EYES IN THE NIGHT (1942) is a film directed by Fred Zinnemann, screenplay by Guy Trosper and Howard Emmett Rogers based on a book by Baynard Kendrick, starring Edward Arnold and an interesting cast of the soon-to-be-slightly famous. Among them: Donna Reed, Stephen McNally, Rosemary DeCamp and Barry Nelson. Mantan Moreland too shows up too, rolling his eyes, in a couple of scenes.
This is a mighty nifty crime thriller featuring something you don't see every day: a blind detective. A burly Edward Arnold stars as Duncan 'Mac' Maclain who, in the first few seconds of the film, is shown tossing a sparring partner around on a mat while a couple of guys marvel at his manly dexterity. You see, since Mac is blind, he must make up for this deficit in other ways if he is to be viable at his chosen profession.
To that end, he is aided and abetted by his guiding dog Friday, a German Shepherd with uncanny skills and by the wonderful Allen Jenkins as Marty, a sort-of henchman - though Jenkins doesn't have much to do really since he spends most of the movie tied up by the bad guys.
Admittedly, Edward Arnold (whom I adore) can be a bit of a ham-bone, but Duncan Maclain fits him to a T - it's almost as if the part had been created for him.
According to movie maven Mike Doran there was a second film in 1945, featuring Maclain, THE HIDDEN EYE. But that's as far as the 'series' went.
Besides being fit as a fiddle and ready to take on all comers, Duncan Maclain is a pretty remarkable guy. Well, he'd have to be - wouldn't he? He's an ex-cop who refuses to indulge in self-pity and makes few allowances for his blindness, in fact he delights in fazing people who are startled to find a blind man in their midst. There is an odd sort of charm to his robust self-sufficiency.
Norma Lawry (Ann Harding), an old friend of Mac's arrives on his doorstep to seek his help. Her 17 year old step-daughter Barbara (Donna Reed) is on the verge of falling into the clutches of Paul Gerente (John Emery), an unscrupulous gigolo and vile villain (an actor, no less) who is much too old (he's 50 if he's a day) for young Norma (aren't there laws against this kind of thing?) and what's more, he used to be step-mama Norma's main squeeze once upon a long time ago. An ugly scene all around.
That Paul Gerente is played by the ever-sneering, ever-smirking John Emery tells you right away that the character is up to no good and you begin to wonder almost immediately if little Barbara might have a screw loose. Ah, but it turns out there is method to her madness.
You might wonder, of course, what Mac's part is in all this - it hardly sounds like a case for a detective. Mac wonders too. But Norma is, I'm afraid, the sort of hapless, helpless, dither-headed woman for whom men were invented. She is befuddled by a spoiled brat of a step-daughter whom she has allowed to get the upper hand, primarily because she doesn't want to worry her husband Stephen (Reginald Denny) who is in the middle of inventing some sort of gizmo for the government's use in the war effort. (It's 1942 - don't forget.)
Well, truth be told, little Barbara knows that Paul and her step-mom were once an item AND that her dear dad doesn't know anything about it (this is what comes of keeping secrets). Hence: blackmail. She loves taunting Norma and calling her 'Darling' as if she were an equal. She believes step-mama still has the hots for Paul. The kid's 17 for goodness' sake! She is so odious it's a wonder that Norma can keep from knocking her down and stomping on her. Okay, okay, maybe that's a bit much, but honestly...
At any rate, Norma's reason for calling on Mac is really for moral support and a shoulder to lean on. His advice: face up to Paul Gerente and tell him where to go. It's up to her to take care of her step-daughter, it's what hubby expects. (Hey, those were the times.)
So Norma goes to see the loathsome Paul and they have a confrontation in which Norma tries to appeal to the man's better nature - wrong way to go - the man has no better nature. He oozes slime.
When she confronts little Barbara at home, the step-daughter laughs in her face and right in front of her shocked step-mama, makes an assignation with Paul (on the phone). They're going to have an intime supper for two at his apartment.
So right away you're thinking that maybe this movie is going to be a family problem-daughter run amok type thing and there won't be much for Maclain to do but hang around the edges and wait for the inevitable crime passionel. But turns out, you'd be wrong.
In the meantime, Stephen Lawry (Reginald Denny) is due to go away someplace to test the new gizmo and 'would Norma go with him?'. At first she agrees and then demurs. That night she's decided to go to the gigolo's apartment and stop little Barbara from - I don't know - throwing her life away? Yeah, that'll work. Lady, that NEVER works!!
Later when Barbara arrives at the gigolo's darkened apartment (the door conveniently left unlocked), there he is, lying on the floor, dead as a door nail and who should step out of the shadows from another room but step-mama Norma looking guilty as hell. Big surprise: step-daughter doesn't believe Norma's avowals of innocence. Long story short, they spit at each other (not literally) but don't call the cops.
When Mac shows up at the gigolo's apartment (with Friday the dog and Marty the henchman) to check things out - after Norma has turned to him for help yet again - the dead body has disappeared.
Stephen McNally, Allen Jenkins and Edward Arnold
Through a series of twists and turns, Mac discovers that lo and behold, the murder has some unexpected connection with Norma Lawry's household. Now the fun really begins.
Turns out that the Lawry homestead has been infiltrated by a nest of Nazi spies who are after - you guessed it - the plans for the gizmo which Stephen Lawry has invented and which he is currently out testing. So the house is empty except for Norma and the spies masquerading as servants. The poor woman of course, hasn't a clue.
In the meantime, Barbara is down at the little theater (she's a fledgling actress) rehearsing and acting surprised that their leading man (Paul Gerente, the dead gigolo) hasn't shown up yet. This is a very cold blooded little lady.
Mac arrives at the Lawry house with Friday in tow, pretending to be Norma's uncle. He takes her aside and whispers that something is amiss and they must pretend everything is fine until he can figure out what's what. Trust no one. The butler is suspicious especially when Mac begins making a pest of himself and later pretends to be drunk.
Back at the theater, rehearsal is over and Barbara heads home but not before we learn that behind the scenes, the theater director, Katherine Emery, is the real brains behind the Nazi scheme. I mean, who knew? Poor little Barbara hasn't a clue.
Okay, so we now have two clueless females, a blind man and a dog in house full of Nazi sympathizers. I mean, what more could you ask for?
Oh, and the equally clueless hubby returns in the middle of the night having successfully tried out his gizmo, eager to share the news and steps right smack dab into the middle of a hornet's nest.
You know, I'm mad about Reginald Denny - he simply can do no wrong. But next time he really should use a more reliable agency when employing servants.
There are some very smart touches in this film, for instance the way that Mac asks that lights be turned off when someone leaves the room - he doesn't need lights. To watch him moving around in the dark where he feels completely at home, gives us a glimpse of what it's like for him. I love that when he is herded downstairs to the basement and left alone for a few moments, he figures out that the overhead light is on and then very adroitly shatters the bulb so that when the bad guy comes down to finish him off - they're both on equal ground. Stuff like that. Very nicely done.
I also love the part Friday plays - very heroic and not at all THAT unbelievable. German Shepherds are pretty smart dogs.
Friday the wonder dog getting snarly. And who could blame him?
Fortunately, this terrific film is available for free viewing on youtube even as we speak. Hooray! And don't forget to check in over at Todd Mason's blog, Sweet Freedom, to see what other forgotten (or overlooked) films other mavens are talking about today.