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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.

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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