Life and Death in L.A.: One Step Beyond: Film Noir and the Supernatural

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

One Step Beyond: Film Noir and the Supernatural

Edward G. Robinson, 'Night Has a Thousand Eyes' (1948).

We can all daydream of possessing special powers, because who wouldn’t want greater insight into their life and extraordinary abilities to manipulate the hands of fate? But if there’s one thing that speculative fiction teaches us is that supernatural powers — mind reading, communicating with the dead and other such phenomena — all come with a steep price tag. 

That’s certainly true for mentalist John Triton (Edward G. Robinson) in “Night Has a Thousand Eyes” (1948). He describes his ability to see into the future as something like travel aboard a train. A passenger might see a farmhouse, then a field of corn followed by a pasture of grazing cows. But someone standing on the train’s roof can see all three motifs in one glance. And for better or worse Triton is one who stands atop his own train car as it barrels through the countryside.

That may sounds enticing to some — certainly not to me. But what if those supernatural powers bring about little more than misery and alienation from the people you care about most? That’s a common theme in “supernatural noir,” a blend of film noir and supernatural fiction, two genres that fit together like a dovetail joint. 

In noir, a protagonist is usually alienated from his or her environment and faces crushing circumstances that threaten their very existence. Add unpredictable supernatural forces into the mix and a noir anti-hero gets a double whammy of everyday and otherworldly forces that mean trouble — a dark place to find oneself, indeed. 

As Al Roberts (Tom Neal), the beaten down piano player in "Detour" (1945) says, "Whichever way you turn, fate sticks out a foot to trip you." Noir anti-heroes are destined for failure, and the supernatural  works hand in hand with fate to bring about the flawed character's inevitable downfall.

“Night Has a Thousand Eyes” is one of those noir-tinged leaps into the realm of speculative fiction that in shortened form would fit comfortably in “The Twilight Zone” (1959 - 1964) TV series. Speaking of which, aren’t a lot of “Twilight Zone” episodes especially noir-like?

John Lund, Gail Russell, Edward G. Robinson.
A Charlatan Becomes a Psychic 

It’s odd and somehow fitting that vaudeville mentalist Triton should be gifted with the power to see the future. He’s a fairly successful entertainer with a phony mind reading act who, for unknown reasons, develops supernatural powers. It’s as if  he offended the gods by pretending to be clairvoyant and they are taking revenge by bestowing on him the psychic foresight he’d been faking. Now, he must bear the torment of foreseeing tragic accidents and deaths that befall people around him. That includes not only strangers but also almost everyone in his inner circle. Once it becomes obvious to him that he’s cursed with horrifying powers he begins to wonder whether he’s simply predicting these deaths, or could it be that he’s somehow making them happen? 

Of course, it’s not just tragedy that he foresees. He picks winning racehorses for his piano accompanist and buddy Whitney Courtland (Jerome Cowan) who thinks Triton’s new abilities are just swell. Early on, his powers seem to be a blessing. He helps save the life of a young boy playing with matches who sets his bed afire. But thereafter his predictions grow increasingly grim and depressingly accurate. 

He exists in an existential no man’s land where his “gift” can bring great riches or somehow trigger death and he has little control over which of the two his visions will bring about. Faced with this crisis, he stops using his powers to pick winning racehorses or juicy business opportunities — by and by, Courtland becomes a rich man due to Triton’s psychic insight.

In one of his flashes of foresight he sees doom, and in a panic he abandons his fiancée (Virginia Bruce) and Courtland with no explanation. The only chance of avoiding tragedy, he believes, is to leave and never return. Holed up in a seedy Bunker Hill tenement in downtown Los Angeles, he goes into self-imposed isolation. His room overlooks the Angels Flight funicular that chugs up and down the steep incline. Likewise, he moves through his days with a mechanical repetitiveness, avoiding human contact for it can only bring about tragedy and heartache. 

When finally an opportunity for redemption arrives, it comes wrapped in impending tragedy, so at best Triton can save a life, but in doing so his actions will exact a great cost to himself.


There’s a handful of noirs with a supernatural theme running through them. They include “Alias Nick Beal,” “Night Tide,” and “Ministry of Fear,” to mention a few — I’m sure there are more. What others am I missing? 

Some, like “Dementia,” "The Seventh Victim" and “Cat People” combine elements of horror, film noir and expressionism. More about them in my next post.


  1. I would add Bert I. Gordon's TORMENTED, from 1960. It's on YouTube, so check it out.

  2. Excellent post, Paul! I've only seen this movie once, decades ago, but I think it's time for a rewatch -- I'm always up for a Robinson movie, and I have a very soft spot for Gail Russell. Also, I never thought about it until you mentioned it, but maybe I love The Twilight Zone (and Alfred Hitchcock Presents) so much because they have that noir flavor.

  3. Thanks for your comments! Edward G. Robinson is one of my favorite character actors, as well. He’s always fascinating to watch. I’ll soon be posting more about supernatural noir and horror noir.