Last night I attended Noir City‘s first ever 3D double bill. Both films, Man in the Dark and Inferno, came out in 1953. That year was both the height of the classic noir period, and the zenith of the first 3D craze.
Actually, it was the only year of the first 3D craze. Hollywood turned to 3D after Bwana Devil became a surprise hit in the fall of 1952. By early 1954, the public was preferring movies in 2D.
Both films have been digitally restored, and were projected off of DCPs. This was my first experience with old 3D movies projected with new 3D technology.
The result? I have a new all-time favorite ’50s 3D movie.
Man in the Dark
This isn’t it. Overall an entertaining little crime thriller with a touch of science fiction, Man in the Dark suffers from the addition of the third dimension.
Edmond O’Brien stars as a violent gangster who, on condition of parole, agrees to experimental brain surgery that will make him a law-abiding citizen. (I’d love to know if Anthony Burgess saw this movie before writing A Clockwork Orange.) The operation also destroys his memory. He has no idea who or what he was before waking up in post-op. The movie never explains why he remembers little things like the English language, or that $130,000 is a lot of money.
That’s how much he stole, then hid, before getting arrested. His partners in crime want their share of the loot. So does an insurance investigator. None of them really believe that he can’t remember anything. Nor are they particularly concerned about his well-being or survival.
The result is a quick, slick, and totally entertaining crime movie, but not an exceptional one.
Except for the 3D. For most of the screen time, the 3D adds absolutely nothing to the picture. It’s just there. But every so often, the filmmakers remind you that you’re watching a 3D movie by throwing something at the camera. Surgical instruments, gunfire, a bat, and a spider all get in your face, taking you out of the story, and–at least with last night’s audience–producing laughs that the filmmakers didn’t intend.
I suspect that movies like this, that would have been better in 2D, ruined the 50s 3D craze.
Now this was more like it. An exceptional story of attempted murder and human survival, set against an unforgiving desert, Inferno is a unique and totally satisfying experience. Directed by Roy Ward Baker and shot by Lucien Ballard, Inferno made better use of 3D than any other pre-digital film I’ve seen.
In fine nourish tradition, an unhappy wife and her lover (Rhonda Fleming and William Lundigan) decide to kill of her rich husband (Robert Ryan) and make it look like an accident. They leave him in the hills above a desert, with a broken leg, while they go looking for help. And when they reach civilization, they give the authorities wrong information, so they look for the missing millionaire in places where he couldn’t possibly be found.
Just one problem: Hubby doesn’t die. Most of the film cuts back and forth between the deceitful lovers and their intended victim, who drags himself across rough terrain, climbs down a cliff with the help of a rope, and walks with a homemade splint, all the while improvising ways to get food and water. (He has no one to talk to, of course, but we hear his thoughts in voice-over.)
So you’re watching two evil people enjoy a life of luxury, while their victim suffers and struggles to stay alive. You know that the tables will inevitably turn. Wondering how that will happen provides most of the movie’s fun.
For most of the film, Baker and Ballard avoid the throw-at-the-camera tricks that make most 50s 3D movies so annoying. Even when a rattlesnake strikes, it sends its venom to something off the side of the screen, not directly into the camera.
The filmmakers use the stereo-optical photography to emphasize the vast emptiness of the desert, adding to the drama rather than detracting from it. Only at the action-packed climax do they throw fists and pieces of furniture at the audience. But the fight is so intense, and so well-choreographed, that the effect enhances the movie rather than hurting it.