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

Edward G. Robinson, John Lund and Gail Russell in The 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. Gail Russell saved by John Lund

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.

Cornell Woolrich

Cornell Woolrich

More than a few of the Woolrich stories are found in the cinema of the 1940s. In No Man of Her Own (1950-Mitchell Leisen),  an unwed, pregnant grifter on a train survives an accident, transforming herself into a grieving family’s cherished widow, only to have fate catch up with her. The Leopard Man (1943-Jacques Tourneur) tracks an escaped feline which became a literal cat’s paw for a murderer in a fearful town.  Deadline at Dawn (1946-Harold Clurman) followed the desperate search for an elusive truth by a disoriented sailor, a sage cabbie and a bitter dance hall hostess before dawn arrives. In The Black Angel (1946-Roy William Neill), the hunt for the unvarnished facts by the ex-wife of a man on death row and a sympathetic drunk are all that stand between the man and the executioner. In the Phantom Lady (1944-Robert Siodmak) a young woman chases elusive clues in the shadowy nocturnal world of the city as time is running out on a man’s life.

Having been on a bit of a Woolrich tear in the last year or so, reading and rereading stories I’d first come across as a teen, I can see that the plots of these stories and that of the films they became are often mechanical and arbitrary, and don’t bear close analysis, but the emotional power of these pulpy stories comes from the vein of anxiety in each viewer toward the modern, largely urban world that Woolrich captured on paper, where human beings find subversive relief from their fears by surrendering to their weakness for fatalism, and what the author saw as a last “waltz into darkness.”

These  stories also gave some imaginative and talented filmmakers an opportunity to explore the shadowy, ambiguous side of human nature in a sympathetic way, (despite the strictures of the Production Code). To some extent, almost all of the characters are marked and sometimes undone by their knowledge of life and their own dimly perceived frailties. Each of the movies mentioned above also gave actors opportunities to portray complex characters, creating considerably more nuanced characters than the more routine stereotypes they were usually asked to enact in studio products.

Edward G. Robinson contemplating the duality of his nature in Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948)The star of Night Has a Thousand Eyes was Edward G. Robinson, a gifted man whose unconventional looks might have typecast him as the kind of charismatically fascinating tough brute he played in his breakthrough role as  Little Caesar (1931-Mervyn LeRoy).  The privately gentle and civilized actor’s skill and versatility in several non-gangster roles as he grew older emerged more fully ifn roles in Double Indemnity (1944-Billy Wilder), The Red House (1947-Delmer Daves) and Our Vines Have Tender Grapes (1945-Roy Rowland). These parts gave the public a chance to see his many sides as a character lead. Perhaps his superb work for director Fritz Lang in  The Woman in the Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945) showcased his talent best. Playing ordinary men beset by alarming situations beyond their experience in these two movies, Robinson‘s short stature and doughy yet expressive face took on a tragic poignancy that transcended his physical limitations as an actor and indeed, made his impact deeper than expected.  In Night Has a Thousand Eyes, he played a sympathetic, occasionally jaunty vaudevillian whose small time (fake) mind reader act is assisted by classic supporting man Jerome Cowan, who feeds his partner clues about the nature of audience members’ written questions via the tunes he fingers on the piano. As window dressing, a beautiful assistant is also part of the act, an underwritten role played with grace and presence by Virginia Bruce, whose character of Jenny is loved by both Cowan and Robinson.  In the middle of his act, Robinson‘s John Triton interrupts his spiel with a command to a woman in the audience to return home at once since her child is in grave danger. Startled by his own outburst, the members of the act continue, but later learn that the grateful mother returned just in time to help her son, who had been badly burned after playing with matches. Dismissive of his “lucky guess”, in time more and more images of events bedevil Robinson; some predicting accidents, others horse races,  and stock futures.

*MILD SPOILERS BELOW*

An encounter with a newsboy whose fate flashes through his mind as he speaks with him changes everything, as does an image of Virginia Bruce‘s future. Suspicious that he is determining the outcome of these visions, Robinson eventually leaves his partners abruptly, hoping to stem off Jenny’s demise.

Jerome Cowan, Robinson and Virginia Bruce in Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948

Up to this point, the film seems to have some similarities to the Claude Rains‘ vehicle, The Clairvoyant (1934-Maurice Elvey) and the brilliant Nightmare Alley (1947-Edmund Goulding), but, this being a story with origins in the imagination of Cornell Woolrich, the character of the psychic is not a man who is willing to allow himself to follow the path where his new gift might lead him. Instead, he withdraws from the world, living a lonely life away from humanity in a ghost town for five years. Later, he moves to Los Angeles where Robinson‘s character ekes out a living in a seedy room in the Bunker Hill district near the Angel’s Flight railway. Seeing Robinson‘s character shuffle up the steps to his dismal room, the actor conveys the character’s lonely dignity and his self-imposed isolation from the people around him with his deflated body language, as much as the narration, which the actor speaks with quiet eloquence:

“It was a strictly a no questions asked area. People minding their own business and letting you mind yours. Even after fifteen years, my social conversation didn’t exceed twenty-five words a day. My work? That was solitary too. Parlor magic, disappearing coins, marked cards, false bottom water glasses. Things I’d learned in my vaudeville days…it was a lonely life, but it was pleasant to be near Curt and his daughter…in my room where I slept and worked.”

Robinson's John Triton moving through his lonely world avoiding human contact out of fear that his gift might re-emerge in Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948)

Knowing that his departure did not prevent Bruce’s death in childbirth, John Triton’s move is motivated by a desire to be near–at a distance–from the now wealthy Cowan and his daughter by Bruce, played, appropriately, by an actress whose haunted eyes graced several Paramount movies in this period, Gail Russell.

Once Robinson glimpses Cowan and his daughter again, he is appalled to have a sudden vision of a plane crash. Though he tries to warn Russell of her father’s imminent danger, tragedy and a complex series of further dangerous images flash through Robinson‘s increasingly feverish mind; involving a lion, a flower crushed underfoot, and death at eleven o’clock under the stars. Robinson confronting the doctors, Onslow Stevens & Douglas Spence with his gift in Roman Bohnen's office in Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948)At this point, the film, departing considerably from the novel but retaining some of the more threadbare storytelling elements, shifts from Woolrich‘s brooding meditation on predestination and his often black humor about the manner in which human beings seek to escape.  At the behest of John Lund‘s fiance character, (a figure who did not exist in the novel), the rather buffoonish police are brought in to investigate Robinson and what are interpreted as his “threats”, which eventually land him in custody. The cops come in the form of a variety of actors, among them William Demarest, (who appears to have wandered onto the set thinking he was playing another of Preston Sturges‘ unimaginative fuming archetypes), and Roman Bohnen, who appears as a slightly less clueless police official in the story, who consults some psychiatrists (Onslow Stevens and Douglas Spencer) about the veracity of Robinson‘s predictions. In the scene in which Robinson gently and then forcefully confronts the scientists with proof of his uncanny abilities, his desperation and resolve is impressive, overwhelming the inadequate padding of the script at this point. In an interview, screenwriter Jonathan Latimer later explained that “What I hoped to establish was a real sense of terror that these things were coming true.” Fortunately for this movie, the depth of characterization by Edward G. Robinson made up for any shortcomings in that script, (though, to be fair, I find Latimer‘s own mystery novels and contributions to scripts for nine other Farrow films, notably The Big Clock and Alias, Nick Beal to be distinctive and quite lively).

The presence of Cowan‘s shifty business partners played by familiar faces with little to do, such as Richard Webb, and John Alexander, serves as a further distraction. I’m not sure why these distracting, extraneous characters were developed in the storyline during this movie’s production, but I suppose it may have been in part to keep contract players busy on the Paramount lot, and to add some leavening humor to the grim, Poe-like story.  To be honest, whenever Robinson was not in a scene, my attention wavered. His ability to make his internal distress palpable and his eventual surrender of his will to his gift has a tragic and, given director Farrow‘s publicly avowed Catholic beliefs, a Christ-like aspect as Robinson‘s character strives to protect his lost love’s child, eventually saving her from a contrived plot ending in his own death. Upon his death, Lund‘s character finds a letter in Robinson‘s pocket predicting his own death that night.

Gail Russell and Edward G. Robinson in Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948)Russell, in the rather blandly written part of the heiress, (who is a considerably more conflicted character in the book), does convey anxiety and sadness, though she is not given much opportunity to express the ethereal intensity that this actress could convey in her most memorable roles, such as Moonrise (1948-Frank Borzage) and The Uninvited (1944-Lewis Allen). This may be in part due to the young actress’ increasing problems with her nerves when she was the center of attention. Never comfortable with acting, her anxious temperament was so debilitating that, according to Gail Russell, she had “hand trouble. Unconsciously I clasp my hands and then start wringing them. It’s getting to be a gag now on the set. Director John Farrow had a stock line to deliver every time my hands wouldn’t behave. It was, ‘Hands, Gail, cut.’  They finally tied my hands to my sides with handkerchiefs.” Unfortunately for this young woman, her self-consciousness eventually led to tragic years as an alcoholic, leading to her early death at 36. According to Yvonne de Carlo‘s memoirs, this disease may have begun as a young actress at the studio, when her fellow contract player, the talented (and equally tragic) Helen Walker, introduced her to the soothing effects of a shot of vodka before facing the cameras.

John Farrow‘s direction of this film is quite stylish, despite the inadequacies of the last third of the script. He is assisted by the camera work of DP John Seitz, whose beautifully photographed and dramatic use of low-key lighting adds to both location shots and masks the hollowness of some interior studio sequences, though some scenes, such as those supposedly on the grounds of Gail Russell‘s mansion, never really suggest a garden at night above Los Angeles with a starry night sky above, and remain bound to a dusty soundstage. The Victor Young music for this movie, used sparingly but with dramatic effect, includes what I believe are sequences in which the spectral sound of a theremin are naturally inserted whenever Eddie feels a vision coming on. Interestingly, when this movie premiered, there was little positive attention paid to the the movie, which was dismissed as “a smooth-surfaced, creaky-jointed melodrama” by Time magazine and as “hokum” by The New York Times. Despite the fact that Edward G. Robinson was later dismissive of this movie in his own autobiography, the quality of his performance was singled out as noteworthy by more perceptive reviewers. Despite the fact that in this same year Robinson also played two of his most notable roles, as the reptilian gangster Johnny Rocco in Key Largo (1948-John Huston) and as the tragically flawed wartime industrialist Joe Keller in Arthur Miller’s All My Sons (1948-Irving Reis), no recognition of his contributions were deemed adequate in that year or any other to garner him even one Academy Award nomination. No wonder this actor could play a man who was both blessed and cursed with a real if unrecognized gift, despite a posthumous award of a special Oscar to Edward G. Robinson three months after his death.* Perhaps, like Cornell Woolrich, part of this actor might have understood the words of the poet Francis William Boudillon, whose verse gave the author a resonant title:

The Night has a thousand eyes
And the day but one;
Yet the light of the bright world dies,
With the dying sun.

The mind has a thousand eyes,
And the heart but one;
Yet the light of a whole life dies
When love is done.

Proving that these words were not entirely true, Woolrich‘s books are still in print, and are still inspiring filmmakers today. Thanks to continued appreciation for Robinson and the compelling presence of Gail Russell in any movie, and the ongoing re-evaluation of John Farrow‘s contributions to classic studio era movies, according to Film Noir Foundation‘s Alan K.Rode, his organization helped reveal this movie to a new generation when a “new print of Night Has a Thousand Eyes… debuted at Noir City in 2008, [which] was made possible through the cooperative efforts of Universal Pictures and the Film Noir Foundation.” Since my own VHS copy of this movie was taped from a televised late night showing some two decades ago, I am delighted to learn that this film is receiving the care it deserves. I truly hope that the interest generated might lead to possible release of a DVD or the broadcast of this film once again. Come to think of it, wouldn’t it be splendid to see a month of programming on TCM devoted to the effect of the imagination of Cornell Woolrich on film ?

Sources:

De Carlo, Yvonne, Warren, Doug, Yvonne: An Autobiography, St. Martin’s Press, 1987.

Hirsch, Foster, The Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir, Da Capo Press, 2008.

Nevins, Francis M., Cornell Woolrich: First You Dream, Then You Die, The Mysterious Press, 1988.

Robinson, Edward G., Spigelgass, Leonard, All My Yesterdays: An Autobiography, Hawthorn Books, 1973.

The New York Times, Crowther, Bosley, Night Has a Thousand Eyes: Cinematic Hokum, October 14, 1948.

Time Magazine, The New Pictures, Nov. 8, 1948.

0 Response Seeing in the Dark: Night Has A Thousand Eyes (1948)
Posted By G Gonzalez : September 25, 2009 12:27 am

I saw this movie, Night Has a Thousand Eyes, many, many years ago and have never forgotten it. This needs to be available on DVD and if anyone wants to get up a petition I’ll sign.

Posted By G Gonzalez : September 25, 2009 12:27 am

I saw this movie, Night Has a Thousand Eyes, many, many years ago and have never forgotten it. This needs to be available on DVD and if anyone wants to get up a petition I’ll sign.

Posted By J. Dunn : September 27, 2009 12:53 am

I agree. It is an unforgetable film. Would like to see it again.

Posted By J. Dunn : September 27, 2009 12:53 am

I agree. It is an unforgetable film. Would like to see it again.

Posted By Steve-O : September 28, 2009 12:40 am

This one is one of my favorites. The books is 1000 times better… but I love EG Robinson movies. A few years ago we featured this film as the Noir of the Week http://foxyurl.com/vOd

Thanks again for this excellent article!

Posted By Steve-O : September 28, 2009 12:40 am

This one is one of my favorites. The books is 1000 times better… but I love EG Robinson movies. A few years ago we featured this film as the Noir of the Week http://foxyurl.com/vOd

Thanks again for this excellent article!

Posted By Bronxgirl : October 3, 2009 12:50 am

I saw this decades ago as a teenager (the Stone Age) and have only hazy memories of it. So wonderful to see your article!
I’m a Gail Russell fan and wish TCM would run it. (as well as THE UNSEEN)

Posted By Bronxgirl : October 3, 2009 12:50 am

I saw this decades ago as a teenager (the Stone Age) and have only hazy memories of it. So wonderful to see your article!
I’m a Gail Russell fan and wish TCM would run it. (as well as THE UNSEEN)

Posted By dale : October 3, 2009 12:52 am

i taped this film in the summer of 1995. it’s a wonderful film and because of your article i decided to watch it tonight.
thanks for the reminder.

Posted By dale : October 3, 2009 12:52 am

i taped this film in the summer of 1995. it’s a wonderful film and because of your article i decided to watch it tonight.
thanks for the reminder.

Posted By Elliot Lavine : October 3, 2009 9:18 am

Moira, this is one of the most thorough and beautiful pieces I’ve ever read on Woolrich’s work. It so vividly captures the essence of this phenomenal story/film!! Thanks for doing this!

Posted By Elliot Lavine : October 3, 2009 9:18 am

Moira, this is one of the most thorough and beautiful pieces I’ve ever read on Woolrich’s work. It so vividly captures the essence of this phenomenal story/film!! Thanks for doing this!

Posted By CineMaven : October 5, 2009 5:46 pm

Hi there Moira, I have to pull this up soon and read it in its entirety. But I haven’t seen this movie in over thirty years and would [u]love[/u] to again. My god, Gail Russell is [u]haunting[/u]!!!

Posted By CineMaven : October 5, 2009 5:46 pm

Hi there Moira, I have to pull this up soon and read it in its entirety. But I haven’t seen this movie in over thirty years and would [u]love[/u] to again. My god, Gail Russell is [u]haunting[/u]!!!

Posted By Scott O’Brien : October 6, 2009 9:04 pm

Moira,
What an inspiring piece of work! Your analysis echoes my own feelings about the film while I worked on my Virginia Bruce biography. I appreciate all the back-ground information on Woolrich. Fascinating. I also felt the scenario lost its “punch” from the time the “buffoonish” police appeared. It had been three years since Virginia had filmed, and with her striking new look, she managed to impress in a minor role. When Robinson contacts Virginia’s daughter (Russell), he makes a remark about the mother-daughter resemblence. This puzzled me, until I learned that Joan Caufield was origianlly slated for the part. As I mention in my book, Caufield backed out of the film due to the amorous attentions of director Farrow. And you are right about Bruce’s underwritten role. The Los Angeles Times stated, “There is too little of Virginia Bruce.” Night Has A Thousand Eyes was completed a year before its 1948 release. Robinson needs to be commended on offering a strong characterization at a time he was being targeted by the House of UnAmerican Activities (fall of 1947). He volunteered to testify and then watched his career turn to shambles. “I became an absolute pariah,” said Robinson. If only he had had the “second sight” beforehand to see the outcome of offering his cooperation to the HUAC!

Posted By Scott O’Brien : October 6, 2009 9:04 pm

Moira,
What an inspiring piece of work! Your analysis echoes my own feelings about the film while I worked on my Virginia Bruce biography. I appreciate all the back-ground information on Woolrich. Fascinating. I also felt the scenario lost its “punch” from the time the “buffoonish” police appeared. It had been three years since Virginia had filmed, and with her striking new look, she managed to impress in a minor role. When Robinson contacts Virginia’s daughter (Russell), he makes a remark about the mother-daughter resemblence. This puzzled me, until I learned that Joan Caufield was origianlly slated for the part. As I mention in my book, Caufield backed out of the film due to the amorous attentions of director Farrow. And you are right about Bruce’s underwritten role. The Los Angeles Times stated, “There is too little of Virginia Bruce.” Night Has A Thousand Eyes was completed a year before its 1948 release. Robinson needs to be commended on offering a strong characterization at a time he was being targeted by the House of UnAmerican Activities (fall of 1947). He volunteered to testify and then watched his career turn to shambles. “I became an absolute pariah,” said Robinson. If only he had had the “second sight” beforehand to see the outcome of offering his cooperation to the HUAC!

Posted By moirafinnie : October 12, 2009 12:19 pm

Steve-O from Noir of the Week,
I agree about the book of “Night Has a Thousand Eyes” being one of Woolrich’s most beguiling, dream-like novels. He wrote so well about the loneliness and anger of the gifted seer,in translating this to film, they seemed to lose some of the grittiness, though Edward G. Robinson‘s portrayal of the character made this aspect of the novel implicit in his acting, giving it a deeper poignancy that the simplified screenplay ignored. For those who don’t know, Steve maintains one of the best resources on the internet for all things noir at his website.

CineMaven,
I agree about Gail Russell‘s haunting quality in many roles and as a tragic figure. Though she is exceptionally good in the early scenes in this film, I suspect that working in this movie may have been difficult for her. As she recalled later, “I have hand trouble. Unconsciously I clasp my hands and then start wringing them. It’s getting to be a gag now on the set. Director John Farrow (a talented but difficult man with whom she worked on “Calcutta” and “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes”) had a stock line to deliver every time my hands wouldn’t behave. It was, ‘Hands, Gail, cut.’ They finally tied my hands to my sides with handkerchiefs.”

Her underwritten character was blander than many of the other exceptionally memorable roles she played in this period, though her presence always inspires interest and sympathy in many of us who liked her work.

Elliot,
Thanks so much for your encouragement. I hope to write a bit more about Woolrich and the movies in the future.

Scott,
Thanks for that fascinating background info on the lovely Virginia Bruce. I haven’t had a chance to read “Virginia Bruce: Under My Skin” (BearManor) just yet, but some readers may be remember Scott from his wonderful interview with me on Kay Francis, found here.

Thanks to all who took the time to post here. I hope that each of you has a chance to see this film in the future.

Posted By moirafinnie : October 12, 2009 12:19 pm

Steve-O from Noir of the Week,
I agree about the book of “Night Has a Thousand Eyes” being one of Woolrich’s most beguiling, dream-like novels. He wrote so well about the loneliness and anger of the gifted seer,in translating this to film, they seemed to lose some of the grittiness, though Edward G. Robinson‘s portrayal of the character made this aspect of the novel implicit in his acting, giving it a deeper poignancy that the simplified screenplay ignored. For those who don’t know, Steve maintains one of the best resources on the internet for all things noir at his website.

CineMaven,
I agree about Gail Russell‘s haunting quality in many roles and as a tragic figure. Though she is exceptionally good in the early scenes in this film, I suspect that working in this movie may have been difficult for her. As she recalled later, “I have hand trouble. Unconsciously I clasp my hands and then start wringing them. It’s getting to be a gag now on the set. Director John Farrow (a talented but difficult man with whom she worked on “Calcutta” and “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes”) had a stock line to deliver every time my hands wouldn’t behave. It was, ‘Hands, Gail, cut.’ They finally tied my hands to my sides with handkerchiefs.”

Her underwritten character was blander than many of the other exceptionally memorable roles she played in this period, though her presence always inspires interest and sympathy in many of us who liked her work.

Elliot,
Thanks so much for your encouragement. I hope to write a bit more about Woolrich and the movies in the future.

Scott,
Thanks for that fascinating background info on the lovely Virginia Bruce. I haven’t had a chance to read “Virginia Bruce: Under My Skin” (BearManor) just yet, but some readers may be remember Scott from his wonderful interview with me on Kay Francis, found here.

Thanks to all who took the time to post here. I hope that each of you has a chance to see this film in the future.

Posted By TCM's Classic Movie Blog : May 28, 2010 9:33 am

[...] gifted Hollywood character, director John Farrow. His noirish films, such as The Big Clock (1948), The Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948) and Alias, Nick Beal (1949) have always intrigued me. I suspect that Farrow, who was [...]

Posted By TCM's Classic Movie Blog : May 28, 2010 9:33 am

[...] gifted Hollywood character, director John Farrow. His noirish films, such as The Big Clock (1948), The Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948) and Alias, Nick Beal (1949) have always intrigued me. I suspect that Farrow, who was [...]

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