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Comin' At Ya, Again: Film Forum's "Classic 3-D"

"It's all over when the real artists get involved in it," grinned a critic of my acquaintance—a fellow not generally known as an optimist about future cinematic developments—when, after a press screening of one of the films in this series, I brought up the fact that both Martin Scorsese and Steven Soderbergh were making their next pictures in 3-D.

Maybe, maybe not. After a few years of skeptically-received, will-it-or-won't-it-fly experimentation, 3-D cinema came back in a big, and of course digital way, with James Cameron's blockbuster Avatar not only doing boffo business but more or less forcing once-recalcitrant and still probably fairly irritated theater owners to adapt to the new technology at substantial expense. This then led to a small glut of retro-fitted-to-3-D blockbusters, as in Warner's rethink of Clash of the Titans, which in turn led to industry worrywarts and fussbudgets such as Jeffrey Katzenberg to whine that "fake" 3-D was apt to kill the golden-egg laying goose. So, is it over even before the real artists have gotten involved? Well, no, it can't be—consider those ticked-off theater owners and their fancy new equipment.

In the meantime, New York's Film Forum and its ingenious, enterprising rep programmer Bruce Goldstein figured that the summer after Avatar would be a good time to book another 3-D festival, and this one's a doozy. The venerable Manhattan theater is working with swanky old, or maybe we should say vintage, equipment. Their 3-D system is analog, consisting of a silver screen, two projectors running in sync, and gray-tinted Polaroid glasses. All the films in the series are actual 35-mm 3-D prints.

The system places some interesting formal restraints on the films in question. Because we're talking about two projectors running in sync with each other, that would mean seamless reel changes would require...four projectors. Not happening, here, or in the '50s theaters where many of these films were first shown. Hence, these films run with brief, built-in intermissions. Also, a lot of them are reasonably short, as features go; of the three pictures I'll talk about in detail here, only one of them is over 80 minutes.

The Forum and Goldstein have been running 3-D series since 1990, and every time Goldstein programs such a fest, he invariably manages to turn up a handful or more of films that you may have never even heard of, let alone known were produced in 3-D. Revelatory...and a blast. The most interesting of the batch that was screened for the press prior to the opening of the festival was Roy Ward Baker's 1953 Inferno, which features Robert Ryan as an ornery and heretofore pampered millionaire who's left to die in the desert by fed-up wife Rhonda Fleming and her new boyfriend William Lundigan. Adding to the torturing nature of the elements is the fact that Ryan's character has a broken leg. Lacking any kind of training, Ryan manages to survive via sheer instinct, lust for revenge, and just the fact that he's a mean, persistent son of a bitch. As such, the film carried a strong personal message for this viewer. In any event, much of Ryan's process is conveyed via voice over, except when he's communicating with the elements trying to interfere with his survival, as in his shout to a coyote, "Hey! That's MY rabbit!" The film begins with the two scheming lovers creating, and covering, tracks, to enable the impression that Ryan's character drove out of the desert to go on a bender. "Please don't let this be a flashback structure, please don't let this be a flashback structure, please don't let this be a flashback structure," I silently prayed as the film progressed. And sure enough, there wasn't one, hallelujah. Instead, Inferno is a trim-tight, in-the-moment little thriller with really great and mostly unobtrusive stereoscopic effects. "An hour and a half or so inside Robert Ryan's head, what's not to like?" another wag commented after the show; not quite, but close enough that it's hardly worth quibbling about.

The series opener, Man in the Dark, directed by Lew Landers, is a pretty average quasi-noir in which the effects are laid on thick—please don't put out my eye with that cigar, Mr. Tough Guy! However, we should remember the "pretty average quasi-noir" by 1953 standards can equal awesome lost genre gem by today's cinephile standards. In this case, maybe not, although the picture does have Edmond O'Brien in the lead, as, get this, a criminal who undergoes experimental brain surgery to make him less, you know, bad, and is then kidnapped by his old gang, who want to know where he hid the loot from their last job. Problem is, the aforementioned surgery wiped out his memory as well as the badness. With pedestrian dream sequences and a roller-coaster finale that really expands cinematic time (e.g., it features the longest roller coaster ride I've ever seen). Sounds like I'm underselling it (and truth be told, it didn't exactly garner rave reviews when it first came out; the Film Forum press materials include a pan from that old killjoy Bosley Crowther), but I've seen the other action/suspense film opening on the 13th, The Expendables, and trust me—this one's a way better time at the movies.

As is Gun Fury, a largely pedestrian Raoul Walsh Western from 1953 starring Rock Hudson and Donna Reed. With House of Wax's André de Toth, Walsh makes the second one-eyed director to work in the stereoscopic process. And pedestrian Walsh is largely like pedestrian Dwan—better than average on account of its no-nonsense virtues alone. Although I have to admit that in 3-D, you can really tell those are mostly stuntmen on the horses.

Other highlights of the festival include the aforementioned Wax, the ineffable Kiss Me Kate, and two more rarities, screening in 3-D for the first time since their theatrical releases: another musical, Those Redheads From Seattle, and a Southern-fried Fernando Lamas/Arlene Dahl vehicle, Sangaree. Between this and the William Lustig Presents program at Anthology, New York in August is the most fun spot for moviegoing in the country.

***

"Classic 3-D" runs at New York's Film Forum from August 13 - 26.  Full schedule here.

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