One of the more popular genres of literature in interwar London was crime fiction, and one writer became synonymous with London crime stories of this period: Edgar Wallace. Wallace was a born and bred Londoner who worked as a journalist before becoming a full-time fiction writer. At the end of his life he moved to Hollywood to write for the talking pictures. Wallace wrote over 175 books, a number of which were adapted for the screen.[i]
The consumption of written fiction experienced a boom in interwar Britain due to a convergence of several factors. Levels of literacy increased as a consequence of the 1918 Education Act which raised the school leaving age to 14. Penguin books costing sixpence each were first printed in 1935. Improved working conditions and legislation generally led to people having more leisure time in which to read; and reading became a common activity on the daily commute.
Wallace published the novel The Dark Eyes of London in 1924. In the story, Inspector Holt of Scotland Yard is approached by a young lady, Diana. Diana suspects that her wealthy father has been murdered for his life insurance money, on the orders of a criminal who pretends to run a charity home for the blind. The story was turned into a film in 1939, under the direction of the experienced Walter Summers. Although Wallace is credited as a co-writer, he passed away in 1932, so had no active involvement in the film’s production
The film version of The Dark Eyes of London is notably heavier on the horror elements than the original story. The murders of the old men are undertaken by one of the criminal’s henchmen, Jake, who is ‘disfigured’ and appears as a semi-Frankenstein’s Monster. The film was released in the US under the title The Human Monster, to further underscore the body-horror elements. In the UK it was awarded a rare ‘H’ certificate by the BBFC which restricted its audience to those aged 16 and above. Most notably, the criminal mastermind is played by legendary horror actor Bela Lugosi, in a rare appearance in a British feature.
The Dark Eyes of London was shot at Welwyn Studios, a small studio in the new Garden City which was explicitly designated for the production of thrillers and second features (ie features shown as part of a cinema programme but not expected to be the main attraction).[ii] Walter Summers was no stranger to bringing the horror atmosphere to film.[iii] In short, The Dark Eyes of London had all the ingredients to become a British exponent of the pulp horror genre; and the finished product leans into this heavily.
Its genre tropes serve to obscure the underlying xenophobia and ableism on which the film’s story is reliant. Lugosi’s character is called Dr Orloff; a name clearly intended to signal an unspecified Eastern European descent. In Wallace’s original story the equivalent character is called John Dearborn. Like many British interwar films, the criminal element is marked as foreign, reflecting increased anti-foreign sentiments that circulated in the run-up to the Second World War. The threat Orloff brings to the British nation is signalled right from the film’s opening, when his eyes are superimposed over a shot of Tower Bridge. At the end of the film the foreign threat is neutralised and the union of the British couple, Inspector Holt and Diana, is celebrated.
The treatment of disability in The Dark Eyes of London is even more explicitly problematic. Two types of disability are shown in the film: Jake, Dr Orloff’s henchman, has unspecified ‘deformity’; and Dr Orloff himself pretends to be blind. Jake’s appearance is intended to horrify the audience, with fake teeth, rolled-back eyes and a hunchback. He is also mute and his level of intelligence is left unspecified. He is possibly the ‘Human Monster’ to which the US title of the film refers – he certainly features prominently on the film’s poster.[iv] Jake is the one who commits the murders on Orloff’s direction; he is presented as having no free will and no understanding of right or wrong. At the film’s climax Jake turns on his master and kills Orloff before conveniently dying himself.
There are clear echoes of Frankenstein and his Monster here, but without the nuanced consideration of free will and agency of that novel, The Dark Eyes of London simply reduces Jake to a spectacle. His appearance bears no relation to real-life disability. The other characters variously treat Jake like a servant, animal, or child, reinforcing a narrative that those with a physical appearance that deviates from the norm do not need to be treated like equals.
The depiction of blindness in The Dark Eyes of London is markedly different. Orloff pretends to be blind to escape suspicion from the police, as blind people are assumed to be severely limited in their mobility and therefore unable to conduct criminal activity. The film’s plot heavily leans on the use of braille as a way of transferring covert and criminal messages. This is presumably the reason why Wallace chose for his criminal mastermind to be running a home for the blind. The blind are depicted as being separate from the rest of society, in their own community that cannot be penetrated and that may be devious. Although Orloff’s pretend-blindness is condemned because he uses it to evade criminal investigation, it is not treated as morally objectionable.
Had it not been for Lugosi, who continues to have a dedicated fanbase, The Dark Eyes of London would likely have been forgotten. It uses horror genre tropes which allows the audience to put it in the same bracket as other B horror films from both sides of the Atlantic. However, these generic conventions hide underlying assumptions about which kind of people are the heroes (white, British, able-bodied) and which kind are villains (foreign, disabled). Some of these generic elements were specifically introduced in the film adaptation of the story, reflecting both the increasingly anti-foreign sentiments in the late-1930s and problematic visual cues used in cinema of the period, more generally.
The Dark Eyes of London is available in full on YouTube.
[i] According to Jeffrey Richards, 33 of Wallace’s books were turned into films in the 1930s alone. Jeffrey Richards, Age of the Dream Palace: Cinema and Society in 1930s Britain (London: IB Tauris, 2010), p. 254
[ii] Steve Chibnall, Quota Quickies; The Birth of the British ‘B’ Film (London: BFI, 2007), pp. 26-27
[iii] Ibid., p. 100.
[iv] Bela Lugosi is not pictured on the US poster at all despite having top billing.