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Destined to become one of Hollywood's most bankable directors in the 1950s, Austrian-born filmmaker Fred Zinnemann graduated from a series of short films to full-blown features with two mysteries in 1942. The first, Kid Glove Killer, is an admirable shot at a realistic, forensics-driven crime drama, while the second, Eyes in the Night, is a standard whodunit programmer distinguished by one novel twist: a blind sleuth hero, led around by a seeing-eye dog. This device was later appropriated in several mystery novels, films, and television series, making this a minor but interesting trailblazer. Edward Arnold (The Devil and Daniel Webster, 1941) stars as Duncan Maclain, a private detective reunited with old acquaintance Norma Lawry (Ann Harding), whose old flame, Paul (John Emery), is now involved with her daughter, Barbara (Donna Reed). When Paul turns up dead with Norma at the scene of the crime, Barbara naturally assumes her mother is at fault; however, Duncan believes otherwise and, thanks to some careful sleuthing, uncovers a nefarious Nazi plot to pilfer American secrets.
A veteran from MGM's shorts department, Zinnemann cut his teeth during the reign of Louis B. Mayer who came to regard the fledgling director and fellow newcomers Jules Dassin and George Sidney as "his boys" (Fred Zinnemann: An Autobiography). The chance to direct features led to a double-punch of thrillers, both with strong casts composed of name actors. However, Zinnemann had little interest in Eyes in the Night, recalling, "I didn't like it much and remember very little about it. I hated the script but liked the writer, Guy Trosper, who also hated the script. The only pleasures were working with the marvelous Ann Harding and with Donna Reed, who was delicate and charming." However, not all of the performers were harmonious - including the human and canine leads. Arnold "couldn't remember his lines and kept blowing take after take; the dog was good for only one take, would then get bored, run away and hide...All this was most useful training for future occasions." Briskly shooting the film in four weeks, Zinnemann nevertheless delivered a crisp, tight, engaging nail-biter, successful enough for Arnold's blind lead character (taken from the much-changed source novel, Baynard Kendrick's The Odor of Violets), to return in a non-Zinnemann 1945 follow-up, The Hidden Eye.
The film also marked a successful comeback for Harding, an established actress in films like Enchanted April and Peter Ibbsetson (both 1935), who left the screen in 1937 to focus on her marriage to conductor Werner Janssen. Unable to resist a return to acting, she continued to work in such studio projects as The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit before retiring permanently in 1956. By contrast, the young Donna Reed had only been in the business for one year, earning supporting roles in MGM's "Andy Hardy" and "Thin Man" franchises but still three years away from her big break in 1945 with The Picture of Dorian Gray and, most famously, It's a Wonderful Life (1946). Unfortunately, the uncooperative dog, Friday (son of silent canine star Flash), failed to earn any more roles after appearing in the next Duncan Maclain mystery.
As for Zinnemann, he continued his tenure at MGM through 1948 and then went independent with Stanley Kramer Productions, a four-picture partnership highlighted by the legendary western High Noon in 1952. The following decade yielded his best work, including such classics as From Here to Eternity (1953), Oklahoma! (1955), The Member of the Wedding (1952), A Hatful of Rain (1957), and The Nun's Story (1959). Though never embraced as a great auteur, Zinnemann consistently displayed an assurance of his craft that made him a reliable helmer, capable of leaping from small, atmospheric works-for-hire like Eyes in the Night to sprawling, all-star epics with the best of them.
Producer: Jack Chertok
Director: Fred Zinnemann
Screenplay: Guy Trosper, Howard Emmett Rogers, Baynard Kendrick (book)
Cinematography: Charles Lawton, Jr., Robert Planck
Film Editing: Ralph Winters
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: Lennie Hayton
Cast: Edward Arnold (Duncan Maclain), Ann Harding (Norma Lawry), Donna Reed (Barbara Lawry), Stephen McNally (Gabriel Hoffman), Katherine Emery (Cheli Scott), Allen Jenkins (Marty).
by Nathaniel Thompson