What a great title. Night Has a Thousand Eyes. It evokes a sense of mystery, even of terror. The opening sequence of the film seems to fulfill this expectation. A man walks in a train yard, picking up the traces of a fleeing female. Her bag, her accoutrements. Then he sees a flash of her up on the construction above the train yard, and knows she’s ready to throw herself off. She says the night is watching her… with its thousand eyes.
And it was all predicted by one man: John Triton (Edward G. Robinson.) Triton was a phony mentalist in the ’20s, who tragically develops a real ability of precognition. He may save some people from negative fates, and makes money for his friend Whitney Courtland, but he can’t shake a terrible feeling. He doesn’t know if he’s predicting the future, or causing it.
This apprehension leads to the death of a young boy, the dissolution of Triton’s relationship with his true love, and causes him to abandon his act and disappear for 20 years. He re-emerges to find the daughter of his love, Jean (Gail Russell), and to warn her that her father will die in his cross-country airplane stunt. This was in the ’40s, when you could still do cross-country airplane stunts.
He also has a grim vision for Jean, the suicidal female of the first reel. He thinks she’s going to die, and wants to save her… but knows from experience that his visions are never wrong.
Night Has a Thousand Eyes is a creepy supernatural suspense story. The central mystery, whether Triton’s visions are real or a con, has all the makings of a great thriller. Unfortunately, an indifferently structured story with a completely anonymous directorial approach rob a decent story of its opportunities to make an impact.
The first problem with the film is its structure. We have a pretty good opening sequence with Jean’s near suicide, and then we’re introduced to Triton. He should be a shadowy, suspect figure but everything in the flashbacks makes him look like the central character, and thus the most trustworthy. That might be objectively true in the story, but it’s murder to suspense. The story of Thousand Eyes is whether or not Triton is a fraud or not, and the way the film is structured, that is never seriously in doubt. So the only suspense in the story is whether people believe him, and that’s not a good or interesting basis for a story.
The best section in the film is a sequence in the middle where for the first time to the audience Triton’s veracity is in doubt. He might be some master schemer but he also might be sincerely concerned with Jean’s welfare. She’s surrounded by a group of her dad’s lawyers and businessmen who want to keep his fortune making money, and are embarrassed by an heiress who thinks a psychic can predict she will be dead in a few nights’ time.
Regardless, Night Has a Thousand Eyes benefits from a completely committed performance by Edward G. Robinson. He’s most famous for his pompous gangster roles, but he’s equally effective in this self-effacing characterization as a man who wants completely out of the limelight. His John Triton hates the gift of foresight he’s been given, and equally hates his inability to change the futures he foretells. He’s a modern-day Cassandra, and the best parts of the film foreground his pathos.
Unfortunately, much of the film doesn’t quite know what story it’s telling, or who the protagonist is. The middle meanders; the structure of the story is flabby. And when the villain ultimately reveals himself, it seems almost deliberately arbitrary.
The film was directed by John Farrow and written by Johnathan Latimer, who together made The Big Clock, a much better thriller. Latimer also wrote the superior They Won’t Believe Me. Thousand Eyes is based on a novel by Cornell Woolrich, one of the most prolific film noir authors of the ’30s and ’40s. What stifled both creators about this film is hard to gather. Maybe the inherent supernatural aspect of the story made them balk.
Whatever the case, Night Has a Thousand Eyes is a disappointment. It’s not a great crime story, it’s not an eerie enough horror tale. I’ve not read the book it’s based on, but my cursory perusal of contemporary reviews indicated that’s it’s not a particularly satisfactory adaptation. It has some great performances and needed an eerie atmosphere that would be better handled a decade later by something like The Twilight Zone. I enjoyed the movie, but it would be fair to call it an admirable failure.
Night Has a Thousand Eyes has been released by Kino-Lorber on Blu-ray. Extras include an audio commentary by Imogen Sara Smith, and some trailers.