Director: Walter Summers
Script: Patrick Kirwan, Walter Summers & J. F. Argyle
Cast: Bela Lugosi, Hugh Williams, Greta Gynt, Edmon Ryan, Wilfred Walter, Alexander Field
Running time: 76 minutes
The Dark Eyes of London is a murder mystery based on a novel by Edgar Wallace and is probably the sort of film that would be long forgotten by now if it wasn’t for its main star, Bela Lugosi, who had shot to fame several years earlier with his iconic interpretation of Count Dracula in Universal’s Dracula (1931). This is certainly one of Bela’s more underrated efforts and sees him playing the dual role of insurance broker (and swindler), Dr Feodor Orloff, and the Reverend Dearborn, owner of the Dearborn Institute for the Blind, where, with the help of added facial hair and dark glasses he presides over a group of blind men that he utilises to help pay the bills by making wicker baskets or counting out the large amounts of cash he’s swindling out of gullible insurance clients.
Orloff uses big, blind Jake (Wilfred Winter) to drown his victims in a large tank in his makeshift hospital gallery and then dump them in the Thames, running conveniently below the galley’s loading bay doors. The bodies are later found and, at least on the surface, appear to be accidental drownings. In fact, the film kicks off in just such a way, where we see a body floating, face up, in the Thames. Orloff is soon seen to be helping out one of his clients and paying some money over to him, but in reality he’s duping poor old Mr Stuart into signing an insurance policy that enables Orloff’s company to cash in on the policy should Stuart die, which of course he does once the hulking Jake (who actually looks like a mate of mine!) has put a straitjacket on him and drowned him.
Scotland Yard finally gets involved once the bodies have mounted up enough for anyone to start to care, and Inspector Holt (Williams) joins forces with the loaned-out Lt O’ Reilly (Edmon Ryan), from the New York Police force, to try and get to the bottom of the mystery. They are quickly joined by Stuart’s daughter, Diane (Greta Gynt), who is clearly smarter than everyone, and susses things out quicker than her male counterparts. Orloff finally gets his comeuppance after maiming one of the blind guys from his Institute, namely poor old Lew, who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. [Spoiler alert: Big Jake doesn’t like this and decides to take Orloff/Dearborn down himself.]
Lugosi is clearly enjoying playing the ‘brilliant, but unbalanced’ Dr Orloff and he easily matches his equally talented co-stars, although probably the best performance in the film is that of Greta Gynt, who was very much a rising star at the time, unlike Lugosi who was definitely a falling one, at best.
The Dark Eyes of London, or The Human Monster, to give it its U.S. name, benefits enormously from its central performances, from its atmospheric fog-bound sets and its mystery plot that’s a little out of the ordinary. In fact, the house for the blind looks like something more akin to a Universal Frankenstein movie set than the workhouse it’s made out to be. It’s also a lot of fun seeing the old vintage cars being driven around, as they would have been back then.
The Dark Eyes of London was the first UK made film to be granted a ‘H for horror’ certificate by the British censor, and one scene in the film is, indeed, quite disturbing, even today, i.e. when Orloff deliberately deafens the already blind and mute, Lew, so that he can’t hear the police questions and give the game away. This maiming act gives rise to my favourite line, by Orloff, in the film: “You can’t see or talk, but you can hear and that will never do!”
The film was later remade as The Dead Eyes of London, in Germany, but the original version – especially now that it’s been repaired and remastered by Network – is certainly the version to check out first, despite some weaker comedy elements that really don’t work nowadays, especially not during these ‘me too’ times; for example, O’ Reilly’s comedic comments towards a policewoman fall very flat because of their somewhat sexist nature. Personally, I don’t think they were ever going to be particularly funny anyway!
The Dark Eyes of London is definitely one of Bela Lugosi’s best films and you get the sense that he’s having fun in the role and that sense of fun is contagious.
Network is distributing The Dark Eyes of London on DVD. There were a number of special features on the disc including the following:
Audio commentary with authors Stephen Jones and Kim Newman – These are both very knowledgeable writers and are clearly enjoying sharing their knowledge with the audience. They reveal lots of interesting facts about the film and about Lugosi, including the fact that he refused to travel by plane and came over to the UK on a ship. Maybe we should call in Bela Baracus instead. Yes, that is an A-Team joke!
Bela in Britain (30 mins) – Stephen Jones and Kim Newman are back, specifically discussing Bela’s work in the UK, starting with his earlier stint on The Mystery of the Mary Celeste, for Hammer films in 1935, and later finishing with Old Mother Riley meets the Vampire, in 1952. They talk about Lugosi being treated better here in the UK than he was in America and remind us that the next film he made after Dark Eyes was probably his last great film, namely Son of Frankenstein, for Universal.
US Titles (1.39) – In this case The Human Monster;
US Trailer (1.21) – This is the trailer for the film’s re-release;
Image Gallery – Includes 109 rare stills, posters and lobby cards from the film; most of them courtesy of Stephen Jones himself.