Thursday, January 28, 2010

#83: Night Has a Thousand Eyes (John Farrow, 1948)

Released: October 13, 1948

Director: John Farrow; Screenplay: Barre Lyndon and Jonathan Latimer based on the novel by Cornell Woolrich; Cinematography: John F. Seitz; Music: Victor Young; Producer: Endre Bohem; Studio: Paramount Pictures

Cast: Edward G. Robinson (John “The Mental Wizard” Triton), Gail Russell (Jean Courtland), John Lund (Elliott Carson), Virginia Bruce (Jenny Courtland), William Demarest (Lt. Shawn), Richard Webb (Peter Vinson), Jerome Cowan (Whitney Courtland)

- “I had become a reverse zombie… the world was dead and I was living.”

The second film in the countdown to be based on a Cornell Woolrich, and this one is just as pulpy or over-the-top as the first entry (Phantom Lady). It might be so outrageous as to turn some viewers off. The tale follows the travails of John Triton (Edward G. Robinson), the man billed as “The Mental Wizard” who tours the country putting on vaudeville shows. In these shows, he and his partners, consisting of his fiancée Jenny (Virginia Bruce) and friend Whitney Courtland (Jerome Cowan), put on mind-reading shows to make ends meet. However, during one of the performances, Triton has a vision of an audience member’s son being killed in a fire. He quickly instructs the woman to get home immediately, and it turns out that had he not had the vision the boy would have perished in a fire. Triton continues to have premonitions in the weeks to come, which he and his partners are able to parlay into successful business investments. He becomes badly shaken by these visions, however, when he has a premonition of Jenny dying in childbirth. Believing this to be an accurate prediction, Triton decides that the only way to stop it from coming true is to leave Jenny and keep her from bearing children.

Triton thus abandons the act, completely cutting off ties from the two longtime friends. Whitney has become wealthy due to business tips from Triton’s premonitions, and after Triton’s unexpected exit he marries Jenny. Unfortunately for the newlyweds, Triton’s vision comes true in giving birth to their daughter Jean (Gail Russell). Still, Triton is too frightened to contact the family, although he lives near them in Los Angeles. Instead, he continues having his deadly visions and keeps them to himself. This all changes when he has a vision of Whitney’s death, which comes true. He decides to end his self-imposed exile in order to try and forestall his next ghastly dream – the death of Whitney’s daughter Jean.

Sound too pulpy? Too outrageous to be taken seriously? In most cases, it probably would be. There is definitely a camp quality to some of it. And based on the description, it might not even qualify as a noir according to a traditional definition – just reading what I wrote as a summary sounds like a film closer to a Val Lewton horror film than a film noir. So why do I include it in a countdown of film noir? And more importantly, why do I rank it ahead of some other noir classics? I usually don’t quote others in my write-ups and reviews, but well-respected film noir scholar Eddie Muller summed it up best in his book Art of Noir when addressing this film:

“No film more faithfully captured Woolrich's sense of doomed predestination than Night Has a Thousand Eyes.”

Doom hangs over everything that happens. Almost all of Triton’s visions involve some type of death or injury. So at no point does the viewer expect anything less than tragedy. The helplessness of Triton’s dilemma is continually driven home, as he is a man who envisions horrific events but seems powerless to stop them from happening. This mood is aided by the creepy score of Victor Young and the cinematography from the always dependable John Seitz. But in the end, I have to credit the story that I earlier described as “over-the-top” and the way that John Farrow directs it. Farrow plays it completely straight, depicting all of Triton’s visions and predictions as being credible. There really is never any gray area – the story is filmed as if everything that Triton is claiming is absolutely true. Thus, rather than allowing the viewer to wonder whether Triton is genuine or simply a huckster, the focus is instead on the fact that he is condemned to a life of envisioning tragedies that he is incapable of preventing.

This is a little seen film that is definitely worth seeking out. Perhaps the camp elements will be not be so easily brushed aside by everyone, but I find it to be a wonderfully undervalued noir.


  1. I like to see the classic movies specially the old movies. But it not so easy to clarity those but this type of blogs helps to decide whcih film should i watch . Thanks for the post.

  2. Dave, this is a noir like Lewton's Cat People is noir. Triton is trapped as the cat woman is a captive of her accursed fate. Farrow's roving camera and low angles are unsettling, your sceptisism is continually challenged.

    Best of all is Edward G's performance. It is magnificent. He is a man by trapped an accursed gift, which can be escaped only in death. Again like the Cat Woman, who is imprisoned by her very sexuality, which can be expressed only by unleashing her demonic self.

    There is a wider melancholy best understood by an older person - the angst and regret that your life has not turned out the way it could have, that fate has dealt you a poisoned deck, with no second chances. Redemption is a zero sum game...

  3. Excellent response as usual, Tony! I'm glad to see that you are a fan of this one too, as you don't see a whole lot written about this film and I am very interested to see how it is thought of by those that have seen it.

  4. Ah, so Farrow makes the list again, and I can only believe he'll be making a third appearance at some point. Robinson again delivers an impressive turn in this 'pulpy' inclusion, and the Woolrich connection to Lewton can be further confirmed by the fact that Lewton's THE LEOPARD MAN was based on BLACK ALIBI, a Woolrich short story.
    And especially interesting essay here.

  5. Another I have not seen Dave but the film film does sound intriguing.Still one more film to add to the ever growing list.

  6. The more I think about this one, the more I realize that I could have placed this one even higher.

    Thanks for the compliments on the essay, Sam

    John - Definitely keep your eyes out for this one. If you like noir and some of the films of Val Lewton (as Sam mentioned, The Leopard Man was also written by Woolrich), then I think you would enjoy this one too.

  7. This is a good movie for being that all in many ways, the difference or better saying the ones who made the diference on this movies were the real actors, right now the actors are terrible.

  8. Very good film this is perfect because I love the retro films specially because of the passion the actors had at that time, I'd like to watch more films like these ones.