Thursday, August 2, 2012

THE DEAD EYES OF LONDON

Alfred Vohrer, 1961
Starring: Joachim Fuchsberger, Karin Baal, Dieter Borsche, Klaus Kinski

One of the most famous and beloved of the early krimi, The Dead Eyes of London was based on a 1924 Edgar Wallace novel The Dark Eyes of London. There is a previous British adaptation from 1939, The Dark Eyes of London aka The Human Monster, which introduced horror elements into the narrative and was essentially a Bela Lugosi vehicle. The 1961 version relies more heavily on the British film adaptation than on Wallace’s novel, though it remains more faithful to the source material than later krimi, which frequently diverged from Wallace’s works. The film was very popular in Germany and marks director Alfred Vohrer’s krimi debut for Rialto films. He directed 14 krimi in his career and would become Rialto’s most prolific director in the genre. 

Old, wealthy men begin to disappear on the foggy streets of London and reappear later in the Thames, drowned to death. Scotland Yard discovers that all the men carry sizable insurance policies under the same company. When they also discover messages left in braille, Inspector Holt realizes the drownings are a series of murders pointing to “The Blind Killers of London,” a notorious group of criminals. A young girl who is able to read braille assists Holt and goes undercover in the church community of a blind reverend, a seemingly kind and charitable man. But is he really? Does he have a connection with a murderous, monstrous blind man roaming the street on foggy nights? 

Produced by Horst Wendlandt and written by Egon Eis, The Dead Eyes of London helped establish many of the conventions that would make the kirmi genre so popular. Eis’s script suffers from some meandering dialogue, but presents an exciting, linear mystery that gains ground in the second half of the film. There is beautiful black and white photography by Karl Löb, making the most of a German location that is supposed to be London (another krimi/giallo trope). Stark black and white perfectly captures the fog-filled nights, ominous, narrow streets, and hidden passageways, giving the film a slightly Gothic feel. 

Vohrer’s unusual style of direction seems to have been an influence on the later Italian gialli film. There are such imaginative and gimmicky shots as a reflection in the dark sunglasses worn by Klaus Kinski, filming from inside a mouth, an eye through a spy hole, a shot of a murder in an elevator shaft, etc. Vohrer makes use of odd angles, close ups, and panning shots. The title sequence is also influential and appears in red over top of the black and white. This was used in later krimi both in and out of the Rialto series. The music in the film is another provocative choice. While the score composed by Heinz Funk (yes, that is his name) is typical of the jazz style used during the period, Vohrer also incorporates classical music in the melee, namely Beethoven’s 5th Symphony during scenes of violence and murder. 

The casting is predictable, but the performances are solid. Krimi star Joachim Fuchsberger plays the typical lead, a Scotland Yard Chief Inspector. Karin Baal, another krimi regular, co-stars as the young, braille-reading heroine, and the two make an excellent crime solving duo. They appear again in Massimo Dallamano’s odd German-Italian krimi-inspired giallo What Have You Done to Solange? (1972). The inimitable and always entertaining Klaus Kinski plays the villain in one of his earliest cult roles. Eddi Arent, another popular krimi actor and co-star of the German-British co-production/Christopher Lee vehicle Circus of Fear (1966), appears as the Inspector’s colleague and primarily functions is as the comic relief. This classic Rialto line-up is headed by Ady Berber, the gruesome, Tor Johnson-like “Blind Jack.” Berber was an Austrian-born wrestler and his huge physique and menacing presence made him a regular fixture in krimi and some of the Dr. Mabuse films. 

The Dead Eyes of London is a great place to start for those unfamiliar with the krimi genre. It has a classy, Val Lewton-like feel and has more of a Gothic influenced than some of the later works in the Rialto series. The set is enriched with creaking floorboards, deep shadows, dark alleys, long staircases, and, most of all, London fog. The murders only occur in this heavy fog, which gives certain set pieces a relationship to Fritz Lang’s seminal M (1931) and some of the early Universal Studios classic horror efforts like Dracula (1931) and Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932). 

A definite air of the macabre and grotesque is highlighted by little details, such as characters with pale, pupil-less eyes and props like a skull that doubles as a cigarette case. Some of these elements blur the line between the absurd, if not the outright cheesy, like an elevator death scene and a bullet-firing television set (!), which results in some unintentionally humorous moments. These gimmicks would appear in later krimi, as well as Eurotrash or Eurohorror cinema in general through out the late ‘60s and ‘70s.  The film is also surprisingly violent for the time period. While European cinema of the ‘70s pushed many boundaries of sex and violence, there was still a certain cultural conservatism in place in West Germany the ‘60s. What The Dead Eyes of London lacks in eroticism or exploitation, it makes up for with the macabre. There is a dank basement torture chamber with a variety of unpleasant tools and implements, death by drowning and elevator, as well as the cunning use of a blowtorch. 

The villains are dastardly and red herrings abound, though this is essentially a tight, logical mystery with plenty of suspense. There are some slumps with dialogue-heavy scenes and convoluted plot lines, but otherwise this is a prime example of krimi films and stands as a solid effort in the larger mystery genre. This is certainly one of the most influential krimi due to its early entrance in the canon and, overall, is one of the strongest in Rialto’s Edgar Wallace series. It was a big hit in the box office and helped introduce Kinski to a wider audience. His black gloved, dark sunglass-clad villain is something of a precursor to giallo films, as are the bizarre, yet stylized murders.

The Dead Eyes of London is available on DVD from Retromedia, as part of a double feature with Riccardo Freda’s The Ghost (1963), an Italian horror-crime film starring the lovely Barbara Steele. There is an above average print that appears to be uncut and this is currently the best region one version available. The film is also available as part of a region two Edgar Wallace box set from Ufa, which I'd love to get my hands on one day -- it also includes The Devil's Daffodil (1961), The Forger of London (1961), and The Strange Countess (1961).

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