Thursday, September 24, 2009

Seeing Things in the Dark: Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948)

“This gift, which I never asked for and don’t understand, has brought me only unhappiness!” ~ Edward G. Robinson as a fake mentalist who is cursed with the power of second sight in Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948).

Have you ever wished you could see into the future? A kind of cautionary tale about the unpredictable nature of such a dubious gift is told in this movie.It begins at night, naturally. The first striking image seen, amid a swirl of steam, reveals an enormous locomotive, bearing down on the camera like blind, arbitrary fate itself. As the veil of billowing smoke fades, the next sight shows a young man (John Lund) stumbling across a rail yard, picking up a trail of dropped objects, beginning with a glove, and leading to a compact, purse and watch, which he checks to see if it is still keeping time. 

Frantically, he spots a young woman (Gail Russell) on a catwalk above the tracks, just as another train is entering the yard. Just in time, he pulls her back. Murmuring “Why did you stop me?”, she is led away by the man while she tells him “that the stars…they keep watching, like a thousand eyes…” Stopping at a cafe, the pair are met by a strange man, who, the young man has explained, told him where to find the suicidal young woman–a bit of information that he had no way of knowing other than psychically. There follows a flashback of some considerable length, even for a film noir, in which it is revealed that Russell is the daughter of Robinson’s former fellow vaudevillians, played by Jerome Cowan and Virginia Bruce.
“Knowledge itself is power” observed the Elizabethan Sir Francis Bacon, but he never met the 20th century author and father of noir fiction, Cornell Woolrich. In the reclusive Woolrich’s fascinating if romantically bleak view of life, consciousness and the irony-laden knowledge of the past, present and future made his characters painfully aware of a lonely existence and its likely end. This author refashioned themes around this central problem with an obsessive, luridly poetic skill, and never more so than in his ambitious novel, The Night Has a Thousand Eyes, published under the name of “George Hopley” in 1945. The film of Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948) would explore these themes centering around the life of a fake mentalist who is chagrined to discover he really does have second sight, allowing him to see the future, even when it affects those loves. 
The adaptation of Woolrich’s longest novel into an 80 minute “B” movie at Paramount by director John Farrow, (who has been discussed at some length here in a previous blog about Alias, Nick Beal), and his collaborators, writer Barré Lyndon and frequent scenarist Jonathan Latimer, apparently required changing many of the characters and the circumstances of the story. Despite this streamlining, much of the book’s mood of fatalistic suspense remains . Woolrich’s prodigious output of dark tales had often led Hollywood to his stories of characters who are searching for solutions to their existential dilemmas. In the process, they often learn more than they wanted to know about life’s quixotic and cruel twists as well as their own character...more on the TCM Movie Morlocks Blog


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