Deep Black and White
3-D Film Noir of the 1950s
By Ray Zone
The screening of brand new black-and-white prints at the World 3-D Film Expo in September
2003 in Hollywood provided an opportunity to reevaluate three films noir of
the 1950s and to consider their effectiveness as stereoscopic narratives within the
genre. The shimmering new prints were given optimum presentation and it's quite possible
these 3-D films didn't even look this good on their first presentation in the 1950s.
The term "film noir," literally "black film," was first coined
by French film critic Nino Frank when an exhibition of post-World War II American movies
was held in Paris in August 1946 which included The Maltese Falcon (1941),
Laura (1944), Murder, My Sweet (1944), and Double Indemnity (1944). Films
noir were dark, visually and thematically, and featured characters such as con
men, crooked cops, bookies and very deadly femmes fatal. The overriding mood
of film noir was one of paranoia, cynicism and fatalism with stories largely set in
night time urban environments. Sex and violence were also inextricably linked in film
noir, twin threads entangling the protagonist in his inevitable downfall.
Edmond O'Brien was a recurring Everyman in films noir. In the 1950 (2-D) release D.O.A., directed
by Rudolph Mate, O'Brien portrayed Frank Bigelow, a small-town certified accountant
who, on a vacation to San Francisco, is accidentally poisoned and finds that he has
less than 48 hours to live. The story is told in flashback and the film opens with
narration by Bigelow who is dead as the story begins.
After the success of Bwana Devil (which had opened November 26, 1952) Columbia
Studios hurriedly put together their first 3-D motion picture, Man in the Dark,
which opened April 8,1953 as the second 3-D feature film to be released, one day before House
of Wax. Edmond O'Brien was the perfect choice to portray Steve Rawley, a gangster
who undergoes brain surgery to eliminate his criminal tendencies. When the film opens,
Rawley is an amnesiac in a hospital who can't remember his former life.
The effect of the stereoscopic imaging in the opening scenes gives the narrative
an immediacy in which the audience can readily identify with the baffled Rawley. This
same spatial and temporal presence pulls the viewer into the story as Rawley's former
gangster associates kidnap him to find the $130,000 he had hidden away before the operation.
When Rawley meets up with Peg Benedict (Audrey Totter), his former girlfriend, memory
starts to return. He escapes and, with Benedict's assistance, finds the hidden money.
Periodically, an insurance investigator shows up, on the trail of the sequestered cash.
Stereoscopic images of Rawley experiencing a dream on an amusement pier, in which his
memory fully returns, are highly effective.
Flat rear-screen projection is combined with stereoscopic foreground imagery for
a climax on a roller coaster in which Rawley exchanges gunfire with the gangsters. Man
in the Dark was shot in just 11 days using a twin camera rig assembled by Columbia
Studios engineer Gerald Rackett and camera department head Emil Oster. The 3-D unit
used two Mitchell cameras shooting straight on without any prisms or mirrors and produced
pairs of stereo negatives that did not require subsequent reversal or optical treatment.
The two Mitchell cameras were mounted side-by-side with one inverted to bring the lenses
closer together. The film magazines for both cameras were mounted on top.
"In designing this camera, the importance of good 3-D close-ups was considered
of paramount importance," stated Racket in a May 1953 article in American
Cinematographer magazine. "As a result we can make individual head closeups--chin
to forehead--with ease and without any distortion."
Director Lew Landers, working with cameraman Floyd Crosby, shot exteriors for Man
in the Dark right on the Columbia lot using gangplanks and stairways to good
3-D effect. In thematically working through a mood of paranoia and fatalism to one
of moral self-control, Man in the Dark is the narrative inverse of D.O.A.
Rawley is redeemed, not doomed, at the end and the stereoscopic imagery underscores
both the darkness and nature of this narrative progression.
Jack Arnold was the 3-D director of choice at Universal-International and when Kathleen
Hughes was cast in a very brief part in his It Came From Outer Space, released
May 26, 1953, her few minutes of onscreen time were so torrid that she was subsequently
cast as Paula Ranier in the 3-D noir mystery The Glass Web which the studio
released on October 6, 1953 in a 2:1 cropped format they called "Wide-Vision."
"Paula was bad, beautiful and bold as sin," intoned the studio publicity, "and
born to be murdered." Paula is a starlet involved with three different men who
work on a true crime reality TV show. Scenes taking place on the TV sound stage provide
a nice picture of television production circa 1953. Good use of the stereoscopic effects
was made in these scenes with a few well-placed microphones and camera movement through
the TV sound stage. It's paradoxical to see a 3-D movie about television, which by
1953 had decidedly diminished the motion picture audience and was the most compelling
reason why the studios had decided to make 3-D films in the first place.
When Paula turns up dead, her amorous involvement with the three men, Don Newell
(John Forsythe), Dave Markson (Richard Denning) and Henry Hayes (Edward G. Robinson)
becomes apparent. Newell, after a brief fling with Paula, is pulled into an ominous
situation and attempts to hide his involvement with Paula from his wife Louise (Marcia
Henderson). In a clever reflexive twist, the show does a segment on Paula's unsolved
murder. The real antagonist, with his obsession for detail on the TV program, slips
up and reveals himself.
More a straight forward murder mystery than a noir, The Glass Web uses 3-D
that does not call attention to itself except for one long segment in which Newell
walks the city streets, narrowly missing getting hit by a truck, or struck by falling
and sliding objects that protrude dramatically off the screen. It's almost as if Jack
Arnold attempted to dispense with all the 3-D gimmicks in this one extended passage
to be able to concentrate on the exposition of the third act denouement in his mystery
The Universal-International 3-D camera rig, like that of Columbia studios, used two
Mitchell cameras mounted side-by-side with one camera inverted to provide appropriate
interocular distance. A selsyn motor drove linked focus controls with no mirrors or
prisms. Two different rigs were used on the set, one for medium and long shots, and
the other for close-ups.
Clifford Stine, who had filmed It Came From Outer Space, David Horsley,
Fred Campbell and Eugene Polito assisted director of photography Maury Gertsman in
producing fine stereoscopic cinematography.
I, the Jury, released by United Artists July 24, 1953, fits neatly into
the film noir canon. It was based on the hard-boiled novel by Mickey Spillane which,
in its Signet paperback edition (with a sexy cover), sold something like 20 million
copies. Spillane's hard-hitting private investigator Mike Hammer, portrayed in the
film by Biff Elliott, was a loose cannon in a trench coat, and a somewhat caricatural
throwback to the protagonists of the original hard-boiled writers of Black Mask magazine
which included Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, and Cornell Woolrich,
all of whose works formed the basis for the original films noir.
What really makes I, the Jury a significant work of film noir is its 3-
D cinematography by John Alton, the undisputed master of light and shadow who, with
films such as T-Men (1948) and The Big Combo (1955), forever defined
the chiaroscuro look of film noir. In his pioneering 1949 book Painting with Light,
a poetic textbook on motion picture lighting, Alton wrote about creating photographic
depth using light.
"The illusion of three dimensions--photographic depth--is created by a geometric
design of placing people and props, breaking up the set into several planes, and the
proper distribution of lights and shadows," wrote Alton. Later in the book, with
a chapter titled "Visual Music," Alton again addresses the third dimension. "In
real life, the pleasure of visual music is enhanced by the third dimension. Fortunes
have been and still are being spent to put third dimension in professional motion picture
photography: but to my knowledge, the closest we have come to it is an illusion of
depth accomplished by the proper distribution of densities."
Four years later, with I, the Jury, Alton had an opportunity to render space
stereoscopically and with light and shadow at the same time. From the opening scenes,
in which we see a killing take place in the shadows from the point of view of the murderer,
to the final scene, in which we witness Hammer's revenge slaying of one of the most
complicated femmes fatale in all of film noir, Alton made the most of it.
Pitch black on the screen is latent with the malign. A two-fisted assailant may suddenly
leap out of it. Throughout the film, Hammer moves through a stereoscopic visual space
that is dynamically joined to light and shadow, a mirror of moral progression or decay.
I, the Jury was filmed with a side-by-side dual-camera unit built by Producer's
Service of Burbank which used variable interaxial from 1.9 inches to a maximum of 4.5
inches. Built by Jack Kiel and Gordon Pollock, 3-D consultant on I, the Jury,
the twin camera unit allowed for convergence settings and featured interlocked f-stops
and focus so that follow focus shots during filming were very precise.
3-D fans could take special delight with one scene in I, the Jury where
Hammer is made to look through a hand-held stereo viewer by a winsome blonde. The audience
then views the pastoral scene in stereo at the same time as the private investigator.
In another scene Hammer walks past a newsstand where copies of Spillane's Signet
paperback, Kiss Me Deadly, is prominently displayed. Director Robert Aldrich
subsequently adapted this book into one of the greatest of all black-and-white films
noir in 1955 with Ralph Meeker as the tough detective. Mickey Spillane himself was
never happy with the casting of his hero so he essayed the role himself in 1963 in The
As John Alton has shown us, film noir can be eminently suitable for stereoscopic
storytelling. Shadow recedes. Light projects. And there is a gray scale universe of
moral ambiguity in between.