Synopsis: At Scotland Yard, a group of Detectives Inspector are being chewed out by their superior. Five bodies have been pulled from the Thames in recent months, and while they are clearly meant to look like suicides, no one doubts they are murders. The Yard is no closer to an arrest than it was at the beginning, and the press is having a field day playing up the ineptitude of the police. Detective Inspector Larry Holt (Hugh Williams) is told to redouble his efforts to solve the crimes – or else. He is instructed to take charge of a prisoner who being returned to London from the United States, a career criminal named Fred Grogan (Alexander Field). Grogan is being accompanied by a Chicago police detective named O’Reilly (Edmon Ryan). Holt’s captain tells him that the Americans want O’Reilly to shadow a British detective in order to learn the methods of the Yard. “I’ll attach him to you,” the captain tells Holt contemptuously. “That way he won’t learn anything.”
Meanwhile, insurance agent and London philanthropist Dr. Feodor Orloff (Bela Lugosi) makes a loan to Henry Stuart (Gerald Pring), a formerly well-to-do man who has had a run of bad luck. Orloff suggests that Stuart sign over his life insurance policy to him as collateral, and Stuart agrees. Orloff talks about his charity work at a house for the blind, and he tells Stuart to visit the house the following evening. As he talks to Stuart, he types out a short note on a Braille typewriter, wraps the note around a coin, and throws it out onto the street, where a blind street violinist picks it up and carries it away.
Later, Holt meets O’Reilly and his prisoner at the railway station, and they head back to Scotland Yard. Once Grogan is taken away to a holding cell, O’Reilly pulls out a rubber hose and recommends the Chicago way of getting information from a suspect: a good old-fashioned beat down. But Holt has other plans. A drunk is put in to the cell with Grogan, and Grogan takes a great interest in the newspaper the drunk has in his coat pocket. Later we learn that the drunk was an undercover policeman placed by Holt. Grogan found a classified ad in the newspaper that had been meant for him alone — an ad written in a simple code that directed him to Orloff.
The next evening, Stuart turns up at the home for the blind. As he enters, a furtive resident pushes a Braille note into his hand. Confused, Stuart puts the note into his pocket. He is greeted by Orloff, who seems shocked when Stuart mentions he has a daughter — Orloff thought he had no living relations. Stuart’s tour ends abruptly when Orloff leads him to a room where Jake, a Rondo Hatton-esque grotesque, is waiting for him.
Before long Stuart’s body is fished out of the river. On a hunch Holt has the water in the man’s lungs tested; it turns out that Stuart was drowned in tap water, not the muddy water of the Thames. And the Braille note in Stuart’s pocket reads simply “MURDER”. Based on this, Holt begins to suspect that Dr. Orloff and the home for the blind are involved, somehow, with the crimes….
Comments: The Human Monster is the clunky American title for British thriller The Dark Eyes of London, and while it’s quite harrowing by 1939 standards it’s also a lot of fun, as these Edgar Wallace mysteries tend to be. Bela Lugosi gets a very juicy bad-guy role as Dr. Orloff, a doctor / insurance agent who runs a home for the destitute blind on the side.
Lugosi usually enjoyed top billing at this point in his career, and he was well-paid for his efforts, but all the same he was often relegated to relatively small or red-herring roles. I’ve always felt this worked against him, making him seem an overvalued commodity by the studios. But 1939 was unquestionably a good year for him. He not only appeared in this thriller, but got to show off his versatility in Son of Frankenstein, and also had a nice non-genre cameo in Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka, playing a stern Soviet official. Had Lugosi sought out more character parts like the one in Ninotchka his career might have played out somewhat better than it did; but for whatever reason — Lugosi’s preferences, his agent’s lack of foresight, or just bad luck — it wasn’t meant to be.
Lugosi’s Dr. Orloff, of course, is running a racket. He sells life insurance policies to people he knows have no living relatives, arranges for himself to be named the indirect beneficiary of their policies, and then has them killed by his goon Jake at the home for the blind, their bodies dumped out the back of the building into the Thames. This obviously leads to a substantial body count which even Scotland Yard can’t ignore. But as luck would have it the stolid Detective Inspector Holt is on the case, with the American Lt. O’Reilly as his sidekick.
I can’t say I’m overly impressed by Dr. Orloff’s scheme. Since all the people fished out of the Thames had purchased insurance policies from his own office, it isn’t difficult to follow the money back to him. It might be that Orloff always expected that the police would eventually catch on to his plan (after all, he has a yacht anchored on the river and a change of identity all ready to go) but it nevertheless seems to be pretty sloppy work.
In my partial synopsis above I didn’t even get to Diana Stuart, the daughter of unfortunate policyholder Henry Stuart, who is played by Greta Gynt. Gynt is a bit of sunshine in this otherwise morbid tale, and she is both a talented actress and a winning screen presence. Unfortunately for Gynt she never quite hit the big time; when she finally moved to Hollywood in the late 1940s the spark that had set her apart had faded a bit and she wasn’t able to make the kind of impression she makes here.