Blind detective Edward Arnold sees the truth better than anyone in this fun B mystery full of familiar faces and possibly the best movie dog ever.
I was just waiting for the excuse to finally rewatch of one of my favourite B movies, Eyes in the Night (1942). It has so many things going for it like a great director, fine cast, fun action, clever plot twists and even some creative bits that you can spot many years down the line in other thrillers. Above all, it has one of the coolest movie detectives ever created in Edward Arnold’s lovable, clever Duncan Maclain.
Eyes starts out by efficiently introducing Arnold as a capable ex-police and detective with an impressive expertise in martial arts, at that moment being practiced with (or inflicted on) his circle, comprised of Allan Jenkins, Milburn Stone and Mantan Moreland and a loyal, helpful and resourceful dog Friday. He’s clearly in command of his nice luxury home, and in comes a visitor, Ann Harding, whom he regards kindly. The movie gives you all this in less than 5 minutes, and only then reveals a vital fact of Arnold’s character– he’s blind. It’s a fantastic way to start: define the man as more than his disability, and through the movie build on his abilities.
Harding plays an actress who’s come to him asking him to commit a murder for him, of a former fiance who’s now putting the moves on her aspiring actress stepdaughter (Donna Reed). Her request about the murder is pure drama, but then of course circumstances conspire so that the creep actually is killed and she’s caught in his apartment and looks like the prime suspect. The naughty Donna Reed seizes the opportunity to blackmail Harding out of dad’s life. Harding now really needs the help of gumshoe Arnold, who deduces that whatever is afoot originates at Harding and Reed’s home, the Lawry mansion. He poses as Harding’s obnoxious drunken uncle Mac to get in there and solve this mystery. Turns out a creep’s murder is the least of this puzzle because there are also a top war secret at stake and spies in nearly every part of the Lawry’s lives.
Fred Zinnemann hardly needs me to call him a fantastic director and even this earliest of his feature films reveals an expert at the wheel. Everybody in this packed cast gets something unique to do, which impressive given the 80 minute run time, and no small feat considering that you also have Stephen McNally, Katherine Emery, Rosemary DeCamp, John Emery, Stanley Ridges, Stephen Geray, Barry Nelson, Erik Rolf and an uncredited Marie Windsor. I mean this is a giant box of chocolates for any classic movie nerd, and even better is that despite having their clear good and evil roles they don’t come across as cardboard. The shots are creative, with angles up and down stairs for example, and the potentially complicated or frantic action is organized and always easy to follow (even if the plot has a couple holes). The timing and execution is good as we ramp up to the climax, with a signature scene in a pitch black basement where the only light comes from a fired gun. There’s even room for just the right amount of well-placed slapstick for Allan Jenkins (think Kato vs. Clouseau). Seeing the supremely bratty teen witch Reed get suckered in by her own vanity, figure it all out, wordlessly apologize to Harding and redeem herself by decking one of the baddies who fooled her, is really satisfying.
This movie and a sequel film The Hidden Eye (1945), were based on the series of mystery novels by Baynard Kendrick, who got the idea after witnessing the way a blinded fellow WW1 veteran not only adapted and compensated but excelled in the use of his other senses. From such interesting, and at that time I assume, novel and revelatory source material, Arnold added the knowledge gained from dealing with his own blind father, to craft a gumshoe character so vivid and rich that this is one of the greatest movie or TV series that never was. He’s resourceful, hilariously bold and sarcastic and constantly gets the jump on those who underestimate him, surprising with his physical power and superior intellect. Some of those lines he delivers with the gusto of a comic book hero, and he is a self-made figure fighting crime with lots of cool assistive gadgets and moves with eerie effectiveness “in the dark! in my kingdom.” In other moments it’s his comic timing that makes you laugh out loud; when he sniffs some drugged brandy “ah, divine broth!” annoying the spies with his late night organ playing prowess, barking: “come over here and listen to my pipes!” and he shows one of the bad guys a stunning card trick. Every hero needs a sidekick, and Mac’s dog Friday is one of the best movie dogs ever (truth in advertising!): adorable, intelligent, expressive and a fine actor. While on a vital mission, he stops to check out and make eyes at a pretty poodle. Does Friday win her over at the end? Just one of many reasons you’ll have to check out the fun mystery Eyes in the Night.
This post is part of the SLEUTHATHON, which you should investigate further by clicking on this banner: