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Man in the Dark – The First Major Studio 3-D Movie

Sunday, July 9th, 2017

Man in the Dark – not House of Wax – was the first major studio 3-D movie.

The more you know, the more you know how conventional “history” is often wrong. Warner Bros. produced House of Wax, directed by André De Toth in 1953, and touted it as the first major studio 3-D movie – and it’s an excellent thriller, shot in lush color, with Vincent Price in the leading role, devouring the scenery as usual with his customary professionalism.

But House of Wax was not the first major studio 3-D release. That distinction – sort of like a cinematic horse race – belongs to Lew LandersMan in the Dark, starring Edmond O’Brien, seen above in the trailer for the film, which wisely doesn’t show a single scene from the film in question. Instead, O’Brien admonishes the audience that “you’re not allowed in there” and that the film “of necessity, had to be filmed behind closed doors.”

Landers was a prolific but undistinguished director, who director Budd Boetticher referred to as “a no-talent guy. They called him the ‘D’ director there at Columbia; he just wasn’t any good. Whenever they had a picture they didn’t really care about, they’d give it to Landers.”

Well, that’s probably true, although he directed some good films when left to his own devices, such as Bela Lugosi’s last turn as Count Dracula (in all but name) in 1943’s Return of the Vampire, and much earlier Universal’s surprisingly sadistic horror film The Raven (1935, as Louis Friedlander, his real name).

But on Man in the Dark, Landers was ordered by Columbia studio boss Harry Cohn to crank out the finished film in 11 days flat – an astonishing speed for any film, much less one in 3-D – to beat House of Wax into theaters by two days – a slim margin, but nevertheless, a first for a major studio.

So how is the film? Actually, it’s not bad, with a really bizarre plot, as aptly summarized by critic Glenn Erickson: “convicted criminal Steve Rawley (Edmond O’Brien) volunteers for [experimental brain surgery designed to ‘cure’ his criminal tendencies – in the original script, specifically described as a lobotomy] half-assuming that he’ll not survive. He awakes with total amnesia and a more cheerful personality, and under a new name, ‘Blake’ actually looks forward to beginning life afresh tending the hospital’s hedges.

Steve is instead kidnapped and beaten bloody by his old cronies in crime Lefty, Arnie and Cookie (Ted de Corsia, Horace McMahon & Nick Dennis), who want to know where Steve hid the loot from their last robbery. Steve remembers nothing, and kisses from his old girlfriend Peg Benedict (Audrey Totter) fail to extract the location of the $130,000. But weird dreams provide clues that might lead Steve and Peg to the money everyone is so desperate to possess.”

Shot by the gifted cinematographer Floyd Crosby using a modified version of the Natural Vision system, involving two “slaved” cameras in frame-for-frame synchronization in one blimp to muffle the sound of the camera motor – a rather unwieldy system at best – the film could have been much better than it is. As critic Gary W. Tooze pointed out, “Man in the Dark has a pretty good concept going for it – although, perhaps, not dynamically realized or protected with the dialogue. I could see a strong director taking a hold of this project and really making the most of it.”

Nevertheless, it’s still an interesting project, now available on 3-D DVD. It’s certainly worth your time to check it out, and if it was shot under drastic time and budget constraints, it’s still a genuine cultural artifact. Critic Elliot Stein described the film in The Village Voice as “a rescued gem” and added that Man in the Dark “seems to be the 3-D [film] that most exploits the short-lived medium. An endless array of stuff comes whiffling at your face—a lit cigar, a repulsive spider, scissors, forceps, fists, falling bodies, and a roller coaster. The prolific Landers may not have been a great director, but he was a pretty good pitcher.”

You can see it now on DVD in full 3-D; a genuinely intriguing part of cinema history.

Classic Thriller Portrait of Alison – See It Here For Free

Wednesday, June 28th, 2017

Here’s an excellent little thriller; a tight, compact 77 minutes – see it for free, here.

As Wikipedia succinctly notes,Portrait of Alison is a 1956 British atmospheric crime film directed by Guy Green. It was based on a BBC television series Portrait of Alison which aired the same year. In the United States the film was released as Postmark for Danger.

The film opens with a car plunging over a cliff in Italy. The killed driver is newspaperman Lewis Forrester. The woman with him is supposedly Alison Ford, an actress. But she wasn’t actually in the car and turns up later in England to try and solve what was in truth a murder to shut the newspaper man up, not an accident. She solicits the help of Forrester’s brother, Tim, an artist.

Then, as the story unfolds, a number of mysterious, unsolved questions keep emerging, along with two more murders and a suicide. And before it’s over it has been learned that an international ring of diamond thieves is at the bottom of everything, that no less than four of the major characters are part of it, and that an independent blackmailer is at work as well.”

Filled with superb British character actors such as William Sylvester, who much later got the role of a lifetime in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, as well as Geoffrey Keen, Josephine Griffin, the eternally shady William Lucas as a larcenous used car dealer, and American star Terry Moore brought over for marquee value, Postmark for Danger is a sharp, taut little thriller than will keep you guessing to the very end.

And the best thing about it? You can see it for free by clicking here, or on the image above.

Show Them No Mercy (1935)

Thursday, November 27th, 2014

Here’s a direct link to the Depression era crime film Show Them No Mercy – absolutely worth watching.

Kubec Glasmon, the almost forgotten co-author of the script for Public Enemy, the 1931 William Wellman film that shot James Cagney to stardom, had a real knack for hard-boiled crime drama, and though this film from 1935, Show Them No Mercy, has been unjustly neglected, it’s a stunning piece of work, and you can see it here, now, by simply clicking on the image above.

Produced by Nebraska native Darryl F. Zanuck for his Twentieth Century Film Company, just before he bought out the Fox Film Corporation to create 20th Century Fox, Show Them No Mercy tells the story of a young couple and their infant daughter who seek shelter from a rainstorm in a seemingly abandoned house, only to discover a bunch of gangsters holed up inside, with lots of hot money on their hands. They’ve just successfully pulled off a kidnapping, have $200,000 in ransom money, and want to get out of the country, but the question is, how?

Initially too innocent to realize the danger they’re in, the young couple soon figures out that the group will literally stop at nothing, especially the psychotic trigger man Pitch (Bruce Cabot, best known for his work in King Kong, and absolutely brilliant here in a role based on real-life gunman Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll) and the gang’s suave leader, Tobey (the always reliable Cesar Romero, turning in another top flight performance).

To tell you more about what happens next would be a mistake, but take my word for it – this is a film that has been unfairly overlooked, and at 75 minutes, moves along like a streak of lightning, with an ending that’s still shocking nearly a century after the film was made.

As TCM notes, “the film was inspired by the kidnapping in May 1935 of George Weyerhaeuser, scion of a wealthy lumber family, who was released after ransom money was paid. The ransom money, which the FBI arranged so that the serial numbers could be used as clues, was then traced, and the kidnappers were arrested and sentenced to long prison terms,” but that’s not what happens here. Glasmon’s script follows an entirely different trajectory, leading up to a satisfactorily brutal conclusion.

Suffice it to say that the film raised a number of eyebrows when it was first released, and barely managed to scrape through Code censorship, thanks largely to the adept machinations of producer Zanuck, who was an expert in telling the Code authorities what they wanted to hear, and then doing precisely as he pleased with the film itself. The result is astonishing.

Now you can see the film for yourself – this is a real find!

Harold D. Schuster’s Portland Exposé (1957)

Saturday, November 19th, 2011

Click here, or on the image above, for some scenes from Portland Exposé.

Want to know what the 50s were really like? Forget On The Waterfront. The brutality, the cynicism, the dirt right underneath the surface of respectability, the small town taken over by hoodlums for prostitution, gambling, protection rackets and slot machines? Then take a look at Harold D. Schuster’s Portland Exposé (1957), a cheap, brutal, violent little film shot on location in Portland, Oregon, ripping the lid off the serene little community to reveal it as a hotbed of vice, crime, and official corruption.

Edward Binns stars as a square John just trying to run a roadside tavern with his wife and kids, but soon the syndicate muscles in, and forces him to join the operation, and “juice up” the joint with rigged slots, “B” girls and endlessly flowing liquor. Soon — in an economical 71 minutes — all hell breaks loose. It takes a cheap, rotten film to convey a cheap, rotten universe, and as the film’s tag line screamed, “Not since [Phil Karlson’s] Phenix City Story [a film about a similarly corrupt community in 1950s Alabama] has any film hit so hard…Now, see a vicious empire of vice and corruption blasted before your eyes! The year’s biggest film scoop! The Whole Scorching Story…BRIBE by BRIBE…SIN by SIN…SHOCK by SHOCK!”

Shot in less than two weeks in stark black and white, with cameos from Frank Gorshin as a sociopathic rapist, and Lawrence Dobkin as a smooth criminal kingpin, Portland Exposé, a low-budget effort from Allied Artists, paints a truer picture of the era than the glossy romances and musicals most people fondly remember as emblematic of 1950s complacency. Everyone is on the take, the sweet little old society matron runs the biggest prostitution ring in town, and all the cops are career criminals.

So incendiary was the film’s script that the crew had to rent film equipment in Hollywood, and secretly truck it to Portland, Oregon using non-Teamster trucks, as some of the Teamsters took a real dislike to the film’s depiction of labor’s complicity in the rackets.  Add to that the almost neorealist rawness of the all-location cinematography and direction, and Portland Exposé emerges as one of the most authentic crime films of the 1950s, and well worth a look today for a arguably more accurate depiction of our supposedly halcyon past. And it’s out on DVD!

Underworld U.S.A.

Sunday, August 28th, 2011

Robert Emhardt in Samuel Fuller’s Underworld U.S.A.

“There’ll always be people like us […] as long as we don’t have any records on paper, as long as we run National Projects with legitimate business operations and pay our taxes on legitimate income and donate to charities and run church bazaars, we’ll win the war. We always have.” – Earl Connors (Robert Emhardt), the “Big Boss” in Underworld U.S.A.

Along with Don Siegel, Anthony Mann, Robert Aldrich and a few others in the 1950s American cinema, Samuel Fuller is the poet of brutality, and no film of his is more vicious, to my mind, than his 1961 masterpiece Underworld U.S.A. – perhaps the most ruthless exposé of the corporate criminal gangs ever produced.

As I wrote of the film in Senses of Cinema 52, “Underworld, U.S.A. is arguably Fuller’s most efficient, brutal and unsentimental film, and its reputation has only grown with the passing years. The idea of organized crime as a business was a novelty when Fuller made the film, but as the events of the past half-century have made manifestly clear, this is precisely how the underworld operates, hiding in plain sight under a cloak of false respectability, in this case doing business as the “National Projects” company. Shot swiftly and cheaply, and initially dismissed by the director as “only a quickie,” Underworld U.S.A. offers a compelling vision of American society in collapse, even as it basked in the apparent glow of the post-war boom, and the first years of the Kennedy administration, supposedly an era of unbridled optimism.”

You can read the entire essay here.

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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