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Man in the Dark

Man in the Dark(1953)

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Man in the Dark could be the working title of many a film noir, a genre that routinely casts shadows (literal and figurative) over its characters. In this case, the title is something of a pun, as criminal Steve Rawley (stolid, sturdy noir regular Edmond O'Brien) volunteers to undergo experimental brain surgery to curb his criminal tendencies and emerges with his personality softened and his memory gone. But it's not quite a clean slate. Rawley's past comes back in the form of an insurance investigator (Dan Riss) suspicious of the wonder cure and his former partners, who know nothing of his treatment. Rawley masterminded a payroll heist and hid the haul right before he was nabbed, money which was never recovered. When his old partners stumble onto his new situation, they bundle him off to their hideout to get their share. They aren't taking "I don't remember" for an answer, but when working him over doesn't get any results, his former girlfriend Peg (Audrey Totter) tries to seduce it out of him. When it becomes clear to them that he's telling the truth, they keep him captive to help sleuth out the location.

A remake of the 1936 crime melodrama The Man Who Lived Twice, this version takes the story of amnesia into urban noir territory. O'Brien spouts tough-guy wisecracks until he emerges a kinder, gentler soul (he turns to painting flowers during his recovery), Ted de Corsia does thug duty as the gang's heavy (Horace McMahon and Nick Dennis, the va-va-voom mechanic of Kiss Me Deadly, fill out the crew), and the investigator turns out to be a mercenary soul in his own right. When he finds out where the gang is stashing Rawley, he doesn't bother alerting the hospital or the cops, he just stakes out the place in hopes that they'll eventually lead him to the stolen loot. The brutal treatment that Rawley endures is just collateral damage.

Audrey Totter, one of noir's most distinctive dames, enters the film in hard-bitten schemer mode but as she becomes convinced of Rawley's transformation, she softens as she falls for a good guy for a change. O'Brien does a nice job of transforming from a snarling thug to a simple, ordinary guy who is confronted with the evidence of his past, forgotten life as a criminal, and he effectively lets us see his sense of self crumble under the beatings doled out by the gang. The nightmarish dream sequence is both a flashback to a life he can't remember and a puzzle with clues to the scavenger hunt for the hidden loot, and it gives the film its defining noir sensibility: a man paying for crimes he can't recall, brutalized by partners holding a grudge, and imprisoned in a situation he can't escape. It's also a prime opportunity to show off the film's at-the-time unusual gimmick: 3D.

This 1953 production is a true oddity. Not only is it the only 3D film noir, it beat House of Wax to the theaters (by two days!) to become the first 3D feature released by one of the major studios. Not that Columbia put any budget behind the film. B-movie veteran Lew Landers, who spent years cranking out second features for Columbia Pictures, was drafted to direct and given a budget that looks starved compared to Columbia's standard fare but is lavish by the standards of his earlier eight-day wonders. (According to film historian Julie Kirgo in the accompanying essay, this film was shot in 11 days.)

As noir goes, this is light on the visual style--not a lot of dark alleys or shards of light slashing through the shadows, and most of the Los Angeles streets scenes are shot in the bright light of day--and much of the film is cooped up in a crummy apartment done up in basic blah. What Landers brings to the film is a tough efficiency, getting to the point quickly and sketching in the mercenary reality of Rawley's new situation in harsh lines. Finally the film breaks out of the apartment and onto a carnival midway. The bustle of crowds and the bric-a-brac of the sideshow attractions (including a gargoylish dummy laughing at the bitter comedy of it all) crammed into the frame give the film some energy and the action spills out into a nighttime location shoot, where a chase winds up scrambling over the wooden beam latticework holding up a rollercoaster. This is where the shadows start to loom over the film. Landers applies the tricks that every early 3D filmmaker used, starting with the POV of the surgical instruments jabbing through the screen as Rawley goes under for surgery. The most mundane objects are turned into weapons of distraction for 3D but it really gets its workout in the dream sequence, the carnival scenes, the fairground rides, and of course the rollercoaster.

The film was digitally mastered in 4K for 3D Digital theatrical showings, making its restoration debut of Noir City in San Francisco in early 2013 and subsequently touring in select showings around the country, where I was first introduced to the film. Twilight Time's disc offers both standard and 3D editions of the film, the company's first 3D release, but you need a full HD 3D compatible TV, 3D glasses, and a Blu-ray 3D player for the latter. On a standard Blu-ray player, the 3D version doesn't even appear on the menu. The image looks superb, showing off the restoration to its best and reminding viewers how great a well-mastered black-and-white film can look in Blu-ray, even a relatively cheap production like this. You don't need the 3D to get the punch of this noir, but the garish dimensional effects are fun and the digital translation is very good, from the standard clich├ęs of objects jumping out of the screen to the depth of field in the rollercoaster climax. The disc also features Twilight Time's trademark isolated musical score and an eight-page booklet with an essay by Julie Kirgo. Limited to 3000 copies, available exclusively from Screen Archives and TCM.

By Sean Axmaker