Dead Man's Eyes (1944)

Dead Man's Eyes (1944) is a horror thriller artist-goes-blind murder love triangle film noir from the Inner Sanctum series of the 1940s, starring Lon Chaney Jr and Jean Parker.

Fairly silly and not universally enjoyed, Dead Man's Eyes (1944) is a basic production to say the least, and is fairly static in terms of its acting and direction, and so quite easy to see why it is not so widely enjoyed as other films noir might still be.

Indeed, for a love triangle picture it is even hard to imagine any of the characters having any true feeling for each other, but then in a cinematic landscape where nothing makes total sense, then nothing particularly matters either.

The tropes of noir are roughly in evidence, in the form of scheming couples and an artist working on a portrait, thrust into a weakened state by accidental blindness, but the darkness of the story is never really drawn upon, and the best special effects are reserved for the head in a jar introduction, which is a cute and supernatural, or super-scientific twist on the desk to camera device, loved of much of the more earnest cinema of the era.

The B-movie series in question derived its title from a well-known book series by Simon & Schuster, yet it gained even greater fame through a successful radio anthology sharing the same title. Universal Studios, likely for financial reasons, chose to acquire only the rights to the title, leaving the content of the books and radio series untouched. 

Consequently, producer Ben Pivar had to be resourceful, repurposing available scripts and stories, and even adapting a novel — Fritz Leiber Jr’s Conjure Wife from 1943 — which was the first of several adaptations. 

The eclectic mix of source materials resulted in a series that struggled to maintain a uniform identity. However, a common thread was the presence of Lon Chaney Jr., Universal’s backup horror star after Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.

Chaney Jr. welcomed the role, as it offered a respite from his usual portrayals of iconic monsters such as Larry Talbot the Wolf-Man, Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, and the Mummy.

Chaney Jr.'s character’s most notable trait is his apparent vulnerability, which can sometimes verge on self-indulgent sullenness. Although the narrative often hints at his potential guilt, his portrayal often garners empathy, casting him more as a sufferer than a perpetrator. Without Chaney there would be no movie at all here, and the vulnerability and hangdog self-isolation of this weakened male lead he offers, is what makes it tick.

To appreciate Dead Man’s Eyes, it’s likely necessary to detach from the expectation of a horror film, despite its sensational title and promotional strategy. The plot tells of  a painter, blinded by accident, who is implicated in the murder of a corneal donor. 

The suspects are few, each with clear motives and opportunities, yet the film’s engagement is hindered by lacklustre performances that pale in comparison to even educational films from the 1950s. 

However, a glimmer of hope is introduced through the character of Dad Hayden, who promises his eyes to the protagonist, Dave, upon his death—a promise jeopardized when Hayden is murdered and Dave is accused, setting off a vaguely suspenseful chase. The pursuit to solve the crime is likely only suspenseful on paper, but for the benefit of doubters, perhaps the intent to suspense is not even manifest, as suspense does not entirely arise.

Almost the full cast of Dead Man's Eyes (1944) — Edward Fielding, Acquanetta, Lon Chaney Jr., Jonathan Hale, Jean Parker, Paul Kelly

Edward Fielding and Jean Parker in Dead Man's Eyes (1944)

Paul Kelly and Thomas Gomez in Dead Man's Eyes (1944)

The third instalment of the Inner Sanctum Mystery series, Dead Man’s Eyes, stands out in what is generally held to be a most dull crowd, as Chaney takes on the challenging role of a blind man, delivering a performance filled with believable rage and frustration. The film captivates few viewers with its script, mystery, and direction, maintaining a brisk pace and suspense throughout its one-hour runtime.

Jean Parker in Dead Man's Eyes (1944)

The cast includes Jean Parker, Paul Kelly, Thomas Gomez, Jonathan Hale, and Acquanetta. Despite her limited acting prowess, Acquanetta’s presence is noteworthy, her beauty earning her roles despite her unconvincing delivery. Her cult-like status is bolstered by her brief filmography and the enigma surrounding her.

Thus via the ‘Inner Sanctum’ mysteries, Dead Man’s Eyes emerges as the third act, later joining the ranks of Universal’s esteemed SHOCK! collection, thrilling late '50s television audiences with its classic horror charm. 

Diverging from its forerunners, it stands out as a bona fide whodunit, laced with the grim undertones reminiscent of Mystery of the White Room, the 1939 ‘Crime Club’ enigma that spun a tale of sight regained through a victim’s corneal transplant.

Lon Chaney Jr. returns, embodying the anguished artist Dave Stuart, whose brushstrokes on canvas verge on acclaim. Engaged to the affluent Heather (portrayed by Jean Parker), Dave remains oblivious to the fervent adoration of his striking model, Tanya Czoraki (played by Acquanetta). A fateful mishap with indistinguishable bottles—one an eye wash, the other acetic acid—on the artist’s shelf leads to a catastrophic blunder. The acid’s caustic embrace steals Dave’s sight, a twist of fate that may not have been accidental.

In a turn of paternal devotion, Heather’s father bequeaths his eyes to Dave, only to meet a grim end, leaving the sightless artist to stumble upon his lifeless form. Amidst the incessant quarrels and grievances, this instalment had the potential to eclipse its predecessors, if not for the sluggish pace and lacklustre performances that ultimately dimmed any lustre and of course, by definition brings about the aforementioned lack thereof.

Following her  performance in Jungle Woman, Acquanetta’s return to the screen is marked by a subdued portrayal, her swan song with Universal. Meanwhile, Jean Parker shines in her prime, sharing the screen with legends like Lionel Atwill, Bela Lugosi, and John Carradine in a series of genre-defining roles.

Thomas Gomez, often seen in more villainous roles, brings a characterful depth to the police inspector, a character lacking the rich dialogue of J. Carrol Naish’s Calling Dr. Death, yet surpassing his successors in depth. Paul Kelly thrives as the psychiatrist enamoured with Tanya’s enigmatic allure, echoing his performances in Star of Midnight and The Cat Creeps.

Beatrice Roberts, the radiant Queen Azura of Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars, continues to captivate, her beauty undiminished in a succession of uncredited appearances. And as for Chaney, his portrayal in this melancholic narrative foreshadows the subsequent The Frozen Ghost, which, despite its flaws, boasts a more robust ensemble.

Acquanetta in Dead Man's Eyes (1944)

For your cinephile friends who revel in the dark and moody tapestry of film noir, Dead Man’s Eyes unfolds, steeped in mystery and brimming with potential culprits. Yet, its execution is somewhat rigid, favoring dialogue over the pulse-quickening tension one craves from such a tale.

Lon Chaney graces the screen as the artist caught in a web of desire, torn between the affections of the high-society Jean Parker and the enigmatic allure of Acquanetta. His heart belongs to Parker, but fate’s cruel twist leaves him sightless, compelling him to release her from their betrothal and lean on Acquanetta, whose inadvertent act led to his plight. Paul Kelly delivers a compelling performance as Chaney’s confidant, harboring a silent yearning for Acquanetta.

The plot thickens when Parker’s father pledges his eyes for a posthumous transplant, only to meet a sinister end. Enter detective Thomas Gomez, tasked with unravelling the web of deceit. The climax, though intricate, lacks the electrifying charge expected of such a revelation. Despite the series’ gradual decline in quality, its captivating essence endures, leaving us eager for the subsequent chapters.

Paul Kelly in Dead Man's Eyes (1944)

This retelling aims to capture the essence of the film noir style, offering your friend a fresh lens through which to view the intriguing yet understated drama of Dead Man’s Eyes.

This retelling captures the essence of the film noir genre, weaving a narrative that pays homage to the original while inviting your friend to revisit the shadowy world of Dead Man’s Eyes through a fresh lens.

Thomas Gomez in Dead Man's Eyes (1944)

Wandering into the lobby on the night of the screening, we may have been tempted to look further into this unlikely noir mystery, by the following superteaser taglines, now reproduced here for your wonderment:

MURDERED!... But his eyes lived to condemn his killer...!

Screen's Newest Inner Sanctum Mystery!

Screen's Newest Most Amazing Inner Sanctum Mystery

Dead Man's Eyes (1944)

Dead Man’s Eyes offers a refreshing view of Chaney, unencumbered by makeup and horror stereotypes, showcasing his versatility. The film is a testament to the importance of breaking free from typecasting, providing Chaney a brief respite to explore different roles. For those seeking an engaging mystery, Dead Man’s Eyes is a film worth watching.

Thomas Gomez in Dead Man's Eyes (1944)

Acquanetta, born Mildred Davenport on July 17, 1921, was an American B-movie actress known for her roles in the 1940s and 1950s. She was nicknamed The Venezuelan Volcano due to her exotic beauty. 

Her background is shrouded in mystery, with various accounts of her origins ranging from being an orphaned Arapaho child to a light-skinned African American who may have concealed her heritage due to the racial discrimination of the era12.

Her film career began as a model in New York City, and she later signed with Universal Studios, where she acted mostly in B-movies like Captive Wild Woman and Jungle Woman, portraying a transformative ape. This role attempted to create a female monster movie series with Acquanetta as the lead1. After Universal, she had a brief stint with RKO, where she acted in Tarzan and the Leopard Woman, her only big-budget movie.

Lon Chaney Jr. in Dead Man's Eyes (1944)

Acquanetta’s cult figure status stems from her enigmatic personal story, her unique beauty, and her distinctive roles that left a lasting impression on the genre. Her career was closely followed by the African American press, and her life story, with its various interpretations and the mystery surrounding her origins, has contributed to her lasting legacy as a cult figure in Hollywood history.

Paul Kelly in Dead Man's Eyes (1944)

The name Acquanetta is primarily a female name of American origin that means Water Sprite. Created name from the Greek Aqua (water) and the diminutive name element -etta. Aqua also refers to the water-like blue-green color.

Dead Man's Eyes (1944)

Directed by Reginald Le Borg

Genres - Mystery, Crime, Horror, Noir  |   Release Date - Nov 10, 1944   |   Run Time - 64 min.

Inner Sanctum's unique twist on the Desk To Camera Desk To Camera trope of 40s and 50s noir

Acquanetta as Tanya 'sister of Satan' is a bit much  . . .

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