Cult Movies: The Dark Eyes Of London a mini-masterpiece of gloomy British mystery film-making

Hugh Williams and Bela Lugosi in The Dark Eyes of London
Ralph McLean

The Dark Eyes Of London

IF YOU'RE looking for some creaky but classy black and white spookiness to enrich your Halloween viewing this year, you could do a lot worse than The Dark Eyes Of London.

Released in 1939 and freshly dug up and dusted off for a timely Blu-ray revival thanks to Network Releasing, director Walter Summers' moody and menacing little tale of murder, madness and, wait for it – insurance fraud – in nasty old London town is a mini-masterpiece of gloomy British mystery film-making.

It stars the great Bela Lugosi – some way down the track from his glory days as Dracula but still long before he'd reluctantly demean himself and anyone watching in films well below his talent grade – as Dr Orloff, owner of a shady life insurance agency.

Orloff comes under suspicion when a series of grisly deaths by drowning all share the connection that they paid out to the Dearborn Home for the Destitute Blind. Detective Inspector Larry Holt (Hugh Williams) from the very serious-minded Scotland Yard and his comically inclined visiting American officer sidekick Lieutenant Patrick O'Reilly, played as a broadly drawn American caricature by Edmon Ryan, are soon on the crazed doctor's tail.

All manner of macabre goings on, from dubious medical operations and the antics of a blind murderer called Jake (played by Wilfred Walter), swiftly ensue.

Usually attributed with the honour of being the first UK-released film to garner an "H" rating – signifying "Horrific for public exhibition" and barring anyone under 16 getting into their local flea pit to actually see it – this economically fashioned little pot boiler has aged surprisingly well, all things considered.

Lugosi is his usual aloof and superior self as the mad doctor, but gives great stare and moody side glances as he gets stuck into a role much better than many he was forced to grapple with in Hollywood in the preceding or indeed future years. He looks like he's enjoying himself and relishing the role.

The supporting cast turn in performances that range from the good to the garishly overwrought, but that's no surprise given the vintage and the nature of the plotline, which plays its pulpy hand in a charmingly cheap and cheerful manner throughout.

The story, lifted from a typically streamlined Edgar Wallace novel, rattles along at a mighty pace and is great fun, providing a few genuinely creepy moments amid all the crazed doctor and London-based clichés that Walter Summers can rustle up.

The faintly distasteful plot of dark doings among the blind community is handled without too much gruesome gloating and there's much seasonal fun to be had with the whole thing.

Presented in a crisp black and white print with some tidy extras, including one that allows horror experts Kim Newman and Stephan Jones to discuss Lugosi's UK films in the highly appropriate setting of the Edgar Wallace pub in London, this is a lovely re-issue for a charmingly creepy little gem.

Despite the passing of time, it would seem the eyes still very much have it.

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