“Now you’re in my world…darkness!”
Based on Baynard Kendrick’s 1941 novel “The Odor of Violets,” Eyes in the Night is an entertaining mystery-comedy elevated by the presence of Edward Arnold as a cunning blind detective. The feature-length directial debut of Fred Zinnemann (Act of Violence), Eyes in the Night is definitely above-par for a B-crime film, but viewers looking for the hard edge of noir should look elsewhere. This is a wholesome affair, with a German shepherd named Friday that steals the show and plenty of humor cracking up the seedier crime elements.
The film banks deeply on the the blindness of its protagonist, the plump and keenly intelligent detective Duncan Maclain (Arnold). With his impossibly attuned remaining four senses, Duncan is able to solve the most baffling cases – making his fellow officers with working eyeballs look like jackasses. And he does it all with the grace and reserve of an aristocrat. Duncan is also a master of self-defense, as evidenced in the opening scene where he’s wiping the floor with his fellow officers during a training session. His partner is Friday, a seeing-eye dog who provides plenty of comedic moments with his deadpan reactions (which I guess dogs can’t help, but c’mon, it’s funny). He may be a card, but when it’s time for action, Friday is one slick son of a bitch (literally!).
One of Duncan’s dear friends is retired actress Norma Lowry (Ann Harding), whose stepdaughter Barbara (Donna Reed) has begun a relationship with her former lover who’s about twice her age. This severely skeeves Norma out, so when Barbara’s boyfriend winds up bleeding out on a carpet in his apartment, old Norma’s the number one suspect. To clear her name, Norma enlists Duncan’s help. This single homicide leads Duncan on the trail of Nazi spies, shady servants, and a household filled with deception.
Zinnemann wonderfully exploits Duncan’s blindness to make what would have been a rather drab affair into a suspenseful thriller. The Nazis in the film do not have their shit together, but they have a significant advantage over Duncan due to his condition. Or so they think. With the help of Friday and his baffling intelligence, Duncan is able to unravel their murderous, thieving plot before Norma is framed for murder. As a dog lover, I have to mention that Friday is a large help too and when you think about the events leading up to Eyes in the Night‘s climax, he’s the true hero.
Duncan inserts himself into the Lowry household, where several sketchy characters have all assembled following the lover’s death. There he pretends to be Norma’s bawdy, drunken uncle just popping in for a visit. Arnold really hams it up as the uncle – singing, slurring his words, falling onto people, and booming his impressive baritone voice around the house like he means to shake its foundations.
Being a lighter crime film for the whole family, Eyes in the Night wraps up nice and tidy. Besides the initial dead body, there isn’t much digging into the darker side of the Nazi villains. This was a nice break from the doomed fatalism of noirs I typically watch. Arnold is terrific, Friday is a champion, and Zinnemann’s direction is sharp and void of the impressionism he’ll display in Act of Violence six years later.
Eyes in the Night is part of the public domain and readily available online via the Internet Archive and YouTube and stuff.