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Up from the Depths

It’s taken some time, but at last a couple of the major studios are getting around to applying the new generation of digital 3-D technology to the stereoscopic films of the 1950s. The results are superb in the case of Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray 3-D release of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Dial M for Murder” — with the color properly graded and the image stablized, the film’s restrained depth effects show up better than they have in decades in the available 35-millimeter prints. Universal’s 3-D presentation of “Creature from the Black Lagoon” — for the moment, available only as an extra in their Blu-ray “Classic Monsters” collection — isn’t quite as impressive, but there’s no comparison between this new version and the hideous red/green anaglyph prints that have been making the rounds for years. Hitchcock’s film points to expressive properties of the medium that few subsequent 3-D directors have explored, while Jack Arnold’s “Creature” remains a superior sideshow attraction — a distinction I try to develop in my New York Times review for this week. And for a very full account of the production and distribution of “Dial M,” hop over to Bob Furmanek and Greg Kintz’s site, 3-D Film Archive.

UPDATE: The 3-D Film Archive article on “Creature” is now up here, and includes some criticism of Universal’s occasional misalignment of the left/right elements.

66 comments to Up from the Depths

  • nicolas saada

    1:66 was the standard ratio for most of Walt Disney pictures after the widescreen emerged. It kind of contradicts the idea of 1:66 being a “european arty” ratio as opposed to 1:85 being the studios ratio. To my knowledge, DISNEY PICTURES is not an auteur factory, but it seems that their Blu Ray releases emphasize on using 1:66 to respect the original theatrical release of these movies. Same sith some early bond movies of the 60’s which a re a far cry from THE TRIAL or L’ECLISSE. A cap from the 1:66 Blu of From Russia with Love:

  • This is an exciting chain, and I learn a lot about DIAL M FOR MURDER that I did not know before. When Stefan Drössler from Munich Film Museum visited our cinema last spring with his magnificent lecture show about the history of 3D in cinema he expressed a wish that more contemporary film-makers would venture 3D with a subject like DIAL M FOR MURDER. For instance, Roman Polanski’s CARNAGE might have been exciting in 3D.

    I love 3D and think there is a potential yet to be explored. Meanwhile I also think that 3D has been marginal in other visual arts. Of course, sculpture, architecture, and design exist in 3D reality. We don’t expect 3D in an exhibition of paintings, but Werner Herzog revealed the 3D character of cave paintings and drawings in CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS.

    A big turning-point in Western art was Renaissance perspective. Medieval painting was intentionally flat and two-dimensional, but Renaissance masters developed the sense of depth perspective in ways still unsurpassed – in landscapes and in portraits (Mona Lisa).

    The feeling of deep perspective came naturally to cinematography, and already the earliest films took full advantage of it (trains arriving to stations, crowds approaching us, phantom rides).

    In digital cinematography the image tends to be bright and sharp but also flat and lifeless – like a landscape of the Moon where there is no atmosphere – unless something is done. Might the current 3D trend be a way to compensate the missing feeling of lifelike depth and perspective in digital cinematography – to compensate the missing sense of atmosphere? Digital cinematography is getting better, and especially good are some of the recent digital intermediates based on photochemical sources (BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, MARGARET, both shot on Super 16), and perhaps soon no 3D compensation is needed. Even so, I believe that digital 3D will have more staying power than any of the previous techniques.

  • Peter Henne

    David Hare, I meant no offense, and I am so sorry that I came across that way. I am very glad to reach an agreement with you on DIAL M’s presentation in its conventional format. I know from many of our previous exchanges that you examine these issues most carefully, and thinking about the consensus we arrived at brightened my morning today while driving around taking care of some errands. You made a highly intriguing argument for seeing DIAL M in 3D at 1.85. Yes, I will check it out.

    Barry, The posts for the TOUCH OF EVIL discussion (was it the thread of evil? I kid, and it was a memorable round of debate) are archived here:

    In a nutshell, I think the Academy version (1.37, as Mark Gross has been writing, and not 1.33 like I have) is highly preferable. I’d say that TOE was also framed to work in widescreen just in case it were shown in the dominant ratio of 1.85-in a broad sense, shooting for “protection,” but in the reverse direction.

    But do we have to litigate this one again? Please say that we don’t. If I could stick out my hand in supplication on this site, I would. 🙂

  • Nicolas Saada

    Since I was partly responsible for the “thread from hell” on TOUCH OF EVIL, I will show mercy…
    But why don’t we tallk about 1.66 ?

  • nicolas Saada

    I apologize to everyone for this joke about formats.

  • Barry Putterman

    Nicolas, were you a captive audience to our election campaigning over here, you would realize that a joke about aspect ratios barely registers on the “need to apologize” meter.

    As in, why don’t we talk about 1:666, “THE DEVIL’S FORMAT!!!”

  • Brad Stevens

    There’s an interview with Bob Rafelson here…

    …in which he claims that “I’ve never shot a film in 1.85… They look like that, but I shoot all my pictures in 1.66, which makes it impossible to be shown but is now the ratio closest to the 4.3 on a television set. It just gives you a little bit more top and bottom…I don’t like to use the 1.85 matte, I prefer to use 1.66.”

  • Alex

    3D! 1.37! 1.66! 1.85!


  • Robert Garrick

    Before we say goodbye to this thread, we should note that John Alton once shot a film in 3-D. That film was “I, The Jury” (1953), directed by Harry Essex, produced by Victor Saville, with the perfectly-named Biff Elliot as Mike Hammer, and also starring voice-of-Fred Flintstone Alan Reed, sometime Stooge Joe Besser, and an uncredited Elisha Cook, Jr. What could possibly go wrong?

    The film is, as a matter of fact, pretty good, and one critic (I forget who) voted it one of the “ten greatest films ever made” in the Sight & Sound poll from a couple of decades back–I think it was 1991. That critic explicitly stated that his vote was because of “John Alton’s 3-D cinematography.”

    A good print does exist and the film has been shown at several 3-D festivals over the past fifteen years. I’ve only seen it flat–and it looks pretty impressive. There are shots of Mike Hammer struggling through a driving rainstorm, lit with Alton’s slashing light and shadow, that must be mind-boggling to watch in 3-D.

    William K. Everson, whose name comes up a lot here, confirmed to me back in 1993 that Alton’s 3-D photography was spectacular. I’m not sure where Everson saw the film because the film opened flat in the U.K. in 1953. It had its 3-D premiere in England in 1999, courtesy of Bob Furmanek.

  • Robert Garrick

    Another 3-D title that is worthy of more attention is 1953’s “The Maze,” directed by none other than William Cameron Menzies, the most heralded production designer and art director in the history of the movies. “The Maze” was his final film.

    Could there have been a more promising director for a 3-D project? Even Menzies’s two-dimensional films have a layered look, like the multiplane animation developed by Disney in the 1930s. Menzies created images that seemed to be larger than the screen. Think of the set that opens and closes “Mr. Lucky” (1943), dominated by an enormous ship in the fog, or the views of Tara in “Gone With the Wind” (1939). Think too of the amazing effects Menzies was able to achieve (with Anthony Mann and John Alton) in “The Black Book” (1949).

    With “The Maze,” Menzies was given a huge old-dark-house set: a creepy Scottish castle, equipped with cobwebs, fog, high ceilings, and long dark hallways. There were bats that hung in the air between the viewer’s eyes and the screen. Elaborate tracking shots prowled around the castle, and Menzies mixed tight claustrophobic set-ups with beautiful shots of the castle’s large rooms. One critic wrote that Menzies avoided gimmicky effects and instead used “3-D imaging to make the castle crawl and shift with depth.”

    The film is awash in atmosphere, but it’s betrayed by its ending, which doesn’t quite work (at least if you’re over 12 years of age). But “The Maze” is nevertheless a notable use of 3-D by a master. A good 35mm print, in 3-D, does exist, thanks again to the efforts of Bob Furmanek, and it has been shown several times in the last fifteen years.

  • Let’s talk about 1.66, baby
    Let’s talk about 3 and D
    Let’s talk about all the good things
    And the bad things that may be

  • Barry Putterman

    Robert, I’m not absolutely certain, but I believe that Everson was in Los Angeles working in some capacity for Allied Artists at that time. Which would also help to account for how he managed to pick up so many television prints of earlier films.

  • Mark Gross

    Thanks Robert, for your vivid description of Menzies’ THE MAZE in 3D. I saw the film when I was under the age of 12, so I thought the ending was just fine, though I doubt that I’d feel the same today.

    In the early 80’s, William K. Everson used to boast to his NYU cinema studies classes that, “I’ve been going to the Museum of Modern Art for 40 years but I’ve never been upstairs,” meaning he never bothered to look at any of the paintings on display there. Anyway,the implication is that he had been in the US, or at least initially, visiting the US, for forty years.

  • “Even Menzies’s two-dimensional films have a layered look, like the multiplane animation developed by Disney in the 1930s.”

    Wasn’t it the Fleischer Brothers who came up with multiplane animation?

    I mentioned his name earlier in this thread, but the late Chris Condon should be acknowledged for seeking out many original 3-D dual projector release prints, including the one for “The Maze.” Condon spent 40 years refining 3-D technology (he also authored 1963 edition of The American Cinematography Manuel,)and one of his innovations was to transfer dual projector prints onto a single 35mm by anamorphic means; he also used the same process for 70mm.

  • Robert Garrick

    X, if the Wikipedia summary for “multiplane camera” is to be believed, it was developed by former Disney guy Ub Iwerks in 1933, slightly refined by the Fleischers in 1934, and fully realized by Disney a few years later in films like “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” “Pinocchio,” and in the short-subject “The Old Mill.” That late 1930s Disney version used up to seven layers of oil-on-glass to achieve amazing effects.

    I remember seeing “Snow White” as a five-year-old (perhaps) and thinking: “How did they do that”? I knew it didn’t look like the cartoons I’d been watching on TV.

    I did not know until I read the Wikipedia piece that “The Little Mermaid” (1989) was the last film to use the multiplane camera, which is now literally a museum piece. Current films have switched to a digital equivalent (of course), which is no doubt cheaper and faster. That’s the way the world is going.

    I’m an analog guy myself.

  • Thanks for the clarification Robert. I remembered the 1930s Fleischer cartoons more vividly than the Disney cartoons of the same period, probably because the Fleischer cartoons were easier to see.

    My landlord is a member of the Science and Technology Committee of the Motion Picture Academy (Sci-Tech in trade lingo)who got his start at Disney pioneering digital technology (for which he won an Oscar,) and oddly enough he too is analog guy.

    By the way, one of the first thing he did when he went to work at Disney (they hired him away from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Cal Tech)is digitally restore “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”