Seeing in the Dark: Eyes in the Night (1942)

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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.

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“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 few nail-biting minutes. By doing so, this MGM thriller establishes a striking bond of sympathy between the audience and its protagonist and shocks us by denying viewers the visual clarity and self-effacing continuity that we expect from a classical Hollywood film.

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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.

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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.

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In addition to its sensitive portrayal of blindness, Eyes in the Night deserves to be watched 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Arnold’s passionate investment in his role most likely 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.

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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!

Click here to watch this film on YouTube or download it at the Internet Archive.

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.

Sympathy for the Devil: The Penalty (1920)

Wallace Worsley’s The Penalty packs a real punch. And not just for a silent movie.

This sicko gem features, among other things, a stark naked woman, a junkie killer, prostitutes, a chase through San Francisco’s seedy “Barbary Coast,” and a Lon Chaney performance so wicked and ferocious that it borders on possession.

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This is one bad dude. Even by today’s standards.

Even I, who proselytize the glory of the silent era, am recurrently shocked by the intensity and dead-on brutality of this film—an astonishingly raw point of reference for all horror and crime films that followed it.

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See that lady on your left? She’s nude. Really. And this was for general admission!

When I give it a thought, and I often do, I realize that horror films and gangster films have a lot in common. They both emerged, in the forms we recognize today, from genre cycles in the 1930s after some strong foundations were put down in the silent era. They both tend to feature linear, predictable plot trajectories—rise-and-fall for the gangster film, unleashed-amok-destroyed for the horror film.

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Do we love to hate him? Or do we hate to love him?

The horror and crime genres also inspire a mixture of revulsion, pity, sympathy, and, dare I say, admiration for their grotesque protagonists. Monsters and criminals entice us to join (vicariously) in their savagery—there’s something liberating about their intoxicating, anarchic hubris. And, most of the time, they let us indulge whatever aggression many of us harbor towards authority figures—doctors, policemen, community leaders, and the better angels of our nature, our own morally-upright doubles.

And, so, at the crux, the crossroads of all of these emotions we experience in contact with the gangster and the monster, we arrive at The Penalty.

The story starts with a little injured boy, “a victim of the city traffic,” as the intertitles tell us, lying unconscious in a doctor’s office.  Dr. Ferris had to amputate the kid’s legs.

Well, he thought he had to.

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It turns out that the inexperienced surgeon made a mistake, an older doctor informs him, as the now legless little boy wakes up and listens with horror.

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However, even though the boy knows the truth, the doctors decide to cover for each other. Yup, that’s right, the doctor gets off free as his colleague backs up his malpractice—while the “mangled” child screams the truth to his parents in vain.

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Okay, so raise your hand if you wouldn’t try to exact demonic retribution on someone who not only took away your legs and all hope of a normal life (this was the 1920s), but also made it so that you could never, ever talk about what happened?

I really hope no one raised his hand.

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This opening scene, unusually poignant for a gangster film, immediately establishes our sympathy with the future bad guy. The anguish of the child sucks us right in—and we get several flashbacks to this scene throughout the film to remind us of that irredeemable loss and sickening injustice. What’s been done can never be made right—so who can blame that little boy for not having any particular concept of wrong? He lives the wrong every day of his life.

The Penalty squirms around this uncomfortable question of the world’s wronged and the rage that germinates within them. I think a lot of people just quote Alexander Pope’s famous line, “To err is human; to forgive divine,” without giving it too much thought. In the end, forgiveness isn’t human. It’s not natural. It does not come easy—and perhaps it shouldn’t, since I could rattle off a few things that I consider unforgivable, and I’m not talking about dissing black-and-white movies. Forgiveness isn’t half as human as vengeance. If you’ll pardon me for ripping an idea from the Rolling Stones, I think most people would find it far easier to relate to proud, self-centered, dissatisfied Satan than to God, in his infinite, incomprehensible wisdom and goodness.

And Blizzard, “lord and master of the underworld,” the warped man that grows out of that amputated boy, could probably teach the devil a thing or two. And he happens to look a lot like him! Blizzard sets out to destroy Dr. Ferris by ingratiating himself with Ferris’ daughter, Barbara—a sculptor who hopes to achieve artistic immortality through a depiction of the devil. She even puts an ad in the newspaper.

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As he reads this ad, Blizzard does look positively diabolical.

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Then, remembering the cause of all of his suffering (we get a brief flashback to the opening scene), Chaney’s face shifts through so many transformations—from anticipation to self-congratulatory glee to pensiveness to frightening resolve.

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Then he turns to his henchmen and asks them probably the most darkly funny question ever put on an intertitle. One thinks of the “I amuse you?” scene from Goodfellas!

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“Uh… do we tell da boss he looks like Satan?”

Once Blizzard infiltrates Barbara’s studio, he sets about winning this young woman’s confidence while she works on the aforementioned bust of Satan. Their discussions take on a strangely allegorical ambiance as they talk in the midst of half-made statues and grotesques.

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The act of creation in tandem with an ongoing process of manipulation and destruction gives the film a surreal headiness that counterbalances the realistic grittiness of the street scenes. In this way, The Penalty reminds me of Kurosawa’s almost unbearably good High and Low (sometimes entitled Heaven and Hell) since both films combine squalor and art—to recast squalor as art.

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The Penalty, too, relies on a Heaven-and-Hell motif that zeroes in on the origin of all horror and gangster films. Because, what are horror and gangster films if not variations on the story of The Fall… but from a perspective uncomfortably close to the devil’s? Both genres tend to look up from the filthy underworld and inculcate more that a little sympathy for the devil.

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Blizzard is an especially interesting gangster (and monster) because his physical limitations emphasize his mental prowess. He recalls Milton’s Satan of Paradise Lost who is, to borrow his own words, “A mind not to be chang’d by place or time./ The mind is its own place, and in itself/ Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” (Book I, Line 253) Like the scariest kinds of monsters, our disabled movie villain corrupts others with his charisma and manipulates his victims to do his bidding. In so doing, he foreshadows the mind-control techniques of Lugosi’s surprisingly hands-off Dracula—and also, I would argue, of Don Corleone who rules his empire by loyalty and psychological terror as much as by real physical force.

Even apart from its rather deep thematic undercurrents, The Penalty stands out as a finely constructed film. Immediately after the opening scene in the doctor’s office, the film plunges us right into an action sequence and a killing in the sordid “Barbary Coast” district of San Francisco. Interestingly, the intertitles describe the Barbary Coast as “a hideous blemish” on the face of the city, making the use of disfigurement as a metaphor for crime and vice even more obvious.

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Prostitutes ply their trade in the Barbary Coast… and get into trouble.

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In this den of iniquity, Frisco Pete, played by perennial silent brute James Mason (not to be confused with James ‘Soulful British Eyes’ Mason), stabs a hooker “Barbary Nell” in a dance hall and flees the police through the maze-like, shabby streets of the town.

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The crazy doorways and alleys of San Francisco’s “Barbary Coast”

Finally, Pete runs into Blizzard who agrees to hide him. A movie that throws you right into a chase sequence—hmm, where have I heard of that before? Oh, yeah, almost every single modern gangster or cop film!

The Penalty also interweaves between several “time bomb” plot devices, juggling Blizzard’s twisted personal revenge scheme, which I won’t spoil, with his larger ambition of looting San Francisco. We actually see the realization of this ambition in the eye of Blizzard’s mind, as flames and smoke engulf the city and Blizzard (with legs, since this is his fantasy!) directs his hoodlums to sack and pillage the city.

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So, in its own quiet way, The Penalty paved the way for large-scale heist sequences. More important, with its “hypothetical heist,” a big robbery that takes place only in the mind of a character, the film experiments with the psychological and narrative complexity of crime strategizing.

In another interesting (if not entirely satisfying) subplot, a female police operative, Rose, goes undercover as one of Blizzard’s dance hall girls/sweatshop workers. As Rose races against time to discover Blizzard’s plan, she lingers in the shadow of The Fate Worse Than Death and the danger of being discovered.

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“I like your spunk. I think I’ll wait to kill you tomorrow.”

The undercover cop angle works generally well and infuses the film with suspense—especially as the hardened young policewoman begins to fall for the magnetically evil Blizzard.

Like Richard III, Shakespeare’s great archvillain and another Satan variant, Blizzard handles women with supreme skill.

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Blizzard is not exactly a one-woman man…

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He doesn’t just compensate for his lack of legs. Instead, he uses his “deformity” to his advantage, cultivating pity and catering to a weirdly fetishistic attraction. When Barbara Ferris first sees him and recoils slightly, Blizzard responds to her shock by suavely looking down at his stumps as though noticing them for the first time.

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He then returns her gaze with a flirty smile, as though to imply that there’s enough of him for anything really critical.

(Incidentally, the leg harnesses that Chaney had to wear to portray Blizzard’s disability were so painful that he could only act for about 20 minutes at a time.)

Blizzard also loves to play the piano, but, since he can’t reach the pedals, his current favorite among the dance hall girls has to push them for him. Woe to the dame who doesn’t press those pedals in time with the tune!

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You don’t need to watch to film to recognize this as an oddly sexualized act of subjugation—especially given how much enjoyment and excitement Blizzard derives from playing.

Classic horror films derive much of their bite (pun intended) from the sexual menace of the monsters. (Duh. They did it so well that ghastly, slushy versions of these Gothic tales are mega-hits even these days.) The sex and/or love lives of the gangster also provide inexhaustible subject matter for crime films. Is there a more iconic 1930s scene than Cagney smashing girlfriend Mae Clark in the face with a grapefruit at breakfast, the sleaziest meal of the day in Pre-Code cinematic lingo?

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Well, Blizzard, a freak, a seducer, and a criminal mastermind, connects the two strands of creepy, sadistic fascination—he is the missing link between the gangster and horror genres. Through a clever cinematic presentation and Chaney’s incandescently ugly performance, The Penalty provokes every kind of emotion that a monster or crime film might hope to tease from a spellbound audience.

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(A word of warning: I have no intention of spoiling the ending of The Penalty. The ending spoils itself. A lame, apologetic, neat-as-a-librarian’s-sock-drawer denouement amputates this masterpiece manqué and leaves it as incomplete as its fierce antihero. Don’t say I didn’t tell you. But, come on, it was 1920. Try and show me a film this gritty and disturbing made in Hollywood in the last ten years. Please, make my day.)

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Frisco Pete, what was once quaintly termed a “hophead,” begs Blizzard for a fix.

Also, for great, thought-provoking writing about crime films, you should totally check out the Scenes of the Crime Blogathon! It’s so cool, it’s criminal!

Scenes of the Crime Blogathon