Friday, January 24, 2014

MAN IN THE DARK: Blu-ray (Columbia 1953) Twilight Time

First doesn’t always equate to best. Case in point: Lew Ander’s Man in the Dark (1953) – a ‘C’-grade film noir melodrama of monumental absurdity, made even more tedious by Columbia’s insistence that it be shot in stereoscopic 3D. The film marked Columbia’s foray into 3D and was, in fact, the very first 3D movie released by a major studio; beating out the debut of Warner Bros.’ superior House of Wax by just a scant 48 hours.  For the record, Bwana Devil was ‘the first’ 3D movie to be released; made a full year ahead through United Artists; the little independent that could. For the most part, the craze that briefly was 3D seems to have had a negative effect on just about every movie shot in the process; film makers’ hell bent on exploiting the gimmick at the expense of telling a good – nee, even competent – story. Man in the Dark isn’t anything like a good story, or even a passable film noir, despite the casting of noir veterans, Edmund O’Brien and Audrey Totter to headline its cast.
Bottom line: the George Bricker/Jack Leonard screenplay is a malodorous schmazzle, incongruously stitched together from the most pedestrian clichés in the noir movement (a man on the lam and his gun moll who reforms at the last possible moment). It would make an enterprising scientist like Dr. Frankenstein blush to witness just how much wasted talent is expended on this vain attempt to breathe life into such a noisome experiment.  ‘Substandard’ effectively summarizes the writing. But it also – ironically – speaks to the performances. Both Edmund O’Brien – as the thuggish Steve Rawley and Audrey Totter (his fallen angel, Peg Benedict) behave as though they’d rather be sipping Cuba Libres poolside at the Beverly Wilshire, while the supporting cast - Ted de Corsia as Lefty, Horace McMahon as Arnie and Nick Dennis as Cookie – tragically overplay their hands; a trio of ambitious hams looking rather rank and amateurish.  What we’re left with then is 3D, that snappy little trick played on the eye to give depth – superficially speaking, of course – to this pancake flat little nothing of a narrative.  
Ennui sets in almost from the moment the credits begin to roll. In short order, we’re introduced to Steve Rawley, a hardened criminal and the forced resident of a secluded clinic where apparently scientists are allowed at will to play God with any patient’s mind.  Having escaped a prison sentence for his latest payroll robbery, Rawley’s fate is ironically more perilous and improbable. For the brainbox behind this experimental surgery is determined to perform a sort of Jekyll and Hyde operation on Steve that effectively erases his memory. It’s unclear why Steve would agree to any of this, or who is footing the bill and taking the…uh…ethical responsibility…for this unorthodox tinkering with the whole works. Steve does, in fact, resist when the moment is upon him, subdued by a trio or orderlies who inject him with a powerful tranquilizer before wheeling his incoherent remains into surgery most foul. Awakening some time later, presumably a ‘new man’ dedicated to goodness, Steve is encouraged by the placid Dr. Marston (Dayton Lummis) to take up gardening; a hobby this new Steve finds therapeutic.
Too bad for Steve; his old time gang, now fronted by Lefty, wants their cuts from the stolen bankroll. While private insurance investigator Jawald (Dan Riss) spins his wheels, rummaging through seedy bars in the hopes of uncorking a submersed memory that will lead him to the hidden cash, Lefty, Arnie and Cookie kidnap Steve from Marston’s clinic right under the watchful eyes of the law. A harrowing car chase ensues, the gang rather easily escaping to their hideout where Steve is reunited with Peg. She cannot wait to pick up where things left off…well, sort of. Unfortunately, Steve has no recollections; not of the robbery, or who these kidnappers are, or even his presumably hot and wild nights with darling Peg. Wow! That’s some operation!  Lefty repeatedly threatens Steve with bodily harm. Peg has her go at him too. Each is unsuccessful at rekindling the past.
The whole ‘house arrest’ scenario that occupies the first third of our meandering tale is rather idiotically realized. Given Steve’s reluctance to play ball with these old-time cronies, they nonchalantly afford him the run of the apartment without supervision. Steve even manages to make it to a telephone in the front hall (only a few feet away from a card table where the gang are cheating one another in a game of poker) before Lefty realizes Steve is trying to call for help. The next day, Steve is taken to the house he once owned – now boarded up – to jog his memory. It’s a fairly swank abode turned to chalk and dust in a remarkably short time and looking like the remnants of a haunted house; Steve making another perfunctory and even more laughable escape attempt before being tackled by Arnie.
From here the plot only becomes more offbeat and off-putting as our failed anti-hero begins to suffer through a series of stereoscopic enhanced nightmares juxtaposed with flashbacks of Steve’s torrid liaisons with Peg and tethered tidbits about the robbery and Steve’s failed rooftop escape from the law that began this tawdry little affair. The chief problem with Man in the Dark is that it seems to paint its' narrative into a corner at every possible opportunity.  Messrs Bricker and Leonard must have missed the first day of screenwriting 101 because Man in the Dark has more fitful stalls than a beat up jalopy, turning to 3D for its salvation – or perhaps, simply as an afterthought to escape the embarrassment of their failed plotting.
As Steve bumps around in the dark – literally and figuratively – he inadvertently ignites a deeper passion within Peg who cannot make up her mind whether to run away with Steve anew (or, at least, the man he has since become) or throw him to the proverbial wolves: Lefty, the mob, Jawald and the police. It all ends in the predictably favorite sweet spot for many a noir thriller; the amusement park (herein, Santa Monica’s Ocean Park) with Steve desperate to elude Lefty and his men who have given up on waiting for Steve’s memory to kick in. Hunted through the garish fairgrounds, with ad nauseam inserts of an audio-animatronic clown annoyingly cackling and careening back and forth; Steve shimmies up - then down - the rickety boards of a roller coaster, toppling his adversaries to their death from its flimsy apex as the rocketing coaster cars, full of unsuspecting patrons, come dangerously close to him.
The finale to Man in the Dark is about as senseless as movie endings get. Steve, presumably exonerated of his crime – at least in the eyes of the law - is reunited with Peg who has since reformed to the ‘good girl’ – or, at least, giving a reasonable facsimile of one. Jawald – who previously set his sights on recapturing the stolen bankroll – fluffs off his failed errand instead, turning to a nearby cop and sardonically asking “Brother, can you spare $30,000 dollars?”  If this is Bricker and Leonard’s attempt at an ‘all’s well that ends well’ scenario then it is one of the weakest ever conceived for a major motion picture; vapid, silly and vacuous to a fault.
A big problem with Man in the Dark is that it completely fails to adhere to the time-honored precepts of the traditional film noir crime/thriller. The good guys aren’t nearly as good in their pursuit of the ‘criminal element, while the bad guys are just milquetoast regulars, drinking from the fountain of underworld espionage as a casual afterthought in between talking up a storm about pulling off the ultimate high-stakes robbery. Each character ricochets in their intent and purpose. If Lefty’s sole reason for kidnapping Steve is to squeeze the truth from him for the loot at all costs, then why is Steve allowed to roam the apartment and thereafter lead Lefty and his boys on one wild goose-chase after another?
Today, Steve would be tortured with thumb screws and hot coals or have a bullet put to his brain. But Lefty and his pals aren’t hardline Mafia or even second string thug muscle; just good ole boys with Damon Runyon-esque accents who have quite sincerely forgotten where they left their brass knuckles. Peg’s motivations are even less clear. Is she still in love with Steve or cold-heartedly trying to worm her way into the hidden location of the money? Is she in cahoots with Lefty or working this angle for herself? Hmmm. We’re never quite sure and neither is Audrey Totter, it seems; the actress’s usual sure-footed command for playing the proverbial femme fatale utterly lacking herein.  
At every turn, Man in the Dark appears extremely uninformed about its purpose. The story is incidental to the gimmick of 3D, used to rather campy effect throughout. We get too many close-ups of fists, cigars, forceps, spiders, roller coaster cars, gun barrels and their like pointed directly into the camera with the obvious effect incurred; each jumping out from the screen and into our laps. But the 3D doesn’t enhance the story so much as it remains something apart and/or removed from the central narrative. We’re meant to enjoy the stereoscopic illusion for its own sake and forget about plot and character development (who needs them?!?); the film’s dénouement a cursory postscript tacked on without fanfare or even logic.  If Man in the Dark were a demo reel for the 3D process it would not necessarily be a bad one. Unfortunately, the film is masquerading as one of those ‘ripped from the headlines’ crime stories about the seedy folk of Los Angeles doing despicable things to one another. Too bad Man in the Dark is no L.A. Confidential (1997)! It commits Hollywood’s unforgiveable sin. It fails to entertain us.
No one can fault either Grover Crisp at Sony or Twilight Time’s Blu-ray release of this forgettable lemon. This is another stellar transfer given ample third-party distribution. Frankly, with all of the catalogue titles in Sony’s backlog yet to make it to hi-def I cannot understand how Man in the Dark rates such preeminence – even as a limited edition. But the B&W image looks exquisite throughout, with exceptionally balanced tonality, superb contrast and a startling amount of fine detail rendered.  There are a few very brief moments where the image appears ever so slightly soft in focus. There’s also a fleeting glimpse or two of age-related artifacts. But for a film of this vintage, Man in the Dark’s transfer sparkles. It’s as near to reference quality as one might expect. The DTS mono audio is equally vibrant. As with other Twilight Time releases, we get an isolated track featuring Ross DiMaggio’s orchestrations of some of the studio’s stock music. You can’t really call what’s here ‘a score’ per say, but it’s a fascinating listen nonetheless. We also get the original theatrical trailer.
Bottom line: Sony continues to maintain its integrity in the hi-def market place with this release, giving tired old chestnuts no less consideration than they have Lawrence of Arabia. Such devotion to virtually ANY movie in their catalogue is highly commendable.  If only other studios would take the hint and a cue from the good people at Sony and start to release their vintage movies with equal care and quality it would be a very happy 1080p world indeed. I’ll simply conclude with a note to any Sony executive who may be reading on the other end of this review. How about some Frank Capra coming down the pipeline (Lost Horizon, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, It Happened One Night, et al), and some Rita Hayworth (Gilda immediately comes to mind). Personally, I’ll get in my digs for Theodora Goes Wild (1936), Holiday (1938), The Talk of the Town (1942), Only Angels Have Wings (1939), The Awful Truth (1937) and some vintage Three Stooges shorts. I think after reading this brief list we can all agree Sony has a lot more to offer the consumer in hi-def than Man in the Dark! Just an opinion, of course, but I’ll stake it against most anybody’s.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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