Saturday Matinee: The Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948)

Movie poster for Night has a Thousand Eyes emphasising Edward G’s precog

The Night Has a Thousand Eyes
Francis William Bourdillon (b. 1852)

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.

Cornell Woolrich, ever popular with the filmmakers, though it did not bring him much happiness. This film directed by John Farrow and starring the singular Edward G. Robinson apparently makes some significant changes to the narrative, but as I’ve not read it yet, I will abstain from commentary. I will say that Curtis Evans’ nice long piece in Crime Reads offers a corrective to the picture of Woolrich offered by Francis Nevins, who never abstained from commentary when he had an opinion that cast the author in a gloomy light. No doubt Woolrich felt bedevilled by fate often: careering from believing destiny intended great things for him to certainty that it meant him ill. This film certainly seems to paint fate as something inescapable even if at times knowable to a few tortured souls.

The film starts out with a great thriller vibe as heiress Jean Courtland (Gail Russell) rushes to out-pace fate and take her life before the horrors can come. She’s stopped in the nick of time by her fiancé Elliott Carson (John Lund) who’s been tipped off by Robinson’s clairvoyant, John Triton. Carson accuses him of driving his beloved to suicide, but Triton can explain and does, effectively stopping the exciting narrative for backstory. It doesn’t do much for the pacing but of course the old life on the spook racket is fascinating for me (now I want to read the novel to see if Woolrich gives away as much as someone like Gresham does: the film certainly doesn’t).

Everything changes the day the faker gets real. The carnivalesque atmosphere presents the act as entertainment, not a mean grift, so when Triton has the real flashes like Claude Rains in The Clairvoyant first it’s to save a little child and to win his friend — the future millionaire and Jean’s father — through a flutter on the horses. But then he starts to worry: is he shaping fate or is fate manipulating him. He decides to test it as his flashes come more often. The first test ends in tragedy. Will he or nil he, fate is inexorable.

He becomes a recluse to avoid knowing people’s horrible fates but when he gets a flash about his old friend, he tries to warn Jean — and then he’s seeing more than he wants to see. His only determination is to see if he can stop it somehow.

While the trip down memory lane slows things for a while, the last part of the film gets pacy again and has a whiff of the ineffable. While the mysterious nature of the images he glimpses may not seem as startling to a modern audience, they’re brought together with skill and Robinson of course makes you sympathise with this man who received a gift he never wanted, trying to do one last good deed before time runs out.

The original Dell paperback cover with a young woman about to leap from a bridge