Dead Man’s Eyes (1944) **
You’re not going to believe this— I mean, I sure didn’t believe it. You know those Universal “Inner Sanctum” mysteries I’ve been reviewing lately? Well in stark contrast to its predecessors, the third film in the series, Dead Man’s Eyes, is actually a mystery! Like, with clues and suspects and a motive and everything! This is not to say that it’s an especially good movie, mind you, for it’s hard to see how any film in which Lon Chaney Jr. plays a tortured artist and Acquanetta has a speaking part could be. But for the first time since Universal started using the Inner Sanctum name, we actually get a picture that delivers what it promises: an effort to expose a killer by using recognizable forms of detective work.
On the other hand, Dead Man’s Eyes also falls into line with its predecessors by hinging on something considerably stranger and more macabre than the typical whodunit. Painter Dave Stuart (Lon Chaney Jr.) is too dense to notice, but he’s got girl trouble. Sure, his fiancee, Heather Hayden (Jean Parker, from Bluebeard and One Body Too Many), loves him dearly and just happens to be the daughter of easily the richest man Dave has ever met, but Stuart also has a favorite model, and Tanya Czoraki (Acquanetta, of Captive Wild Woman and Lost Continent) is in love with him, too. She’s also bitterly jealous of Heather, and everybody but Dave— Dad Hayden (Flesh and Fantasy’s Edward Fielding), Heather herself, Stuart’s best friend, Dr. Alan Bittaker (Paul Kelly, from The Cat Creeps)— is well aware of the friction. (Bittaker, incidentally, has some girl trouble of his own, in that he is in love with Tanya, but has about as much chance with her as Tanya has with Stuart.) So when Tanya one day switches around the bottles on the shelf above the sink in Dave’s studio so that the acetic acid is sitting in the spot usually occupied by the eyewash, and when Dave gets the two bottles confused and burns the shit out of his corneas as a consequence, you have to ask whether the jealous girl might have moved the acid on purpose. You might also ask why Stuart feels the need to hose his eyeballs down after a painting session, or why the hell he keeps bottles of concentrated acid on hand at the studio in the first place, but neither I nor anyone involved in making Dead Man’s Eyes have any answers to offer you on those scores.
Regardless, Dave squirts acid all over his eyes, and everyone he hangs out with quickly notices that it’s kind-of, sort-of all Tanya’s fault. Ophthalmologist Dr. Sam Wells (Jonathan Hale, of The Phantom Speaks and The Raven) can do nothing to save Stuart’s sight, and although he does mention the possibility of a corneal transplant, he also cautions Dave and his friends that the waiting line for replacement parts is long, and that the odds of a successful graft in Stuart’s case are low enough to make it unlikely that his turn will ever come— priority for the assignment of donor corneas naturally goes to those patients with the best prognoses. Dave falls into the sort of sustained funk that Chaney’s fans will recognize well from his later Wolf Man films, and even goes so far as to break off his engagement to Heather on the theory that with his career in ruins, he stands no chance of supporting a wife in the style to which the Hayden family is accustomed. Tanya starts spending lots of time with Dave, essentially appointing herself his home-care nurse, and again it’s an open question whether she does so purely out of guilt over her role in the artist’s misfortune, or whether she might have planned something like this all along. Meanwhile, Heather’s ex-boyfriend, Nick Phillips (Omoo-Omoo, the Shark God’s George Meeker), starts hanging around again, trying to win Heather back. But much more important than any of that is a decision Dad Hayden makes in the aftermath of Stuart’s accident, and about which he tells everybody who might count as an interested party to Dave’s well-being. Hayden adds a clause to his will donating his own corneas to Stuart specifically upon his death, and while Dave is initially resistant to accepting such charity, Bittaker eventually succeeds in convincing him that he’s just being a whiny, emo knucklehead. Stuart immediately heads over to the Hayden house to mend all of his long-neglected fences.
How bad does it look, then, when Heather comes home from her latest attempt to fend off Nick’s advances, and finds Dave standing over her father’s dead body in the study? Admittedly, blind guys who aren’t named Zatoichi can generally be presumed to have some handicaps when it comes to killing people, but the revision to Hayden’s will obviously means that Stuart has motive out the wazoo. Of course, he’s hardly alone in that. Although Captain Drury (Thomas Gomez, from The Climax and Arabian Nights) clearly considers Dave his prime suspect, Nick Phillips would have much to gain from framing his rival. Or perhaps Tanya got to feeling vengeful once she found out that Dave intended to follow through on his marriage to Heather after all. For that matter, even Alan Bittaker might have seen a chance to profit by making Stuart look like a murderer; with Dave out of the way, he’d have Tanya all to himself. Things only become more complicated when Stuart checks into the hospital to have the transplant performed— not only do Dad Hayden’s eyeballs go missing, but more people start turning up dead.
Like I said, it isn’t an especially good mystery, but it is at least a legitimate one. In his brief discussion of the Inner Sanctum films in American Gothic, Jonathan Rigby described the series as “stubbornly underwhelming,” and Dead Man’s Eyes is a fine illustration of what he meant. It has a brilliantly morbid premise, a tightly constructed story with a pretty clever zinger at the climax and only a little bit of cheating on the detection-and-deduction front, and even a few interesting and halfway-credible characters. Yet even with all that going for it, it still manages to be something of a dud. It’s almost as though director Reginald Le Borg believed that there was a strict upper limit to how much quality was acceptable in a supporting feature, and took pains not to exceed it when working on movies like this one. Cliches rise up unexpectedly in unnatural ways and counterintuitive places, undercutting everything interesting and imaginative that the movie does. Chaney isn’t totally out of his depth (which is to say that his portrayal of Dave Stuart as an unobservant simpleton who has one thing he can do really well is convincing, even if his subsequent metamorphosis into a man who can solve his own frame-up falls flat for precisely that reason), so along comes Acquanetta to compensate with a performance that makes you realize she wasn’t nearly as bad as she might have been in Jungle Woman. And there’s a weird sort of tension in the catching-the-villain scene, almost like Le Borg’s direction was at loggerheads with the thespian instincts of the performer in the culprit’s role. You can easily imagine Le Borg in his folding chair going, “No! Let me see some evil here! You know— evil!” while the poor actor thinks, “But that’s not how my character’s been the whole movie long. Why would I suddenly go over the top now?” It’s frustrating. Dead Man’s Eyes keeps striving with all its might to be better than it is, but its creators seem determined not to let it.