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When Arch Oboler's Bwana Devil set off a stampede to promote 3-D as the savior of Hollywood, the first studio picture on screens was a Columbia quickie filmed in record time, on the cheap. Producer Wallace MacDonald had the 1936 amnesia-plastic surgery potboiler The Man Who Lived Twice reworked as a very lightweight noir thriller. Man in the Dark pulled in customers primed by the big publicity push being given 3-D. Warners' House of Wax followed two days later, losing the race to be first but reaping much bigger returns.
The refurbished storyline drops the plastic surgery angle but retains the now- disturbing idea that doctors might use brain surgery to "cure" lawbreakers of criminal tendencies. Convicted criminal Steve Rawley (Edmond O'Brien) volunteers for the operation 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.
Columbia chief Harry Cohn's commitment to 3-D had its limits, as Man in the Dark is a real quickie distinguished only by its cast of noir icons. The adapted storyline is packed with somewhat limp 'smart' dialogue. Indicating how conscious writers of this time were of previous harboiled thrillers. One speech even borrows a line about money "being a piece of paper with germs on it" from Edgar Ulmer's Detour.
Man in the Dark is sometimes listed as a sci-fi movie, owing to its notion of using surgery to correct criminal behavior. If that idea had been developed beyond gimmick status the movie might connect with later sci-fi efforts like A Clockwork Orange. As it is Dr. Marston (Dayton Lummis) merely succeeds in making a blank slate of Steve Rawley's mind. It is just assumed that he's no longer a crook. The doctor sees nothing wrong with wiping out the identity of a human being, but he does object to Rawley being questioned by the insurance investigator Jawald (creepy Dan Riss). Although one would think that Steve's post-operative brain might be a little on the tender side, he suffers no ill effects from the beatings delivered by the sadistic Lefty.
Understandably disenchanted with his new/old cronies, Steve breaks free to get the missing moolah for himself. But can he remember where he left it? Peg Benedict thinks that he's reverting to his wicked ways. The rather confused Peg initially acts as a standard-issue femme fatale, seducing Steve to find a short cut to the moolah. Later, she accuses her former crook boyfriend of 'being himself' and starts complaining that since they're in love they don't need the money.
Some tension arises when Jawald's detective behaves just as slimy as the crooks do -- he's perfectly happy to allow the dangerous fugitives to stay at large and pummel Steve, as long as they lead him to the cash. The subject of crimefighting ethics is dropped like a hot rock, along with any and all questions about the exact nature of Steve's brain operation. We instead get a few back-lot chases and a dream sequence in which Steve and a dozen cops pile into an amusement park ride. While an animated statue of a fat lady laughs, the hallucinated cops pull their guns and shoot at Steve at the same time.
The big finish -- promised in all the ads -- sends Steve on a wild roller coaster ride. Some sources mention the Pacific Ocean Park Pier, but to me the location looks like the Long Beach Pike -- particularly the Pike's massive wooden roller coaster. It can also be seen (from several of the exact same angles) in the same year's The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. 1 A big chase between Edmond O'Brien and Ted de Corsia's stuntmen takes place on the rooftop of Columbia Studios at their old Sunset & Gower location, about half a mile from Savant headquarters. Look closely and you'll spot the first two letters of the Hollywood Sign, and a few seconds later, the distinctive sign for the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel.
Director Lew Landers (Louis Friedlander) made his career by grinding out movies at a blistering pace, averaging about six features a year. The IMDB lists twelve Landers titles for 1942 alone! Landers' direction of Man in the Dark hypes the 3-D by making sure that small objects are thrust into the camera at regular intervals -- medical instruments, guns, spiders, a bird. Variety's review called the 3-D effects the real reason to see the movie. That trade magazine's coverage rather ungallantly suggests that "Miss Totter's figure is a definite 3-D asset." Reviewers made the same promises about the erotic potential of 3-D for their coverage of Universal's It Came From Outer Space.
Edmond O'Brien's career as a leading man was winding down by this time, as was the enticing Audrey Totter's tenure as a top noir siren. Both give solid pro performances, although the baddies Ted de Corsia (The Naked City, The Killing) and Nick Dennis (Kiss Me Deadly, Spartacus) are more fun to watch. The costumers give Dennis the cheesiest-looking striped suit imaginable, which with his wild shock of hair makes a perfect low-rent impression.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray + 3-D of Man in the Dark is a pristine transfer of this oddity, one of only two official films noir shot in the 3-D format. The Academy aspect ratio is correct and consistent with the April '53 release date. An Isolated Score Track gives us the full effect of stock film music rearranged for a movie, rather than composed for it. The work of half a dozen composers blends together unobtrusively.
Twilight Time's first 3-D offering is also a disc debut for Man in the Dark. The trailer included in the package is a teaser item hyping the special shoot as if it were the Manhattan Project. Edmond O'Brien addresses a sales pitch directly at the camera, just outside a stage where the "top secret" film is being shot.
The menu for the 3-D version encoded on the disc comes up only on 3-D disc players, otherwise the disc reverts to the fine-quality flat HD version. The 3-D effect is satisfying, although most shots are not as carefully designed for the process as they are in more expensive pictures. It is interesting that this Columbia show chooses to use a roller coaster ride as a way of showing off its 3-D depth -- the year before, the initial This Is Cinerama launched the mad race for Hollywood to defeat Television by starting with a roller coaster ride. Audiences may not have felt the same jolt, however, as the roller coaser sequence is all done with 2-D rear projection.
Julie Kirgo's liner notes detail the custom rig used to film Man in the Dark, and add some thoughts about the use of 3-D in the dream sequences. This disc will be a sure sell to the owners of 3-D home theater equipment.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Man in the Dark Blu-ray + 3D rates:
1. I welcome corrections on this, if needed. I saw the Pike several times in my childhood. Its roller coaster was wooden, and made of broad planks like the rides in both of these movies. In the pictures I've seen of P.O.P., I thought the roller coaster was smaller and made of tubular steel.
---- Ah, not so fast, Savant: Correspondent Mark Forer knows his roller coasters (2.03.14):
Hi, Glenn: I rode both the Pike's Cyclone Racer and P.O.P.'s "Sea Serpent" as a kid. Before it was the "Sea Serpent" it was the "High Boy" from the late '20s 'till POP re-opened in 1958. I can tell you the coaster in the movie is the "High Boy" at POP. Cyclone Racer was twin-tracked. It can be seen in Eddie Cantor's Strike me Pink as well as in Jeanne Eagels.
The "High Boy" was seen briefly in Gun Crazy, and as the "SS" in the Leave It To Beaver episode Gus And The Net. "High Boy" in action can be glimpsed viewed through the window from the sleazy Ocean Park apartment where the gang is hanging out.
Both coasters were thrilling, especially the Cyclone Racer, billed as "The World's Greatest Ride". There is currently a movement to rebuild it again here in Long Beach.
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T'was Ever Thus.