Scotland Yard inspector Larry Holt is asked to investigate the case of five bodies that have been found in The Thames apparently drowned, during the last eight months. The investigation takes him to the Greenwich Insurance Co with whom many of the dead held policies. This is run by Feodor Orloff, a former doctor who was driven out of his profession and deemed insane by many of his colleagues. Clues lead Holt to Dearborn's Home for the Destitute Blind where each of the policy holders have made charitable donations upon Orloff's request. There Holt comes to believe that each policy holder is being murdered for their money.
Spoilers follow ...
- The Dark Eyes of London review by NP
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You rated this film: 4
Based on the Edgar Wallace book, ‘Dark Eyes of London’ features the mighty Bela Lugosi, incongruously surrounded by very British docklands, slums, murky water, and a vast home for the blind.
Horror is subjective: what frightens one person may bore another. For some reason, this film fills me with dread. The style of acting, the grainy images and muffled sound only add to this. The atmosphere is one of cruelty, brutality and the most vulnerable in society are subject to these atrocities. The seediness of their surroundings, the extravagance of Bela’s performance – every murky thing about this picture gets to me in a way far more polished efforts somehow do not. And it’s not even a pure horror – more a thriller caper, with grotesque elements.
Anyway, Bela plays a dual role – one, bewigged, wearing black glasses and softly (and very convincingly) dubbed by another (English) actor as blind Dearborn, head of a converted warehouse that is now a home for the blind. He also plays Dr. Orloff, who commits a series of murders for insurance purposes. Surrounded by more mannered, less memorable performers, Bela ‘does his thing’: some would call it ham, others might enjoy his theatrical playing. I’m definitely in the latter camp – once again, his heightened acting compared to the genteel under-playing of his co-stars is very effective. His portrayal of blind Dearborn is brilliant, his whole deportment is changed, his movements slow and uncertain. This become instantly obvious when Dearborn reveals his true identity, the contrast in his performance is effortless and impressive.
The blind are portrayed as tragic, shunned, kindly characters. None more so than monstrous Jake, who is also given the full horror make-up. Played by Wilfred Walter, he shares with Bela an exaggerated menace. The services held in Dearborn Home are eerie sights, with the residents sitting in cheerless silence as a kindly, aged voice escapes Bela – which in itself is a creepy oddity.
The character of resident Dumb Lou (Arthur E. Owen) suffers the brunt of Orloff’s cruelty. Lou is blind and unable to speak. When he discovers too much about Dearborn’s duplicity, Orloff robs him of his hearing too. Using (now) archaic Frankenstein-esque electronic equipment, the helpless little man is strapped down, taunted by Orloff, and has his hearing burnt out, the only reaction being the agitated twitching of his hands. The act is largely unseen, but we hear a distant scream. When we return to the scene, Lou’s hands have stopped twitching. It is a horrible moment, as is Orloff’s later gleeful drowning of the poor wretch.
A smoky morgue, a tearful heroine, mouldy walls, Lugosi’s stare, drownings … Director Walter Summers ensures every setting is as downbeat as possible, adding layer upon layer of leaden atmosphere upon an already sombre palette. And I think that’s what grabs me about this – the sparingly used horrific incidents are merely icing on this absorbingly bleak cake. An absorbingly bleak cake? I told you this film had an effect on me (the light comic ending almost seems to have been spliced in from another picture).
Considering it was the British ban on horror films that helped put the kibosh on many such films stateside a few years before, this is an audaciously (hypocritically?) gruesome thing. The briefly glimpsed images of corpses pulled out of the Thames are surprisingly graphic. Orloff’s fate, at the hands of a furious, betrayed Jake is disappointingly brief, and features Bela up to his neck in gulping muddy sludge, and brings to an end an exceptional film. I almost wish the sound and image quality could be cleaned up like the Universal pictures, but such an operation would somehow rob ‘Dark Eyes of London’ of much of its rich, shadowy ambience.