Wednesday, October 1, 2014


John Farrow, 1948
Starring: Edward G. Robinson, Gail Russell, John Lund

John Triton, a fake magician/fortune teller at a nightclub, soon comes to discover that he actually does have psychic powers. This brings him nothing but grief, as he soon has a vision about his beloved girlfriend’s death. He flees to live in solitude and eventually his girlfriend and best friend – who has struck it rich, thanks to Triton’s advice – marry and have a child. As Triton predicted, she dies in childbirth. Several years in the future, Triton moves to San Francisco to be close to them and has a vision that his friend will die in a plane crash, which comes to pass though – for the first time – he actively tries to prevent it. He realizes that his friend’s young, beautiful daughter is also in danger and strives to save her, though no one will believe him.

Noir regular Edward G. Robinson (The Red House, Double Indemnity, Scarlet Street) gives one of his best performances here as John Triton, a pleasant, well-meaning little man who can’t escape the prophecies of doom that haunt him. Triton is one of noir’s most desperate and pathetic figures, which is saying a lot considering that Robinson made a career out of playing those roles. Triton is stuck between visions of the past, present, and future, and is forced to watch those he loves die. What makes him somewhat unsympathetic – and why he must atone for past behavior – is the fact that he never tries to save his girlfriend, or, presumably, anyone before Jean. As with other noir protagonists, his inaction is what ultimately leads to his misery and final downfall, though he bravely faces his fate unflinchingly.

Robinson is supported by a few fine performances, namely William Demarest (Sullivan’s Travels, The Lady Eve) as a sarcastic Lieutenant who is deeply skeptical of his powers, but is committed to keeping Jean from harm. The use of humor will endear this to those who find conventional noir too serious or dour and there are some truly funny moments, mostly surrounding the Lieutenant and his band of police officers (“When would I have shot a lion?”). Gail Russell (Moonrise, Wake of the Red Witch) is ethereally lovely as Jean and looks convincingly damaged. Her suicide attempt at the film’s opening is perhaps the most moving, powerful sequence with some fittingly eerie cinematography from John F. Seitz (Double Indemnity). Seitz and composer Victory Young had previously worked with director John Farrow on his noir The Big Clock and return here for equally pleasing music and visuals. Young’s theme, “Night Has a Thousand Eyes,” actually became a popular jazz standard, covered by everyone from John Coltrane to Bobby Dee.

Night Has a Thousand Eyes is unusual in film noir in the sense that it flirts with the supernatural. While there are a few other films in this loose subgenre, including the excellent Nightmare Alley, Night Has a Thousand Eyes’ has a protagonist who is an actual psychic. The film fortunately does not attempt to explain his gift/curse, but uses it within part of a larger universe. Jean’s terror is described as coming from the very stars themselves, as if the world itself is calling for her death. This feels a touch Lovecraftian to me (and probably will to other horror fans) and though this concept of pre-determined doom is used throughout film noir, this particular element is unique.

Based on Cornell Woolrich’s novel of the same name, Woolrich is an important figure. He deserves a much more popular contemporary readership, though many of his books are out of print. Cornell was incredibly prolific, though I’ve been unable to find a complete bibliography online. This is likely due to the fact that he often wrote under pseudonyms, generally as either William Irish or George Hopley. While Woolrich’s early novels are basically Fitzgerald worship, he quickly turned to detective fiction and, in just a few years, churned out the influential Black Series, including The Bride Wore Black, The Black Curtain, The Black Alibi, The Black Angel, The Black Path of Fear, and Rendezvous in Black. But as I said, he was incredibly productive and this series is simply his most famous. He wrote dozens of well-regarded short stories, which are collected in various volumes, and as William Irish, he wrote Phantom Lady, Deadline at Dawn, Waltz into Darkness, and I Married a Dead Man.

He remains the pulp/detective author with the most number of film adaptations: The Leopard Man (1943) was based on Black Alibi, Phantom Lady (1944), Rear Window (1954) based on the story “It Had to be Murder,” The Bride Wore Black, Mississippi Mermaid (1969) based on Waltz into Darkness, and Seven Blood-Stained Orchids (1972) based on Rendezvous in Black, among many more.

Like other pulp authors, Woolrich had a difficult, yet fascinating life. Though he was briefly married, he was gay and spent most of his adult life living with his mother in New York. He suffered from alcoholism and various physical plights that ultimately claimed his life, much of which he spent in isolation. I would love to see a revival of his works, including reprints and more robust biography (the volume that currently exists is more of a summary of his numerous works than an actual biography). If you are remotely interested in pulp fiction, the Black Series comes highly recommended.

Night Has a Thousand Eyes is available on DVD and comes highly recommended. It is certainly one of the more poetic, stranger noir efforts and is one of the few to touch upon the supernatural. Though there are elements of humor and some conventional detective-story moments, it’s a stand-out film that fans of horror and noir should enjoy.

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