Noir City in 3D

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.

Noir City continues today and Sunday at the Castro.

4 thoughts on “Noir City in 3D

  1. INFERNO is sort of like THE RAZOR’S EDGE in 3D and set in a desert. Lots of existential self discovery in the thoughts of Robert Ryan’s character. Ryan’s daughter (no pun intended) was sitting with Dana Andrews’ daughter– both live in SF.

  2. So how did the digital 3-D presentation look compared to the 35mm dual projector process the Castro formerly used to project 3-D oldies. Just out of curiosity did the digital transfers leave the built in intermissions (complete with “Intermission” title cards, necessary for 35mm presentations where both projectors were being used) intact or were they edited out for a continuous showing. I suspect and hope it was the latter. No use interrupting the continuity of an already short film if you don’t have to.

    1. MAN IN THE DARK looked visually stunning….crisp black and white. Floyd Crosby (yes, Neil’s dad) was cinematographer but clearly nobody gave him tips on 3D so a lot of the effects didn’t work well. There are rules in shooting the format. INFERNO was shot by the great Lucien Ballard and most of it worked well. The color seemed a bit muted but the long, odd history of this restoration may have had something to do with this fact. There were not too many “in your face” effects which is good. Mostly a rich evocation of the place, which in INFERNO’s desert setting was impressive.

      The “intermission” card was in place in, I think, INFERNO, thus confusing people who don’t know about dual projector showings.

      By the way the Grand Lake in Oakland uses two DCP projectors for all 3D showings, making for the brightest, most powerful visual experience around other than the Metreon Imax 3D. AMC Emerybay Imax is pseudo.
      Support the local independent and see 3D films where the Pixar filmmakers prefer to enjoy the format.

      1. Yes, the Intermission card was in Inferno. I suspect the lower image quality came from it being a 2K rather than 4K scan. But that was part of “the long, odd history of this restoration,” as you put it.

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