’s unhealthy relationship with an older man—and inevitably ends up uncovering an Axis plot during WWII. Did I mention that the bratty stepdaughter’s father is a preeminent scientist, working on research vital to the war effort? Do I need to? Or could you have surmised that already?
The film made it to TCM primetime not because of its nutty plot contrivances, but as a selection from guest-programmer Lawrence Carter-Long, Executive Director of the New York City Disabilities Network, who organized a series around the theme of disability. I’m very grateful that this novel B-movie came to my attention and today I’d like to share it with all of you.
In addition to its sensitive portrayal of blindness, Eyes in the Night deserves to be watch for its place in Fred Zinneman’s authorial canon as one of his first features, along with Kid Glove Killer which he also shot in 1942. According to the informative TCM article about this movie, Zinneman, who would go on to give us From Here to Eternity and High Noon. didn’t give this film a lot of respect when he reflected on his career. Nevertheless, I would categorize it as a promising debut with a strong noirish flair and one brilliantly ahead-of-its-time stylistic set piece, the fight in the dark. The performances instill what might’ve been a colorless entry in the spy thriller genre with a deliciously melodramatic ambiance.
Ann Harding, returning to the screen after her nervous breakdown, makes the most of a thankless stepmom role as an actress now happily married to the aforementioned Dr. MacGuffin—er, Dr. Lawry. You can read genuine concern over her wayward stepdaughter in her sincere eyes and graceful gestures. Faced with an ex-lover who’s now romancing her husband’s daughter, she goes to meet him in a theater and listens to this aging Don Juan’s florid protestations:
“I love Barbara, utterly and devotedly. If she’ll have me, I’ll marry her. All my life I’ve waited for someone like her—beautiful and talented. Alive as a breath of spring. Now that I’ve found her I’ll never let her go.”
Never missing a beat, she starts clapping, adding a sarcastic, “Bravo…You ham!” What do you know? Mom’s got some backbone! And a whole lot of fortitude.
Of course, anyone who could spend five minutes in the presence of that stepdaughter without slapping her silly must’ve had more patience than Stanley Kubrick’s clapper loader. Annoying to the point of sociopathic bitchiness, Donna Reed milks her honey-voiced tramp part for all it’s worth. I must confess, I never would have imagined the soon-to-be Mrs. George Bailey capable of hissing nasty, sexually precocious insinuations at her saintly stepmom, like the following:
“It seems to me your duty is perfectly clear, then. You should go to my father and tell him that I’m going out with a bad man. And when he asks you how you know he’s a bad man, tell him. Tell him you know from personal experience.” [Wink, wink!]
The cast also features Friday, a mischievous, scene-stealing canine of the heroic Rin-Tin-Tin ilk, as Maclain’s loyal seeing-eye dog.
This film was released right in the middle of World War II, so its Nazis-turned-amateur-theatrical-players might strike the modern viewer as quaintly amusing, but would have probably seemed much more menacing to 1940s audiences. Lest we forget, the Nazi ideology advocated eugenics, specifically the extermination of those with disabilities, considered unfit to procreate.
As a person with a visual impairment, Duncan Maclain completely rips apart that monstrous prejudice with his courage, competence, and intelligence. In an era when President Roosevelt still had to carefully conceal his polio-weakened legs for fear that they would damage his reputation, Arnold’s character projects a loud-and-proud acceptance of his disability that I find truly inspiring. Not only does Maclain refuse to let his blindness hinder or depress him, but he also uses it to his advantage. His attitude stands out as probably the most modern aspect of Eyes in the Night.
Arnold’s passionate investment in his role doubtlessly stemmed from early life experience; his father had contracted a tropical fever while serving in the Navy, which ultimately incapacitated him and rendered him unable to support his family. His vision also deteriorated, eventually leaving him blind. In Arnold’s autobiography, Lorenzo Goes to Hollywood, the actor wistfully remembered his father, “Someone had to be with him constantly, and his only pleasure was to sit in his wheel chair on sunny days in the park.” Arnold would sometimes describe what he saw to his father, serving as his eyes.
At the risk of inferring too much, I feel that Arnold imbued his character with some of this poetic sadness that he witnessed firsthand. Although he plays Maclain without an ounce of self-pity, the sense of regret that he conveys as he gingerly touches Mrs. Lawry’s face adds to the complexity of his character. He tells her, “You’re just as beautiful as ever. The only time I mind not having eyes is when you’re around.” That instant of melancholy, early in the film, makes Arnold’s portrayal complete. He emerges not as a gimmicky blind detective or as some poster child for not letting a major disability get you down, but as an interesting, quick-witted ex-cop who happens to be blind.
I also enjoyed how Maclain adroitly manipulates and mocks his fascist foes by pretending to be a grotesque stereotype of an infirm, middle-aged man. He insinuates himself into the Lawry house as Mrs. Lawry’s uncle and proceeds to publicly stumble around and even fake a convincing drunk—all in the service of flushing out the baddies. So give this strange MGM B-movie a watch—it’s free, what have you got to lose?—and leave me a comment to let me know what you think!
N.B. This movie does contain some unfortunate casual racism in the form of Mantan Moreland as a comical, wide-eyed, offensive African American butler. It’s a shame that this movie, which looks forward in many ways, chose to revert to entrenched tropes for this portrayal.