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Dark Eyes of London

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Based on Edgar Wallace's 1924 detective novel, the film "The Dark Eyes of London” (1939) is more thriller than horror—though half the fun is in watching Bela Lugosi make his character as sinister as is possible without a cape and fangs. Titled "The Human Monster” in its 1940 U.S. release and "The Dead Eyes of London” in its general international release, the film follows detective Larry Holt (Hugh Williams) as he investigates the drownings of several men who held life insurance policies with Greenwich Insurance, the company the Dr. Feodor Orloff (Lugosi) just happens to run.

It could be said that Edgar Wallace was the John Grisham of his day, with more of his novels made into movies than any other 20th century author, thanks in large part to the Danish outfit Rialto Films, which obtained rights to most of Wallace's novels. Decades after his death, numerous adaptations of his books flooded European movie and television screens and even inspired a subgenre of German-language films called Kriminalfilm ("Krimi” for short). He is credited with contributing to the concept and doing some of the writing for the original "King Kong” (1933), but he died before the project was completed.

Both the novel and the film make use of the Thames River to creepify the atmosphere and provide a handy place for the villain to dump corpses—just part of the Dickensian tradition of depicting this waterway as a polluted and dangerous reflection of the dark side of the human psyche. The river's reputation was well-earned. In the early 1800s, countless Londoners contracted cholera from bathing in and drinking from the waters into which the city's untreated sewage flowed. In 1858, the overwhelming stench of the river forced Parliament to dissolve its proceedings after attempts to neutralize odors by hanging lime-soaked curtains failed. In 1878, approximately 600 people died from the sinking of a pleasure craft—not from drowning or injury, but from diseases caught in the toxic Thames.

If Edgar Wallace and "Dark Eyes” director Walter Summers could visit the Thames today, they would likely be shocked that it has become an environmental success story. After decades of an aggressive clean-up campaign, the Thames is now one of the cleanest rivers to flow through a major city anywhere in the world. According to National Geographic, seals, bottlenose dolphins and even seahorses have been spotted once again near the point where the river flows into the North Sea.

But don't worry—as an estuary that shifts about 30,000 tonnes (1,000 kgs) of sediment per year, London's Thames may be cleaner, but it still appears as opaque, broody, and as likely a spot for dead bodies to appear as ever.

The Science

Kraig Johnson

Dr. Kraig JohnsonCivil engineer Kraig Johnson discusses waterway cleanup and the film “The Dark Eyes of London.”


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