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3-D or Not 3-D?

They promised “a lion in your lap, a girl in your arms.” Sometimes they delivered more.

Q What did Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Francis Coppola, Raoul Walsh, Walt Disney, Douglas Sirk, Norman McLaren, Edwin S. Porter, Budd Boetticher, the Lumiéres, Abel Gance, and Chuck Jones have in common?

A. They all made three-dimensional films.

Admittedly, there’s some cheating here: Ford merely visited John Wayne on the set of Hondo, and the Duke “immediately sent me out to do some trivial second-unit stuff, a few stunts”; Coppola contributed fifteen minutes of 3-D footage to a 1962 nudie; Gance experimented with, but never used, 3-D scenes for his epic, Napoleon. The others are legitimate, although one would be pushing things a bit far to include, for example, Dial M For Murder (Hitchcock), Gun Fury (Walsh), Taza, Son of Cochise (Sirk), Wings of the Hawk (Boetticher), or Lumber Jackrabbit (Jones) among their directors’ best works. Most of them happened to be under contract in 1953-54—when the 3-D craze swept Hollywood—and fulfilled their assignments; if they mentioned it at all afterward, they indicated little interest in the technique. (Sirk: “It was no help to me.”)

Still, it’s fairly astonishing that 3-D, so often-denigrated, involved so many highly-regarded filmmakers—along with such other notables as George Sidney (Kiss Me Kate), Allan Dwan (Silver Lode), Andre de Toth (House of Wax and The Stranger Wore a Gun), John Farrow (Hondo), Rudolph Maté (Second Chance), William Cameron Menzies (The Maze), John Brahm (The Mad Magician), Richard Fleischer (Arena), and Jack Arnold (It Came From Outer Space, The Glass Web, Creature From the Black Lagoon, Revenge of the Creature).

That alone would make 3-D worth revaluating, but there needn’t be an auteurist legitimization. 3-D is a fascinating technique that never reached its potential, and it’s been the most easily dismissed of all the major innovations in cinema. Look up almost any film-history text, and you’ll find only a few, disparaging paragraphs on 3-D. They’ll probably include the following: “gimmick,” “uncomfortable glasses,” “eyestrain,” “headaches,” “terrible movies,” everything was thrown at the audience.” The standard conclusion: 3-D, like the hula hoop, was an obnoxious novelty, belonging to the faddish Fifties, and fortunately abandoned thereafter.

Actually, 3-D dates back to the earliest years of cinema, and has continued into the present, but it is true that there have been only 160 or so 3-D films (almost half of them shorts), most of which were made in 1953 and 1954. It’s also true that 3-D was often a gimmick, required uncomfortable glasses, provoked eyestrain and headaches, and was used for terrible movies in which everything was thrown at the audience. Therefore one can understand a historian’s reluctance to give it much space. But film theorists also tend to ignore 3-D, which is less forgivable. Images in depth raise questions about realism vs. expressionism, mise en scene vs. montage, and the audience’s relationship to the screen—in short, about the very nature of the film medium. That 3-D wasn’t always used well, and didn’t become accepted the way sound, color, and widescreen did, shouldn’t be of central importance to someone concerned with cinema’s possibilities. Imagine a theorist’s ignoring sound just because the earliest sound films happened to be technically and artistically crude.

* * *

An immense obstacle to the empirical study of 3-D is, of course, the unavailability of prints. Even in their initial releases, many 3-D films were shown largely in “flat” versions—because public interest had supposedly declined so rapidly—which means that there were few 3-D prints of those films in the first place. And whatever did exist might have been destroyed, or buried in vaults. Because showing 3-D is no picnic, most exhibitors wouldn’t be excited about it even if they could easily get the prints; they certainly aren’t willing to make the archaeological efforts that are in fact necessary.

One 3-D film that opened flat almost everywhere, including New York, in 1954 was Dial M For Murder. A 3-D Dial M has long been one of those rarities that film enthusiasts have despaired of ever seeing—but in 1979 it surfaced at Tom Cooper’s Tiffany Theatre in Los Angeles, and this year it made its belated New York debut at the 8th Street Playhouse. As if that weren’t enough, the 8th Street followed Dial M with another 3-D rarity, Kiss Me Kate (which also originally opened flat in New York), and eighteen additional 3-D films (including five shorts)—many of them one-of-a kind studio prints. The theater’s owners, Steve Hirsch and Mark Hofhern, deserve considerable credit for the three-month festival. Even with its recurring technical mishaps, it was extremely valuable for 3-D fans (of which, I may as well admit, I am among the most fanatic) and for scholars interested in coming to terms with the potential of this relatively unexplored technique.

* * *

Hollywood adopted 3-D as a weapon against television, which had been the main culprit in the decline in movie attendance from about 80 million weekly admissions in 1946 to 50 million in 1952. The first big weapon, Cinerama, made its debut in September, 1952, and was proclaimed to have an illusion of depth. The gigantic, curved screen and the stereo sound did give audiences a sensation of being placed inside the picture. But it wasn’t genuine 3-D (“stereoscopy”), which depends upon the principle that each of our eyes sees an object from a slightly different position, and the brain combines the two views to give us our perception of depth, or a third dimension. For 3-D movies, this means photographing two images approximately two-and-a-half inches apart (the distance between the average person’s eyes), and projecting them, simultaneously, the same distance apart. Each image passes through a different filter at the projection window, and the spectator wears glasses, the lenses of which correspond to those filters. Each eye therefore sees only the image meant for it, and the brain combines them for the depth illusion.

3-D films grew out of the nineteenth century’s popular parlor toy, the stereoscope, which, like its successor, the Viewmaster, enabled people to see 3-D still photos and drawings. In 1852, there were attempts to combine the stereoscope with Plateau’s Pheankistiscope—the movies’ ancestor that animated pictures in a mirrored revolving drum. Of course, actual 3-D movies would require the perfection of the cinema itself. In the 1890’s, William Friese-Greene employed a system in which spectators held stereoscopes up to a movie screen containing the paired images, but this was impractical. By 1897, however, experimenters had arrived at the idea of projecting the two images in complementary colors (usually red and green) and having the audience view them through corresponding (red-green) glasses. Known as the “anaglyph” method, it became a standard aspect of almost all 3-D processes until the late Thirties.

Throughout the early years, there were many 3-D inventions, and various exhibitions, including ones supervised by the Lumiéres (1903), and E.S. Porter (1915). A 3-D mini-craze occurred in 1922, with three anaglyph presentations: Movies of the Future (a “Plasticon” short by William Kelley), The Power of Love (the first known 3-D feature), and Plastigrams (several shorts by Jacob Leventhal and D. W. Griffith’s cameraman, Billy Bitzer). Leventhal, seemingly anticipating the Fifties, said, “It was obvious at the beginning that if the exhibitors were to accept this kind of picture, it would be necessary to emphasize the spectacular side and make scenes that would startle the audience.” Also in 1922, there were a few shorts and a feature, M.A.R.S., in the “Teleview” process, for which the spectator used a device with a revolving shutter, allowing each eye to see a different image. Because of its cost, Teleview was abandoned, but the anaglyph technique persisted, with four Pathé shorts, “stereoscopiks” (1925), Abel Gance’s unused experiments for Napoleon (1927) —which, with its three-panel Polyvision sequences, was also a forerunner of Cinerama—and the Jacob Leventhal—John Norling shorts Audioscopiks (1936), New Audioscopiks (1938), and Third Dimension Murder (1941).

In 1932, Edwin H. Land introduced polarizing material, which allows selected waves of light to pass through it, and which eventually replaced the redgreen lenses, making possible full-color 3-D. The first known polaroid features were Beggar’s Wedding (Italy, 1936), and, in color, You Can Nearly Touch It (Germany, 1937). At the 1939-40 World’s Fair, Norling’s fifteen-minute polaroid film for the Chrysler exhibit attracted 1.5 million people—3-D’s largest audience thus far.

An unusual technique developed at that time, the lenticular screen, consisted of thousands of vertical grids onto which the paired images were projected, and gave a depth illusion without glasses. (A related principle underlies today’s 3-D postcards.) Unfortunately, to get the effect, the spectator had to keep his head absolutely rigid. After years of experimenting, the U.S.S.R. approved lenticular in 1941 as its official method, turned over one studio completely to 3-D production, and opened, in Moscow, the world’s first theater designed for 3-D. The Soviets made a number of lenticular films before and after the war, but because of obvious difficulties, the technique doesn’t seem to have caught on anywhere else.

Still, the country’s 3-D films, particularly Robinson Crusoe (1946), sufficiently impressed Sergei Eisenstein, who wrote, shortly before his death, “It is as naive to doubt that the stereoscopic film is the tomorrow of the cinema as it is to doubt that tomorrow will come . . . we foresee that stereoscopy’s potentialities will with time give us new, unheard of qualities in the sphere of expressiveness . . . we should not be afraid of the coming era.”

In 1951, another 3-D theater opened, in London, with five polaroid shorts—in stereo sound—produced by Raymond Spottiswoode. Two were by Norman McLaren: Now Is the Time (to Put on Your Glasses) and Around Is Around, which propelled dots, loops, and abstract shapes toward the audience.

The era Eisenstein had foreseen was indeed on its way.

* * *

In 1952 a Hollywood cameraman, Friend Baker, built a new 3-D camera apparatus at the request of promoter Milton Gunzburg and his brother Julian (an optometrist by profession!). Gunzburg couldn’t interest any studio in “Natural Vision,” but independent producer-director Arch Oboler bought it and made a color cheapie, Bwana Devil. The film opened in Los Angeles in November, 1952, and, despite terrible reviews, did record-breaking business and became an instant legend. Oboler said, “Audiences will not accept less after seeing third dimension. This is the medium that is going to resurrect the motion picture business.”

Apparently agreeing with him, all the studios that had turned Gunzburg down were suddenly scrambling to obtain 3-D equipment and be first with Bwana Devil‘s successor. Warners, perhaps hoping to usher in a new era as it had done in 1927, rushed through a remake of its 1933 film, Mystery of the Wax Museum. In April, 1953, House of Wax, advertised as “the first 3-D film in color from a major company,” opened to colossal business. The Fifties’ biggest 3-D success, War, ironically, was directed by a man who could not see true depth: one-eyed Andre de Toth. That Warners chose him seems like a crazy, only-in-Hollywood story, but his deficiency may not have mattered: the studios now had 3-D technical experts, who, like the sound engineers in the late Twenties, became key figures in all productions. War also had two veteran cinematographers, Bert Glennon and J. Peverell Marley, both of whom went on to other 3-D films. As for de Toth, when someone asked him how he could have directed in 3-D, he replied, “Beethoven couldn’t hear, could he?”

The studios, many of which were still ruled by the men who had been there in the early days of sound, were reliving those days: stopping productions in mid-stream and starting over in the new technique. Columbia had Man in the Dark (which beat House of Wax to Broadway by two days); Paramount had Sangaree. By the summer, almost every studio had 3-D films in release, many, like House of Wax, in widescreen and stereo sound. There were even several 3-D cartoons, including Disney’s Melody, U.P.A. ‘s The Tell-Tale Heart, and ones starring Bugs, Woody, Casper, and Popeye. For a while, third dementia seemed to be everywhere, with 3-D magazines, comic books, bubble gum cards, and songs: Billy Ward and the Dominoes’ “My Baby’s 3-D,” which proclaimed, “You don’t need no glasses to see what she is puttin’ down.” You did need them for the movies, and Polaroid, which used to make a few thousand pairs a year, was, by May, turning out 12 million a week. Louella Parsons declared, “Nothing since the atomic bomb has struck the industry with such force.” Paramount, slightly less hyperbolic, claimed, “Beyond any doubt, it has established itself as far more than a fad or a novelty . . . a permanent, powerful medium for bringing the full depth of life to the screen.”

* * *

Well, not exactly beyond any doubt. Some industry people and many critics did consider it a fad, and complained about the elevation of dramatic effects over effective drama. One producer joked that his next film would be in 4-D: “It means that I’m using 3-D and I’ve got a story too.” Gloria Swanson said, “3-D will be a flash in the pan . . . The only real future for films is in developing some kind of box to collect money for movies on TV.”

Her second prediction would take some time to be realized; but by late summer, 3-D was indeed running into box-office trouble. Hollywood tried to satisfy moviegoers’ complaints by providing more comfortable glasses, and exhibitors’ complaints by developing ways to print both images on one strip, thus avoiding the two-projector system. But few theaters seemed interested: many of them were already showing the films flat, and proudly advertising. “No glasses needed!” In October—only six months after House of Wax‘s release—an industry spokesman said, “Every studio in Hollywood agrees that the 3-D vogue is practically dead.” Public and industry interest had shifted to Fox’s CinemaScope, which had premiered in September with The Robe. It was really a scaleddown Cinerama, but Fox’s ads stressed depth, through slogans (“The New Dimensional Photographic Marvel”) and illustrations of characters emerging from the screen. The biggest selling point: “The Modern Miracle You See Without Glasses!”

Hollywood pumped more production values into 3-D films, to little avail. In October, Those Redheads From Seattle, billed in Los Angeles as “the first 3-D musical,” opened just a few days later in 2-D. That month, The New York Times, reporting on the box-office decline, said that Hollywood was banking on four new films, the most expensive in 3-D thus far: Kiss Me Kate, Miss Sadie Thompson, Dial M For Murder, and Money From Home. But a few weeks later, Kate opened in New York in a flat version, and of the others, only Sadie was shown in 3-D. In 1953, there had been more than sixty 3-D features and shorts; in 1954, there were fewer than twenty-five, with most switching to 2-D.

By 1955, 3-D was already a relic, and Universal was considered bold in attempting a “revival” with Revenge of the Creature. The film ended up playing flat almost everywhere. 3-D went into limbo until 1960, when Fox combined it with CinemaScope for September Storm, another flop. There were anaglyph sequences in both The Mask (1961) and the nudie Paradisio (1962), and polaroid sections in The Belt Girls and the Playboy (1962), Coppola’s epic. In 1966, Oboler returned with The Bubble in Spacevision, a refined, single-strip polaroid process; despite reportedly excellent 3-D, it quickly vanished.

3-D had a reasonably healthy life in the Seventies, however, most notably with The Stewardesses (1970), which cost $100,000 and earned $7 million in rentals, and Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein (1974), which returned $5 million in rentals on a $300,000 investment. There were single-strip re-releases of House of Wax (1971) and the double-billed It Came From Outer Space and Creature From the Black Lagoon (in the inferior anaglyph format, 1973), 3-D porno films for various persuasions (Prison Girls, 1972; Ram Rod, 1973), a Chinese martial arts spectacular (Dynasty, 1977), an underwater short (Sea Dream, 1978), and experimental films by Ken Jacobs and others. But Oboler’s second comeback, something called Domo Arigato (1974), doesn’t appear to have had a U.S. release. And what ever happened to Tony Anthony’s multi-million dollar H.H. Han and the Cajun Queen (1978), which involved, according to Variety, “22 special effects technicians,” as well as “22 assorted girls from France” and a new computerized 3-D system?

* * *

What killed 3-D in the Fifties? One logical answer, which I’ve never heard, is that Hollywood may have been happy to use the first signs of even a mild box-office decline to rid itself of something
that had become a burden to produce and sell—and that had been built on the shaky foundation of a single hit in the first place. After Bwana Devil, the studios had forced themselves into competing largely because they heard that the other studios were competing—a snowballing process that found Hollywood itself buried under an avalanche of ridicule and exhibitor dissatisfaction. That the whole thing was embarrassing to Hollywood is evidenced by the technical Oscars for 1953: one for Cinerama, two for CinemaScope, and none for 3-D.

The technical (and aesthetic) problems shouldn’t be minimized, however; judging from the 8th Street festival, they may always have been severely understated. To start with 3-D’s biggest obstacle: those damned glasses are annoying. They don’t fit well around regular eyeglasses or larger-than-average heads. Scratches and fingerprints on the lenses detract from the 3-D. The glasses, along with the projection filters, cause a significant light loss, which accounts for some of the eyestrain. If you sit too close, the image loses some depth; sit in the back and you get the optimum depth effect, but you’re subject to people moving in and out in front of you, which causes you to lose your sense of the image’s perspective. If you tilt your head fifteen degrees or more, you see double images and a considerably lessened 3-D—eventually none at all. Although it isn’t necessary to remain rigid, Russian-style, you do lose the effect if you lean your head on someone’s shoulder. I don’t think it’s facetious to suggest that things like that could have contributed to 3-D’s decline. You have to make an effort to watch it.

The double-projector system is a nightmare. Although the projectors are interlocked, one of the prints can skip, which throws the film out of sync, creates strobe movements, ruins the 3-D, and leads to more eyestrain. If the film breaks, the projectionist has enormous difficulty re-aligning the images, and usually doesn’t succeed. If he has to remove torn frames, he’s supposed to splice in black frames to keep the two prints equal in length; if he doesn’t put in the correct number, the film remains out of sync. And the black frames are distracting, since they momentarily flatten the image.

A more subtle but still maddening problem occurs when the two prints aren’t lined up precisely on the same frame at the start, which happened at almost every showing in the 8th Street Playhouse series (usually in the second half). It affects movements: actors seem to blend into the far background, or, conversely, protrude unnaturally from the screen. With the single-strip, one-projector method, the same thing occurs if the film is incorrectly framed, because the two images are stacked vertically on the print. If the framing is off in the other direction, the picture becomes totally inverted: what’s supposed to be in is out, and vice versa. To see the 3-D properly, you have to reverse the angles of the polarizing filters—that is, watch with the glasses held upside down!

As for the films themselves, most of them do indeed fall short of the artistic peaks, and depend too heavily upon sensationalism. 3-D’s two big claims were: 1. that it put you in the picture (Inferno‘s ad: “You are trapped in the great Devil’s Canyon!” Second Chance puts you so close to the lovers you feel everything they feel”), and—since #1 was difficult to achieve—2. that it threw the picture out at you. Bwana Devil started things rolling (out) with its famous claim, “A lion in your lap! A lover in your arms!” (Personally, I don’t care for the order.) House of Wax‘s ads promised, “Its thrills come off the screen right at you!” And that ad for Inferno shows lovers extending from the screen, over the heads of the audience—one peculiarity of which ad, incidentally, is that no one in it is wearing 3-D glasses.

3-D shattered the complacency of every child who had learned that you didn’t get hit if you wore glasses. From the moment we put them on, the screen assaulted us with whatever wasn’t nailed down. It was the era of the gratuitous point-of-view shot: we were suddenly placed in the eyes of characters for almost no reason other than that they were about to be attacked. A select list of the items thrown, thrust, or poked out of the 8th Street’s screen: arrows, balls, bananas, bats, birds, breasts, buzzsaws, cablecars, corks, corpses, crotches, crutches, derrieres, feet, fireworks, fish, flames, flowerpots, frisbees, gorillas, guns, guts, hands, hatchets, heads, insects, lava, legs, ostriches, poles, reptiles, rocks, scalpels, smoke, spears, swords, syringes, torches, trapezists, yoyos—and, most frequently, knives and water. By not showing The Charge at Feather River, the festival missed out on 3-D’s most symbolically assaulting moment—Frank Lovejoy spitting tobacco juice at the audience—but we did get beer spat at us in Prison Girls.

* * *

Then what’s so great about 3-D? For one thing, all of this bombardment (except perhaps for the spit) is fun: it reminds us that gaudy, circus-like spectacle was one of cinema’s roots. We’re witnessing the infancy of a new form of expression, which its creators are proudly (and rightfully) showing off. After all, even the first important narrative film, E.S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery, had a startling closeup of a cowboy firing into our faces—a moment so blatantly gratuitous that exhibitors were told they could insert it at the film’s start or finish, or both! 3-D may be a cinema for masochists, but so is the horror film, which is one reason the two have been so compatible. In both cases, part of the ritual of being scared involves a realization immediately after the scare that “It’s only a movie,” and a delight in the very mechanism that frightened you.

It wasn’t only 3-D’s assault, but the very solidity and depth of its images that restored a sense of wonder to movies. At every showing, you can still see 3-D neophytes experiencing an excitement akin to that felt by audiences in 1896 as they saw pictures actually move on a screen, and in 1927 as Al Jolson told them, “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!” And after the novelty has worn off, 3-D still provides something fascinating to look at, even in the most ordinary kinds of movies. This in fact was one of Hollywood’s purposes in using it: to spice up the average films, which audiences had deserted much more than they had the prestige productions with large budgets, exceptional scripts, and big stars.

Harmon Jones’ Gorilla at Large (1954), for instance, about as ordinary a movie as one can find, has some extraordinary uses of depth, including a mirror-maze sequence (probably derived from Lady From Shanghai) in which the 3-D enhances the confusion of surfaces, reflections, and depths. The 8th Street Playhouse couldn’t get a complete 3-D print, and when the film’s final twenty minutes came on in plain old 2-D, we were experiencing an entirely different medium. The inane script, generally uninspired direction, and dull performances (by, among others, newcomers Anne Bancroft and Lee Marvin) stood out in relief because the images didn’t.

With its sculptured faces and objects, extreme deep-focus shots, complex compositions involving several distinct planes, diagonals dynamically integrating foregrounds and backgrounds, and vertiginous high angles, 3-D enlivens other mediocre films, such as Lew Landers’ Man in the Dark (1953), Rudolph Maté’s Second Chance (1953), John Brahm’s The Mad Magician (1954), and Roy Del Ruth’s Phantom of the Rue Morgue (1954). Curtis Bernhardt’s Miss Sadie Thompson (1953) is a silly, semi-musical version of Maugham’s Rain, reworked into a Rita Hayworth vehicle, but it’s filled with lovely deep-focus compositions placing people against a richly colored island setting, the stereoscopic spaciousness of which emphasizes its potential liberation for Sadie. And the film’s central conflict between the sacred and the profane is embodied in a deep-focus shot extending from the church’s front row in the extreme foreground to the adjacent saloon—to which Sadie is attracting most of the congregation—in the extreme background.

Most of House of Wax isn’t frightening, but there’s one spellbinding scene in which the wax figures burn, their heads melting and falling off in the immediate foreground—an effect that depends on the uncannily life-like quality of their faces, and is therefore not as chilling in 2-D. Later on, the camera dollies alongside a woman fleeing the Vincent Price character; she runs past a wall, and then, abruptly, the wall ends and we experience her isolation as the space opens up to the overwhelmingly vast, empty street extending far beyond her. Similarly, in Roy Baker’s Inferno (1953), a man’s isolation as he struggles to survive alone in the desert is heightened by Lucian Ballard’s deep-focus shots in which seemingly infinite expanses of empty terrain stretch on all sides—and, in one harrowing scene on a mountainside, beneath his feet.

3-D is a major factor in the effectiveness of these kinds of situations, but antagonists have argued that it isn’t necessary—that films have always been able to create an illusion of depth through lighting, wide-angle lenses, camera movements, and the traditional methods of perspectival art (including one object’s obscuring another behind it, parallel lines converging toward the horizon, and objects appearing smaller, and colors less intense, in the background). But it’s not the same as a stereoscopic image, just as looking at the world with one eye closed isn’t the same as using binocular vision: because of conditioning you can still perceive depth, but everything is much flatter.

The anti-3-D arguments recall those once advanced against sound: that it would corrupt pure film, and that silent films had successfully created the illusion of sound anyway. In 1933, Rudolph Arnheim—one of the few theorists to take 3-D seriously—criticized sound, color, 3-D, and widescreen, each of which, he feared, would bring film another step closer to the mere reproduction of reality. Instead, Arnheim believed, films should be abstractions from life, and the very limitations imposed by the flat, narrow, monochromatic, silent screen freed artists to create—to interpret reality. Arnheim realized that sound was a fait accompli, and he even grudgingly accepted color, hoping that filmmakers would learn to use it artistically. But 3-D was unacceptable: “There is no longer a plane surface within the confines of the screen, and therefore there can be no composition on that surface; what remains will be effects that are also possible on the stage . . . formative devices such as montage and changing camera angles will become unusable . . . a change in the position of the camera will now be felt as an actual displacement within the space of the picture. The camera will have to become an immobile recording machine.”

The way the studios promoted 3-D in the Fifties indicates that they did perceive it as bringing the screen closer to reality—in fact, as dissolving the barriers between the two. Some filmmakers did indeed talk about the need for longer takes, and to avoid anything that would detract from the realism; excessive cutting, for example, would annoy the audience, which would have to keep adjusting to the new perspectives of each shot. By these standards, 3-D films would naturally have led to an emphasis on mise en scene, to a “window on the world” approach—to the kind of realism André Bazin advocated in his praise of deep focus.

But Arnheim needn’t have worried. While 3-D is undeniably realistic, it’s at least equally anti-realistic. The tension involved in almost all moviegoing—between believing that the screen image is a record of something that actually happened and recognizing that it’s a staged, manipulated piece of artifice—is accentuated with 3-D. The technique continually calls attention to itself, even at its most “realistic” moments. The objects coming out of the screen vanish into the air just as they’re about to strike us (as a little boy in front of me during House of Wax discovered when he tried to catch the balls hit at him). In addition, the very act of piercing the invisible fourth wall of the screen acknowledges the existence of that wall, altering our relationship to the screen’s world. That scene in House of Wax begins with a barker paddling a ball toward a crowd. Suddenly, he turns toward us, says, “There’s someone with a bag of popcorn,” and ostensibly tries to hit the bag. It’s an overt admission that 3-D film characters recognized what film characters normally ignored (except in certain comedies—Marx Brothers, Crosby-Hope, Tashlin-Lewis, Tom Jones): the presence of an audience, observing their performance through that fourth wall.

The entire experience of watching 3-D movies keeps us from completely suspending our disbelief. We perceive extraordinary depths, but are simultaneously aware of the screen’s surface (because of scratches and dirt on the film or screen). The glasses, the vertical head position, the eyestrain, the intermission (required in even the shortest features to allow reloading of the projectors), not to  mention the synch problems, remind us of the process and detract from our involvement in the film’s “reality.”

* * *

3-D has other inherent artificialities,  one of which is that actors and objects, protruding slightly, appear to flatten out abruptly at the edges of the screen. (Otherwise, they’d really be extending into the audience!) In the Fifties, filmmakers were supposed to avoid this by placing all action firmly behind the “window” (the plane where things begin to protrude). The exception, of course, would be an object hurtling out, which the audience would perceive as coming from that clearly established area on the window’s far side. But even some of the early films—notably Inferno, The Mad Magician, and Kiss Me Kate (1953)—break the rule, and allow things to spill over near the corners and sides. The recent films go further, placing characters and parts of settings almost throughout on our side of the window. In some films, it’s probably sloppy technique, but in others, especially Paul Morrissey’s highly stylized Frankenstein (1974), it seems a deliberate strategy to exploit the medium’s unreality.

Similarly, in several films, there are lateral camera movements in which protruding objects suddenly appear, then flatten out as the movements continue past them: for example, House of Wax‘s pan through a room where skeletons, heads, and other hanging items unexpectedly loom in front of us. Or characters sometimes enter from below the frame, backs to us, as if coming out of the audience—somewhat the reverse of the intrusions into our space. In House of Wax, Charles Bronson rushes forward, apparently from a few rows in front of us, to attack a man in the background of the shot. As with objects thrown at us, we’re simultaneously startled by these effects and aware of their artifice.

Because 3-D requires that we focus our eyes on various planes, some filmmakers make it easier by focusing selectively to begin with: a closeup would have a blurred background, for example. But many of them keep several planes in focus, or even use extreme compositions in depth (e.g. Inferno, Sadie Thompson), forcing us to do demanding eye exercises. We continually shift focus in the everyday world, of course, but not usually within such a confined rectangular viewing area. Once again, therefore, the 3-D experience departs from reality. Considering that Fifties directors talked about maximizing audience comfort with 3-D, it’s surprising that most of their films contain exaggerated foreground-background separations. Perhaps, rushing into production, they didn’t have a chance to grasp the techniques, but I’d prefer to believe that they were playing with, and delighting in, those exaggerations.

In any case, the results, though clearly different from what one gets from composing on a flat surface, are considerably more expressionistic than Arnheim could have envisioned. In one shot in Kiss Me Kate, Ann Miller dances in the far background, while a man plays bongos in the extreme right foreground. With the flat version, we’d probably register the drums on the periphery as an interesting graphic element, and concentrate our gaze on her dance in the upstage area. In 3-D, the drums jut out into our faces, asserting their presence so forcefully that they split our attention for the shot’s duration. They seem to be there mainly to demonstrate 3-D’s ability to create drastically separate planes. Further, Miller is dancing in front of mirrors, the reflections adding depth beyond her plane. Mirrors and other reflective surfaces appear throughout Kate, and in many other 3-D films, generally for the same reason: Man in the Dark and Mad Magician, for instance, use them self-consciously to augment depth.

The Seventies films are extremely stylized. The Stewardesses (1970) becomes almost a test of perception, in a sequence where a woman’s sexual fantasies are superimposed over her on a distinctly separate plane. In that film and in Prison Girls (1972), erotic statues and other intriguing objects stand out in extreme juxtaposition to sexual activity way in the distance. Frankenstein, the most playful 3-D film, continually counterpoints background action with prominent foreground objects, some of which (a fish tank, a toy merry-go-round) have distracting movements as well. The film seldom gives our eyes a rest. At one point we look at a mirror (foreground plane) and see a reflection, in its depths, of a couple having sex (background plane), and, through scraped-away sections of the mirror, two children peeping (middleground plane); this requires such an effort to sort out that it takes the film into an almost abstract realm.

Spacevision, in which Frankenstein was filmed, is an advanced process that at times seems to detach things completely from the screen (corpses, body organs), and float them a few feet away from us. Murray Lerner’s Sea Dream (1978), a visually exhilarating Spacevision short made for Marineland of Florida, has the most drastic perspectives of any 3-D film; fish and other creatures apparently swim in the middle of the theater, while the ocean floor seems to extend miles into the distance. It’s at once the most realistic 3-D film (because of the illusions of vast space) and the most artificial (those fish aren’t really swimming in mid-air).

3-D’s tendency toward expressionism may indicate that directors preferred to emphasize its distortions over its realism; actually, even Orson Welles did that with deep focus (as James Naremore, contradicting Bazin, has pointed out). It may also show that despite 3-D’s longevity, it’s still in a formative stage: each new film seems to be starting afresh, showing off to prove what it can do. In this respect, 3-D has remained where sound was in the Thirties, and one might compare the overt manipulations of its illusions with the early sound experiments that historians cite most often: the counterpoints in René Clair’s Le Million and Fritz Lang’s M; the “knife” dialogue in Hitchcock’s Blackmail. This doesn’t make any of the 3-D films a masterpiece. But in considering them, it’s useful to ignore Aristotelian priorities and concentrate not on their plots and characters but on what they tried to do with spectacle.

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The best 3-D films—Kiss Me Kate and Dial M for Murder do happen to have interesting plots and characters; they also prove that in the hands of intelligent directors, 3-D can be exciting visually, relevant dramatically, and an integral part of thematic expression. Kate—in which the relationship between two performers parallels that of the characters they’re playing in a musical version of Taming of the Shrew—is about the intersection, confusion, and, ultimately, inseparability of life and theater. The characters perform in “real life” as theatrically as they do on stage: both the film and their play are stylized musicals. George Sidney and cinematographer Charles Rosher express this idea through the use of frames within the screen’s frame, so that offstage events continually take place under proscenia: windows, doorways, mirrors. The effect is especially pronounced in 3-D, because of its visual counterpoint between the realistic depth and the artificial playing areas within it.

Sidney also keeps reminding us that we’re experiencing a staged reality (the film itself). As usual, characters pierce the fourth wall by assaulting us, most blatantly in the stage show’s prologue (not even in the 2-D version), but there are also several shots actually placing us behind members of the audience as they look toward the stage: where our heads end, theirs begin. This was the only time a 3-D film really gave me the sensation of being part of the screen’s world. Perhaps it works so successfully because instead of pretending to put us in a desert or in bed with stewardess, it puts us where we already are: inside a theater watching a performance.

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Dial M for Murder also presents life as theatrical performance. Each character dissembles at least once, and the central figure’s almost constant polished playacting manipulates and charms everyone, including the audience. Many Hitchcock characters play roles, sometimes even to the extent of being consumed by them (Ballantine/Edwards in Spellbound, Judy/Madeleine in Vertigo, Norman/Mother in Psycho); but in no other Hitchcock film, except perhaps Rope, is the setting itself so theatrical. Almost the entire film takes place in one room, which 3-D, especially in full shots, renders very stage-like. The world outside consists largely of process shots, whose artificiality is more apparent than in any other Hitchcock film, because they’re completely flat in contrast to the vivid 3-D foregrounds. Whether or not Hitchcock intended it, this backdrop effect enhances the idea of the apartment as an isolated, self-contained stage.

Hitchcock told Francois Truffaut that in making this adaptation of a Broadway hit, he was “playing it safe,” and that neither the material nor the 3-D (apparently imposed by Warners) excited him: “There isn’t very much we can say about that one, is there?” The abundance of talk does make it rather atypical for Hitchcock, and, despite his fondness for technical challenges, his working in 3-D is an odd idea: of all directors, he was probably the most adept at thinking purely in terms of the screen’s two-dimensional rectangle rather than the actual space in which he worked. Nevertheless, the film is engaging, not only because of Frederick Knott’s witty dialogue and cleverly constructed plot—in which ex-tennis star Tony Wendice (Ray Milland), arranges the murder of his rich, unfaithful wife Margo (Grace Kelly), then frames her for murder when she kills the attacker in self-defense—but also because of Hitchcock’s and cinematographer Robert Burks’s continually inventive use of 3-D.

The apartment appears much more spacious in 3-D than in 2-D, but, paradoxically, this actually emphasizes the sense of enclosure; it’s as if the screen had opened to its fullest depth only to tease the characters, who still have little breathing room. Hitchcock clutters the frame with furniture and bric-a-brac, establishing barriers between characters and cutting off their space. His major strategy is to place objects in the extreme foreground of many shots: bottles, glasses, boxes, teacups, bedsteads, flowers, the phone, and (most frequently) lamps, the glares of which set off the film’s general lack of natural light and its spiritual darkness.

In the 2-D version, the objects appear mainly as decorations in a baroque mise en scene; although they’re certainly distracting, we easily look past or through them to the middleground and background action. In 3-D, they’re so solid—and, like Kiss Me Kate‘s drums, so much closer to us than everything else is—that they attract a large part of our attention. Hitchcock seems to be suggesting the overwhelming dominance of possessions, or just plain junk, over emotions in his characters’ lives; and, since he has set up so many imposing obstacles to our involvement in the drama, we share his detached viewpoint, in which people, with their petty activities and deceptions, seem not much more important than things.

As in other films, Hitchcock often focuses the drama, and embodies meanings, in specific objects. Tony must steal a key from Margo’s purse, which is in front of her. In 2-D, the purse almost blends in with her similarly colored dress. In 3-D, however, it stands out, on a distinctly separate plane. This highlighting contributes significantly to the scene’s suspense, and—since suspense here has to do with our wanting to see the ingenious scheme work—to the film’s considerable moral ambiguity. 3-D was a logical extension of what Hitchcock had done with foreground objects in previous films (e.g. the glass in The Lady Vanishes and the coffee cup in Notorious, both containing drugged drinks); the added dimension gave him an even greater opportunity to manipulate the audience’s attention and emotions.

One might have expected Hitchcock to take advantage also of 3-D’s assault capabilities, since he’d attacked the audience many times in 2-D: the water crashing through (a screen, in fact) in Foreign Correspondent; Farley Granger punching us and Robert Walker kicking us in Strangers on a Train; and, in a moment as gratuitous as anything in 3-D cinema, the gun firing into our eyes in Spellbound. But in his only 3-D film, he avoids such assaults. Perhaps, as some have pointed out, the material really didn’t warrant thrusting objects out of the screen, but it may be that Hitchcock restrained himself so that, when the one crucial break through the wall occurred —during the attempted murder—it would have maximum impact.

The scene’s powerful effect derives largely from the seesawing of the audience’s allegiances, a familiar Hitchcockian process that is heightened by 3-D. Previously, the film’s only identification figure has been the husband, primarily because of his cleverness; now Hitchcock intensifies our involvement in the crime by having us identify with Lesgate (Anthony Dawson), the hired murderer—through point-of-view shots and through a buildup of the suspense as Lesgate, hiding in the Wendice living room, waits for the phone call that will awaken Margo. At one point during the delay, he almost leaves, thereby seeming to deprive us of the climax to which the entire film has been heading, and we’re relieved when the phone finally rings. Hitchcock now cements our identification with Lesgate: as Margo answers the phone, the camera dollies behind her, placing us firmly in his point of view, and on his plane, at the moment he raises the scarf to begin the assault.

During the ensuing struggle, we switch our allegiance to Margo for the first time in the film. Rapidly edited closeups enhance the violence of Lesgate’s strangle hold and the agony of her attempts to break free. Then, as she’s pinned down on the desk, there’s a startling cut to a medium long shot; although this momentarily detaches us from the immediacy of the struggle, it actually intensifies our involvement with her, because it’s here that Hitchcock provides the dramatic break through the screen. Margo reaches backward, toward the camera and decisively into the audience—a gesture that is partly a manifestation of panic and partly a groping for something that can help her. As a recent Soho News film critic has observed, Margo seems to be imploring us to hand her a weapon: “It’s one of the few times a 3-D effect made the audience collaborators in the film rather than victims of it.”

Although the effect doesn’t make the audience victims in the usual 3-D-attack sense, she is assaulting us, or at least pointing at us accusingly. We’re guilty of having wanted to see her in this vulnerable position. We came to the film expecting thrills, and the first third has kept our interest partly by promising a strangulation. Because we recognize our complicity in Margo’s ordeal, and because her supplication/accusation has such force (especially in 3-D), we do “collaborate” by going along with her as she takes the scissors and stabs Lesgate. But the seesaw moves in the other direction: her act turns out to be as repugnant as the original attack, denying us a cathartic release. Hitchcock emphasizes that the killing is anything but clean with a series of increasingly closer and more gruesome shots, as Lesgate twitches spasmodically with the scissors in his back, then falls onto them, causing the blades to plunge farther in. In the final, extremely close shot, he’s almost protruding from the screen. 3-D has thus enabled Hitchcock to push the sickening result of all of this right into our faces, and therefore to enhance our discomfort at having been involved in both Tony’s plan and Margo’s self-defense.

The entire scene shows that, despite Arnheim’s fears, 3-D did not prevent the full utilization of the cinema’s resources, including tilted angles (of Lesgate by the window), dollying (around the desk), crosscutting (from the phone booth to the living room), expansion of time (showing the actual mechanism of the phone call), rapid editing and panning (during the struggle), and, in general, exciting juxtapositions of shots (low and high angles, long shots and closeups, objective and subjective viewpoints). As Arnheim predicted, the shifts in camera position do give us the feeling of displacement within the space, but these rapidly changing perspectives contribute much to the scene’s dizzying, hallucinatory effect.

One can guess that Hitchcock would have used 3-D even more creatively in his later films. Imagine 3-D with the shifting foreground-background perspectives of Rear Window, the camera’s twists and turns and the vertigo effect itself in Vertigo, the sudden overhead shots in North by Northwest, Psycho, et al., and most obviously, the shower murder in Psycho and the birds flying toward the camera in The Birds.

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It’s tempting to speculate on what might have happened if the cinema had in fact taken a radically different course back in 1954, and 3-D had become an accepted technique, or, like color, had eventually taken over completely. Would our awareness of the artificialities and the technical problems have faded into the background? (After all, it wasn’t long ago that color was considered artificial.) Would film have developed along different lines in the Sixties, or might 3-D have been incorporated into zooms, rack focusing, hand-held shots, and TV commercial-style supermontage? And what would all those great films made since 1954 have looked like? Wouldn’t 3-D have heightened the expressiveness of, say, the opening of the door onto Monument Valley in The Searchers, the wide-angle distortions and camera movements in Touch ofEvil, the interplay between reality and the photographic image in Blowup, the climactic psychedelia in 2001, and the foreground-background complexities in Nashville?

In the meantime, there are enough actual 3-D films that need to be unearthed. The 8th Street Playhouse’s festival was successful enough to justify other series, which might showcase films that weren’t shown last time, unless they’re all lost. Still to be revived: the films by Sirk, Walsh, Boetticher, and Dwan, as well as Hondo, The Charge at Feather River, The Bubble, and Bwana Devil, among others.

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Does 3-D have a future? The Eighties promises to be a time of continued experimentation with holographic films, which will drastically change the audience’s relationship to the screen, since there won’t be any screen. Ever since 1969, when films and holography were first joined, we’ve heard promises of a coming holographic movie era. But the problems seem insurmountable, both in shooting (to illuminate a small studio would require a laser of more than two million watts) and in projecting (at present, only a few people can be accommodated, in something like a peepshow arrangement). 3-D television seems a closer reality. In the D.O.T.S. system, now operating in Australia, people viewing without 3-D glasses see standard TV images that have slightly blurred foregrounds and backgrounds; with red-green glasses, the blurs turn into 3-D, although the middleground remains flat. It doesn’t sound like good 3-D, but cable stations may very be trying it out in the U.S.

3-D has traveled some distance since the silent days, but perhaps what D. W. Griffith said in 1922 is still relevant: “The true stereoscopic effect will add a mighty force to motion pictures. It will make them beyond any comparison the most powerful medium of expression of which anyone has dreamed. We are, of course, in what will be called the early experimental stage of such development . . . before the stereoscopic film is generally used, it will be necessary, it seems to me, to have a period of preparation for the audience, which will take many months, if not years.”

Sixty years is a long “period of preparation.” Now let’s get on with it.