Leslie Arliss, 1942
Starring: James Mason, Wilfrid Lawson, Mary Clare
Two teachers working in an English school — the restrained, blonde, and British Marian and the flirtatious, brunette, and American Doris — use their vacation time to travel to the Yorkshire moors to look for their friend Evelyn, who disappeared there several months ago. During a violent storm, they are rescued by the tall, dark, and mysterious Stephen, who allows them to take shelter in his foreboding mansion for one night. Marian falls in love with him, but it becomes clear that he might be dangerous — and might be responsible for Evelyn’s disappearance. While Doris flees at the first opportunity, Marian is determined to stay and win Stephen’s heart.
One of my favorite subgenres is undeniably the “I’m in love with a psychotic bastard” film that falls somewhere between Gothic romance and horror movie. Against my better judgment (thanks hormones), this is one of my favorite character types and you might have to be equally sold on it to enjoy this film. The Night Has Eyes falls in the wake of Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), probably the ultimate example of the genre, though it’s also descended from great works of British literature like Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. Though Laurence Olivier obviously helped popularize the cinematic Byronic hero, for my money no one does it better than ‘40s-era James Mason.
Tall, dark, and brooding, Mason’s Stephen Deremid is a veteran of the Spanish Civil War, which explains his depression and bitterness as well as his head trauma and related plight: he fears he is a murderer thanks to the black outs he experiences during the full moon. Doris refers to him as Boris Karloff and there are references to him being like Bluebeard. While Mason works as both a romantic figure and a potential killer — as one of Britain’s greatest actors, I’m sure he could pull off anything — the film is a bit too over the top asserting how tormented and potentially dangerous he is.
He is alternately angry and cruel, but then passionate and romantic towards Marion and some of their scenes together are unintentionally hilarious. He’s a lapsed composer and piano player — a character type also made popular during this time by Casablanca’s Paul Henreid — and his displaced sexual energy is clearly channelled in his wild piano player. In one scene, Marion accompanies him by singing and later she does some dancing that could only be described as ecstatic. He delivers lines like “I’m going to lock you in; when I come back we’ll talk about the future,” and the moment she clearly falls in love with him is when she falls in a trough of water, he laughs at her, and then heaves her, soaking wet, over his shoulder and carries her into the house.
I really can’t stress how perfect Mason is for the role. He worked with director Leslie Arliss on similar films like The Man in Grey (1943), Love Story (1944), and The Wicked Lady (1945), and other films like I Met a Murderer (1939), Alibi (1942), They Met in the Dark (1943), Man of Evil (1944), and The Upturned Glass (1947). I’ve already written about two American film noir efforts where he’s particularly dreamy — Caught (1949) and The Reckless Moment (1949) — though his finest role from this period is undoubtedly Odd Man Out (1947), where he plays the tormented leader of an Irish resistance group.
Mason isn’t the only draw; the film has a weighty sense of atmosphere despite its obviously low budget. This is primarily thanks to cinematography from Gunther Krampf, who got his start on German expressionist films like Orlacs Hände (1924) and Die Büsche der Pandora (1928). There’s a nice score from Charles Williams and The Night Has Eyes makes great use of Gothic horror tropes. Some of them will give things away — for instance, the servants wind up being the culprits — though there’s a great scene where Marion discovers a skeleton in a hidden room years before Deep Red pulled off the same trick.
There some ridiculous moments, such as Joyce Howard’s transformation from prim, glasses-wearing school marm to Gothic beauty. Conveniently, when all her clothes are soaked from the storm, she has no choice but to first wear some of Stephen’s things and then a ball gown with a plunging neckline that he happens to dig out of a closet. She also meets a doctor on a train early in the film and he improbably returns to tell her he’s in love with her. He also takes a peep at the skeleton in the hidden room, a plot device that conveniently allows him to reassure Marion that the skeleton is at least 300 years old and is not a recent victim (or her friend Evelyn).
The Night Has Eyes does come highly recommended, though you either have to enjoy Gothic melodramas or have the hots for James Mason to really obsess over it. Anyone with a passion for Hithcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, Universal horror film She-Wolf of London, or Fritz Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door (with which this would make a great double feature) will find plenty to love. This hasn’t really received an ultimate release, but you can find a decent print on the UK DVD. Hopefully this will be released in the James Mason Blu-ray box set of my dreams sometime soon. The film was also released in Terror House and Moonlight Madness in the US.