Have you ever settled in to watch a movie and couldn’t decide whether you want a horror film, a crime movie, an old fashioned murder mystery, a Gothic thriller, something genuinely chilling and even downright grotesque, or maybe even something funny? The good news is that with Alfred Vohrer’s Die Toten Augen von London (The Dead Eyes of London, 1961) you can truly have it all. Though certainly not the first krimi film, an honor that goes to Der Frosch mit der Maske (The Fellowship of the Frog, 1959), The Dead Eyes of London is one of the first few, falling within the 1961-1962 boom when the genre was finding its footing. As such, it’s an ideal starting place if you’re new to krimi films—and unlike many of the later titles, is easily accessible for English language cult cinema fans—as it establishes genre tropes and boasts an early role for Klaus Kinski that is so very Klaus it must be seen to be believed.
Wealthy older men begin to disappear on the foggy streets of London and reappear later in the Thames, drowned to death. Scotland Yard discovers that they all carry sizable insurance policies under the same company. When they also discover messages left in braille, Inspector Holt (Joachim Fuchsberger) suspects that the drownings are a series of murders pointing to “the Blind Killers of London,” a notorious group of criminals. A young woman (Karin Baal) who is able to read braille assists Holt and goes undercover in the church community of a seemingly kind and charitable reverend, who also happens to be blind. But is he really all that he seems? Or does he have a connection with a murderous, monstrous blind man (Ady Berber) roaming the street on foggy nights?
One of the most famous and beloved of the early krimi for a reason, The Dead Eyes of London was based on a 1924 Edgar Wallace novel The Dark Eyes of London, a title also used for English-language releases of the film. Wallace’s novel was adapted as a British Bela Lugosi vehicle in 1939, The Dark Eyes of London aka The Human Monster, an interpretation of the story that emphasized horror elements and which seems to have had an influence on Vohrer’s film. It seems worthwhile to add that the many Edgar Wallace adaptations only used his novels as a loose starting point—though perhaps because it came so early in the cycle, Vohrer’s film is actually a relatively faithful adaptation. This is likely also due to the fact that it was Vohrer’s krimi debut, though he would go on to become one of the most popular directors of the genre and the most prolific, at least for Rialto Film.
Produced by krimi godfather Horst Wendlandt and written by Egon Eis—a man surely in the running for the coolest name of all time—The Dead Eyes of London helped establish many of the conventions that came to define the genre and that made it so popular in its day. Like a conventional detective story, Eis’s script can be talky, but presents a compelling mystery that gains ground in the second half of the film. There is beautiful black and white photography from Karl Löb, making the most of a German location that is supposed to be London (a mainstay of the krimi subgenre that also carried over to several giallo films). Löb’s stark black and white photography perfectly captures the fog-filled nights, ominous, narrow streets, and hidden passageways, giving the film a pleasantly Gothic feel more akin to Universal horror of the ‘30s and ‘40s than to the colorful giallo films to come in the following decade.
In case you missed our introductory article, by all rights krimi films should be much more popular because they serve as a precursor to the giallo film. In The Dead Eyes of London, for example, there are such imaginative and gimmicky shots as a reflection in Kinski’s dark sunglasses, filming from inside a mouth, the shot of an eye through a spy hole, an elaborately staged murder in an elevator shaft, and so on—all elements that would come to feel right at home in films by directors like Dario Argento, Sergio Martino, and Umberto Lenzi. Vohrer took a nod from German expressionism and made clever use of odd angles, uncomfortable close ups, and panning shots. His use of stylish opening sequence—which does not appear in at least one of the available English-language dubs of the film—where the film’s title appears in red over the black and white film, would go on to be used in future krimi films. Vohrer also went off the reservation a bit in the sense that he mixed up the typically jazzy krimi score—from composer Heinz Funk and yes that really is his name—with classical music cut in during key sequences of violence or suspense.
Part of what makes The Dead Eyes of London such a great starting place for the burgeoning krimi fan is that it will introduce you to many of the regular players. Typically, Rialto Film in particular but the genre in general worked with the same cast and crew members throughout the ‘60s. The always dependable Joachim Fuchsberger plays the typical lead, a Scotland Yard Chief Inspector, and if you love his character here, there’s a lot more where this came from. Likewise, Karin Baal, another krimi regular, co-stars as the young, braille-reading heroine, and the two make an excellent crime solving duo. Krimi films typically revolve around a central pair of male detective and plucky female assistant, who sometimes come together romantically but almost always have a flirtation at minimum. (For fans of Italian cult films, Fuchsberger and Baal also appear togethre in Massimo Dallamano’s odd German-Italian krimi-inspired giallo What Have You Done to Solange? from 1972 in somewhat similar roles). Also notable is Eddi Arent, another prolific krimi actor who Christopher Lee fans might recognize from the German-British co-production Circus of Fear (1966). As he does here, Arent often served as comic relief and typically was some sort of assistant to the inspector (or butler or so on) and I personally find him delightful—his characters are not unlike the bumbling policemen or clumsy villagers of Universal horror films.
But the real reason to watch a krimi film is for the villains. There are two great ones here: first, the immense, menacing Ady Berber who has some truly suspenseful moments. He was a wrestler (and looks it) and would pop up throughout the krimi films and some of the Dr. Mabuse series. Second and most importantly: Klaus Kinski.
Need I say more? No, but I’m going to anyway.
It wasn’t technically Kinski’s first krimi film, but he’s so joyous to watch that it’s no mystery why he became such a beloved cult film actor. The Dead Eyes of London helped introduce him to a wider audience and his twitchy, black gloved, dark sunglass-clad villain is something of a precursor to the antagonists of giallo films—which could also be said of the bizarre, yet stylized murders that occur throughout the film. As in those, red herrings abound here, but this is essentially a tight, logical little mystery. Horror elements abound—it has a classy, Val Lewton-like feel and has more of a Gothic influenced than some of the later works in the Rialto series. The set is enriched with creaking floorboards, deep shadows, dark alleys, long staircases, and, most of all, London fog. The murders only occur in this heavy fog, which gives certain set pieces a relationship to German expressionism, early crime films like Fritz Lang’s seminal M (1931), and some of the early Universal Studios classic horror efforts (as I can’t seem to stop mentioning).
A definite air of the macabre and grotesque is highlighted by little details, such as characters with pale, pupil-less eyes and props like a skull that doubles as a cigarette case (where can I get one though). Some of these elements blur the line between the absurd, if not the outright cheesy, like an elevator death scene and a bullet-firing television set (!), which results in some unintentionally humorous moments. These gimmicks would appear in later krimi, as well as Eurocult cinema in general through out the late ‘60s and ‘70s. The film is also surprisingly violent for the time period. While European cinema of the ‘70s pushed many boundaries of sex and violence, West German cinema wasn’t quite there yet in the ‘60s. But what The Dead Eyes of London lacks in eroticism or exploitation, it makes up for with the macabre. There is a basement torture chamber with a variety of unpleasant tools and implements, death by drowning and elevator, as well as the cunning use of a blowtorch—and please tell me how you can resist that?