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Movie Poster of the Week: “Man in the Dark”

International artwork for the first 3-D film released by a Hollywood studio.

Screening in all its 3-dimensional glory on August 1st and 2nd in MoMA’s essential summer retro Lady in the Dark: Crime Films from Columbia Pictures, 1932–1957, Man in the Dark was the first 3-D film released by a Hollywood Studio. United Artists' Bwana Devil had been released in November 1952, but it was regarded as an independent production. Warner Brothers was scheduled to have the first major studio release with House of Wax, but Columbia, in their true balls-to-the-wall style, rushed Man in the Dark into production, filmed it in 11 days, and got it up on screen on April 8, 1953, a mere 48 hours before André de Toth’s House of Wax.

The plot is classic amnesiac noir: after undergoing experimental brain surgery in prison to remove his criminal tendencies, Edmond O’Brien finds he has lost his memory and ends up being pursued by his former cohorts—all the way to the top of a roller coaster—eager to find some previously stashed loot. A film of great historical interest but, apparently, dubious artistic merit, Man in the Dark throws everything at the screen. As Elliott Stein wrote in the Village Voice, “This seems to be the 3-D flick that most exploits the short-lived medium. An endless array of stuff comes whiffling at your face—a lit cigar, a repulsive spider, scissors, forceps, fists, falling bodies, and a roller coaster. The prolific Landers may not have been a great director, but he was a pretty good pitcher.”

For a film produced in a mad rush, it sure has some beautiful posters. A couple of years ago I compared two posters for a French historical drama painted by two of the greatest European poster artists, Anselmo Ballester and Boris Grinsson, so it was a treat to discover that they had both created posters for Man in the Dark. Ballester’s is a stunner, mixing color and black and white with his usual brilliance, with O’Brien punching Ted de Corsia right out of the film strip, and a hand signing the “3” of 3-D stretching out of the poster frame.

Grinsson simply has everything coming out of the screen (and De Corsia’s hand even leaving the poster’s frame). For both artists this was probably the first time either had illustrated a stereoscopic film and each was exploring how to render a third dimension on a two-dimensional plane.

The American posters are not as beautiful, though they trumpet the 3-dimensionality in similar ways. I especially love the tagline “YOU ride with death on the roller-coaster! The walls of the horror-house close in on YOU! YOU dodge the bullets! And YOU do the loving!” But what’s interesting is that none of the posters proclaim it as the first of anything. Maybe Columbia was unsure that they would pip Warners Brothers to the post. (In fact some of the House of Wax posters do proclaim that film to be “The First Feature Produced by a Major Studio in 3D!”)

There is also a poster for a 2-D release of the film...

The Belgian poster is the only one to include the Ciotat-like audience response to the 3-D experience...

Almost all the posters include the climactic roller-coaster rumble—and each with Edmond O’Brien’s tie flying at 90 degrees—though Grinsson gives the scene the most dramatic twist...

There is a much more restrained, and quite beautiful, German poster with artwork by Hannah Klose-Greger...   

And then there is also this unusual abstract German design...

You can read more about the film and its technical 3D aspects in an interview with the technical director of the 3D Film Archive, and you can also watch a great introduction by Eddie Muller (“The Czar of Film Noir”) in which he touts the most spectacular effect of the movie as being able to finally see Edmond O’Brien’s pompadour in three dimensions: “It threatens to just spill out into the audience at every moment.”

Posters courtesy of Heritage Auctions and KinoArt.net. Many thanks to MoMA’s Dave Kehr not only for the Columbia series but for first introducing me to Ballester’s poster via his blog.

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