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Night Has a Thousand Eyes

06 Jan

I’d become a sort of a reverse zombie. I was living in a world already dead, and I alone knowing it.

Film noir is at heart a fatalistic genre. Greed, stupidity, desire and deceit all play a significant part to be sure, but back of it all is the implication that human beings are locked on a predetermined path which circumstance or fate has chosen for them. Whether or not one subscribes to such a theory is neither here nor there; it’s enough to know that it underpins much of film noir. But what if we already knew what lay in store? Would it be possible to cheat fate and regain control of our lives? That’s the basic premise of Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948), a noir with a quasi-supernatural slant.

The film opens dramatically with Jean Courtland (Gail Russell) about to take her own life by throwing herself in front of a train. The suicide bid is thwarted at the last moment by Elliott Carson (John Lund), her fiance. But why would a beautiful young woman such as this want to end it all? The answer to this is provided by John Triton (Edward G Robinson), once a small-time mind reader and now a virtual recluse, a prisoner of his own unique talent. Via a series of flashbacks Triton reveals his connection to Jean and the odd events that have shaped his life. Depending on one’s point of view, Triton has either been blessed or cursed with the ability to foretell the future. As his weary narration points out, there were initial advantages to this, such as the knack of predicting how best to make money. Despite these indisputable benefits, Triton gradually came to see that prior knowledge of various tragedies had a corrosive effect on the soul. Slowly, the feeling began to eat away at him that he might be in some way responsible for some of the things that happen. His first reaction was to ignore the premonitions in the hope that doing so might avert them. When that doesn’t work he settles on an alternative course of action; he will actively try to prevent the outcomes that periodically flash before his eyes. And it’s this which leads him into the life of Jean Courtland. Jean is the daughter of his late fiancée, a woman he left and let marry his best friend. That sacrifice failed to save the life of his former love, but a vision of Jean’s imminent death routs him out of self-imposed exile. For twenty years Triton has hidden himself away from the world, shunning human contact. Now however, he decides to take on fate directly. It’s a duel of sorts between a desperate man and the mysterious force that seems to determine all our futures. The prize at stake: the life of a young woman, and the chance for Triton to shake off the unwelcome curse bestowed upon him.

John Farrow is a director I’ve always had a lot of time for. He was extremely versatile, working in a variety of genres and turning out a handful of highly entertaining and well crafted noir pictures. Night Has a Thousand Eyes is a brisk piece of work, yet there’s also a dreamy, melancholic feel to it. The first half is taken up with the flashbacks that explain how Triton’s gift mutated into a curse, and Robinson’s voice-over adds to the noir atmosphere. The latter section sees the focus narrow and is largely confined to Jean’s home, as the police, various retainers and Triton all gather to see if the predictions come true. The fusion of noir motifs and supernatural overtones is unusual and quite successful in my view. While film noir was grounded in at least a superficial reality, there was also an element of the fantastic running through it. I guess the fact this movie was based on a Cornell Woolrich novel, given that writer’s penchant for outrageous and sometimes bizarre plot twists, accounts for this mix. Another point of interest is the sympathetic or tolerant stance adopted towards the whole issue of spiritualism. Generally, film and literature of the 30s and 40s tended to be downright hostile when it came to examining the spiritualist craze that grew out of the aftermath of WWI. Most books and movies focused on debunking the techniques of the fake mediums and phony spiritualists, exposing them for the charlatans they were.

While Farrow’s direction is solid and Woolrich’s material is always interesting, it’s the performance of Edward G Robinson that really powers the film. By his own admission, Robinson possessed an air of menace that was often used to great effect. Yet, in reality, Robinson was a highly cultured man and could impart great sensitivity when he was afforded the opportunity. The role of Triton was such an opportunity, a tortured soul robbed of the love of his life and endowed with a terrible gift. Robinson had wonderfully expressive features and it’s a real joy to see him tuck into a meaty and complex part like this. Although he’s the unquestioned star of the movie, he gets good support from John Lund and Gail Russell. Lund’s role is a bit of a thankless one as the stoical, skeptical romantic lead, but he does all that’s required of him. Russell had that tragic, ethereal beauty that works so well on screen and there’s a vague air of confusion about her, a sense of one lost in the world. Somehow, her magical presence seems entirely appropriate in such a film.

Night Has a Thousand Eyes is a movie that’s just crying out for a decent DVD release. The film can be viewed online quite easily and there’s a DVD available from Italy but neither option shows the movie in the best light. I have that Italian disc and it has to be said the print used is pretty beat up. It’s taken from an Italian source, the titles and credits are presented in that language, and it’s a dirty, scratchy affair. Despite the poor condition and lack of restoration it does remain perfectly watchable throughout. The disc offers the choice of either the original English soundtrack (no subtitles) or an Italian dub. The theatrical trailer and a text essay (in Italian) comprise the extra features. This was originally a Paramount production so, given the lack of any word of Olive releasing it, I’m guessing the rights now reside with Universal. I can only hope that it gets a stronger release somewhere in the future – it deserves it. Regardless of any complaints about the current presentation and availability of the movie, it remains an intriguing film noir. A neglected little gem, ripe for rediscovery.

EDIT: Laura also wrote a piece on the movie here, which I only just noticed.

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32 Comments

Posted by on January 6, 2014 in 1940s, Edward G Robinson, Film Noir, John Farrow

 

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32 responses to “Night Has a Thousand Eyes

  1. Cavershamragu

    January 6, 2014 at 9:20 am

    Great write-up Colin. Always been a big fan of the book (originally published as by ‘George Hopley’, his two middle names) and the movie (one of the many fine collaborations between Farrow and writer Jonathan Latimer) – but you’re right, I don’t think I have ever seen a decent edition of it even on TV in fact but was eyeing the Italian DVD – I take the image grabs you have are taken from that disc?

     
    • Colin

      January 6, 2014 at 9:29 am

      Cheers Sergio. Yes, those images are taken from the Italian disc. Even scaled down, they’re not terribly impressive, are they? It’s a shame as the film is heavily reliant on its imagery. Still, as I said, it’s perfectly watchable but expectations need to be adjusted as far as picture quality is concerned. It’s a movie I’d love to see the likes of Koch in Germany get their hands on.

       
      • Cavershamragu

        January 6, 2014 at 9:34 am

        God yes, their release of DARK MIRROR is just incredibly good, isn’t it? It’s the only one of the Koch Noirs that I have so far. I love most of Farrow’s movies though he was apparently a very odd chap in private life though undeniably a talented polymath. Thanks for that lovely image of Gail Russell too :)

         
        • Colin

          January 6, 2014 at 9:44 am

          Yes, I’ve read some criticism of Farrow in the past. As a director though, he made some terrific little movies and I really enjoy his work.

          I have a handful of Koch noir titles and I’m very satisfied with them all. Their release of The Scar is, as far as I can tell, the best best on the market. I also picked up the recent release of Mann’s The Black Book – which will be featured here in the not too distant future – and it looks very, very good indeed.

           
          • Cavershamragu

            January 6, 2014 at 11:53 am

            That’s great news as I want to get both of those – thanks chum!

            I am a fan of directors who use long takes so Farrow is someone I always keep an eye out for (sic) but it is weird how some of his best films, like EYS and ALIAS NICK BEAL have nopt had a prop[er US release yet.

             
            • Colin

              January 6, 2014 at 12:02 pm

              Given that these are *I think* Universal properties, I wouldn’t say I’m so much surprised as disappointed.

               
              • Cavershamragu

                January 6, 2014 at 12:12 pm

                Too many seem to have fallen in with the sale of the pre 1948 catalogue to Universal, though in fairness I think Paramount has been the worst of thge Hollywood majors in releasing its classic titles on DVD – can’t actually prove this scientifically …

                 
                • Colin

                  January 6, 2014 at 12:22 pm

                  Quite. However, the deal between Olive and Paramount has seen many of their properties come onto the market. When it comes to Universal in recent years, the greatest number of releases seem to have been via licensing agreements with various European distributors.

                   
                  • Cavershamragu

                    January 6, 2014 at 12:38 pm

                    Yes, I suppose you are right – once you ignore horror and Abbott and Costello even the likes of Sherlock Holmes and early Billy Wilder films were farmed out

                     
                    • Colin

                      January 6, 2014 at 12:45 pm

                      They seem to be at a loss as to how best to handle their catalog. Even their MOD program – is it still running? – was a half-hearted affair. And they do have a lot of interesting and I’d imagine marketable material locked in the vaults.

                       
                    • Cavershamragu

                      January 6, 2014 at 12:51 pm

                      Beaver just reviewed Universal’s MOD release of DRAGNET which apparently was an exclusive that has now been opened up.

                       
                    • Colin

                      January 6, 2014 at 1:34 pm

                      Yes, I just saw that.

                       
  2. Judy

    January 6, 2014 at 10:29 pm

    This sounds very interesting – I’ll hope to see it online although I take your warning about the picture quality. Sadly there are quite a few Robinson films which really deserve proper releases but haven’t had them yet.

     
    • Colin

      January 6, 2014 at 10:33 pm

      Indeed. Poor old Eddie G has been treated with a little disrespect, to say the least. The movie is easy to find on YouTube but could look better.

       
  3. Dafydd Jones

    January 7, 2014 at 9:31 am

    Interesting review Colin. I have never seen this one although I have read about it in various noir essays over the years. I agree that a Koch release would be ideal. They rarely, if ever, put a foot wrong do they? One to look forward to then from what you say.

     
    • Colin

      January 7, 2014 at 9:50 am

      It’s a very good movie Dafydd, as a lot of Woolrich sourced material is. I’d imagine that it will be available in better condition sooner or later.

       
  4. Prashant C. Trikannad

    January 8, 2014 at 5:15 pm

    Colin, I haven’t seen this film though I have seen Edward G. Robinson, clearly the star here, in some other movies whose names fail me now. He and James Cagney have a somewhat similar on-screen persona, and a rather powerful one too. I’ll bear this film in mind. And, yet again, thanks for a fine review.

     
    • Colin

      January 8, 2014 at 8:50 pm

      Thanks Prashant. Robinson had a long and varied career and was always good even when the films were less worthy of his talents. That of course isn’t the case here, and he was well cast in an all-round fine movie.
      I guess Cagney, Bogart & Robinson are often remembered for their “tough guy” roles but all of them had much more to offer besides. Robinson’s work in the mid-late 40s is exceptionally strong and features a run of memorable parts in very good films.

       
  5. Vienna

    January 8, 2014 at 5:24 pm

    Love that poster at the start of your fine review. It’s a good film and the lead trio are very good. Let’s hope a DVD release comes soon.
    Has there ever been a Robinson box set?

     
    • Colin

      January 8, 2014 at 8:54 pm

      Yes, it’s a very atmospheric and evocative poster, isn’t it? I don’t believe there ever has been a dedicated Robinson set, which is almost criminal when you consider the caliber of the man’s performances.

       
  6. Rod Croft

    January 8, 2014 at 11:57 pm

    The respected and award winning composer Victor Young ( “Around The World in 80 Days” -1956) provides the atmospheric music for this Film Noir and adds yet another plus, in it’s favour.

     
    • Colin

      January 9, 2014 at 7:35 am

      Very true Rod. There’s a real wealth of talent involved both in front of and behind the camera on this movie. The more I think about it, the more puzzled I become over its absence on DVD.

       
  7. Chris

    January 9, 2014 at 1:22 am

    I can’t resist a Noir poster with a picture of a train on it! Great write up as always mate, but what a tormentor you are – introducing us to yet another fantastic sounding hidden gem that’s difficult to obtain. The little hint of supernatural made me think of Nightmare Alley. Not one for watching films online, something about holding the thing in my hands which seems important, so it looks like the Italian disc for me too.

    Having said that, when you mentioned picture quality it got me thinking about the trade off we sometimes have to make when a film is so good we’re willing to put up with watching them through a sock! I’d be keen to hear what films regular readers have had to make that call with.

    Several that come to mind for me are Hangmen Also Die, Detour, T-Men and Raw Deal.
    The Hangmen Also Die (Aussie company Bounty) disc is murky and print damaged but I believe may be the most complete version available. The source material on Detour is really badly damaged in places but the transfer itself is really very good (I l value film grain, contrast and shadow detail above tears and scratches). The Anthony Mann films are actually in pretty good nick but the transfers are bloody appalling (Sony discs)! The only Western I can think of is a German copy (of course) of Fighting Man of the Plains, pretty crumby PQ – and it claims to be digitally remastered (isn’t anything transferred to DVD?). Again I think it may be the only available edition on the planet.

    Happy New Year Colin
    Best
    Chris B

     
    • Colin

      January 9, 2014 at 7:53 am

      Well firstly Chris, a Happy New Year to you too.

      I’m with you all the way when it comes to feeling the frustration of having to watch movies in very poor condition. I remember another Eddie G movie, The Red House, being virtually unwatchable before a Blu-ray/DVD came out. It’s still far from perfect, the DNR having been ramped up way too far, but at least it can be seen without a headache.

      There are too many films that are poorly presented, although the number is dwindling all the time. I have the same edition of Lang’s Hangmen Also Die as yourself. I agree it could be better but it’s still an improvement to my eyes on the old Kino DVD that I’d owned for years. Those Mann titles are just so-so too – again I have the same editions – but I see there is an Italian release of Raw Deal by Sinister Films. I’ve no idea if it’s any better but that company generally puts out satisfactory editions of films – I’m toying with the idea of getting a copy. On Fighting Man of the Plains, there’s a recent UK release but I understand it’s not all that good.

      I have to say Olive Films in the US have done us a great service by rescuing a number of movies which previously were only viewable in pretty beat up form, and their list of releases continues to grow.

       
  8. Vienna

    January 9, 2014 at 8:32 am

    Just ordered Fighting Man of the Plains from Amazon. It’s one of my favorite Scott westerns, thanks for the heads up.

     
    • Colin

      January 9, 2014 at 8:38 am

      I held off on it myself because, as I said, I heard some negative comments on the disc – the fact it’s not in color for one. I’d be interested to hear your view of it though.

       
  9. rockfish

    January 13, 2014 at 3:53 am

    Terrific writeup again Colin. EGR’s output in the 1940s truly is an underrated trail of noir gems (The Stranger, Woman in the Window, Scarlet Street, Red House) — all were inadequately circulated and preserved. I wonder why he’s received and the films have received so little regard? Here’s hoping the Noir Foundation, Koch or Criterion can get their hands on this one; while Olive has done a fine job with many of its titles, i’m still bothered by their Violent Saturday effort. I eagerly await your The Black Book — which has also had the same PD issues as some of those mentioned. Happy New Year!

     
    • Colin

      January 13, 2014 at 8:18 am

      Thanks Dan. I think the fact those Robinson movies you mention were made for independent producers might account for the poor state of preservation they’ve suffered from. I understand there are good prints of Night Has a Thousand Eyes which have been screened so it looks like it’s mostly down to the studio holding the rights not feeling inclined to release it on DVD or Blu-ray.

      BTW, that less than satisfactory version of Violent Saturday you referred to actually came from Twilight Time. Of course, Olive do essentially release whatever is handed to them too.

       
  10. rockfish

    January 14, 2014 at 4:45 am

    Yes, it was Twilight. Both TT and Olive are doing a great service — providing classic films in pressed and typically good condition. While I’ve had to drop my argument against DVD-r for the most part I still like to reward those companies that release pressed versions — like Criterion’s Its a Mad mad mad mad world. Times being what they are, i’m being a little more picky too.

     
    • Colin

      January 14, 2014 at 7:31 am

      Me too. I have only a small number of MOD discs, although I picked up a few more when Deep Discount ran a sale on WA titles for $7.99 a few weeks back. Most stuff seems to turn up sooner or later here in Europe on pressed disc so I’m happy to wait it out.

       
  11. John

    January 17, 2014 at 5:47 am

    I have seen that look in EGR’s eyes once before. In the movie All My Sons, Lancaster the son confronts Robinson his father on the faulty manufacturing of airplanes Robinson’ s company made for the army air corp. Robinson was the master at saying so much just with a facial expression.

     
    • Colin

      January 17, 2014 at 8:02 am

      I agree. Robinson was one of the great screen actors, and I think any one of those to whom that label can be applied had the ability to convey huge amounts through the eyes and face alone.
      I’ve never seen All My Sons but have heard good things about it and must track down a copy.
      Thanks for stopping by.

       

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