Friday 1 October 2021

Dark Eyes Retrovision #26 - The Dark Eyes of London (UK 1939: Dir Walter Summers)

It seems fitting - and slightly gratifying - that those nice folk at Witchfinder PR should give me an
opportunity to preview the new Blu Ray release of a film that, with its UK title anyway, gave rise to the name of my blog.

The Dark Eyes of London's main claims to fame were that it was the first film classified as 'H' for Horrific in a certification code introduced in the UK in 1932 and which survived until being replaced by the X certificate twenty years later. The other noteworthy feature is the casting of one Béla Ferenc Dezsö Blaskó aka Bela Lugosi, an actor who had been lured to these shores by producers looking for a 'name' to front their picture. For Lugosi (whose roles in the USA had gradually diminished in stature since his rise to fame as Dracula in Tod Browning's 1931 film of the same name) it represented an opportunity to regain that much needed feeling of being a star again. And a wage that was a little higher than the fees he was receiving back in the USA.

Adapted reasonably faithfully from the book of the same name by Edgar Wallace and made at Welywn Studios in Hertfordshire (which also produced genre flicks The Night Has Eyes (1942) and the brilliant The Queen of Spades (1949) and which closed in 1950), The Dark Eyes of London is a rather morbid penny dreadful thriller, whose London locations, despite the teasing title, are limited to some dockside shots and a few briefly glimpsed scenes of Piccadilly Circus.

The story revolves around a series of deaths of well insured men, much to the concern of ideas barren detectives, led by Larry Holt (Hugh Williams), despite the fact that the dead mens' policies were all brokered by the same agent, Dr Orloff (Lugosi). Orloff wanted to be a doctor, being described as 'brilliant but unbalanced'; but he was struck off, subsequently residing in London and passing himself off as the benevolent funder of a home for the blind, run by the sightless Reverend Dearborn (spoiler alert - also Lugosi!). Orloff takes on a secretary, Diana Stuart (Norwegian Greta Gynt) who quickly surmises that summat's up. She forms a friendship with Holt, and between them they gradually work out that it is Orloff controlling the killings, the actual murders being carried out by Jake (Wilfrid Walter), a hulking, hideous blind giant who also resides at the home.

Orloff, whose skills seem to include hypnotism and medicine - both of which he uses for nefarious purposes - is exposed to the audience as a bad'un way before the rest of the cast catches up, bumping off Diana's father and springing bail for an extradited forger, Grogan (Alexander Field), all for the purposes of amassing an ill-gotten fortune. A classic 'beauty and the beast' climax sees Diana kidnapped by Jake ("see her safely home" commands Orloff menacingly) and Jake finally despatching Orloff to the swampy mass of the river. This last scene involved a seven foot deep tank in the studio that required weights to be tied to Lugosi's ankles for him to disappear beneath the greasy mud.

In the publicity, much was made of the grim looking Jake; in fact in the US, where the film was screened a year after its UK release and retitled The Human Monster, his face was used on all of the publicity. But of course it's Orloff who is the real monster. The secenes in the home for the blind, the humble inhabitants being ruthlessly exploited and ill used, recall the inmates of the Elmridge Home for the Blind in the 'Blind Alleys' section of 1972's compendium horror Tales from the Crypt; indeed that film's sadistic manager, Rogers (Nigel Patrick) isn't a million miles away from the brutal and exploitative Orloff.

This particular visit to the UK was a one off for Lugosi; he returned to the States after filming to work on the sci-fi horror serial The Phantom Creeps, and wouldn't return to Blighty until 1951 and a revival of the stage play 'Dracula.'

Network presents The Dark Eyes of London in a brand-new high definition remaster from original film elements in its original theatrical aspect ratio; available from 11 October 2021. The sound and picture are both excellent (ditch your off air/VHS rips now).

Special Features
- Brand-new audio commentary with Kim Newman and Stephen Jones
- Kim Newman and Stephen Jones discuss Lugosi's work in the UK 
- US titles
- US trailer
- Image gallery
- Limited edition booklet written by Adrian Smith
- Limited edition O-card (Blu-ray exclusive)
- Limited edition poster postcards (Blu-ray exclusive)

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