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3-D Blu-ray Review: “The Bubble”

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I first saw (Arch Oboler’s) The Bubble (1966) in the late-1970s under its reissue title, The Fantastic Invasion of Planet Earth. The sci-fi/special effects boon instigated by Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (both 1977) was just getting underway, and here was a movie with a decidedly retro-looking one-sheet prominently feature a ‘50s-style flying saucer, one that, as is it turned out, wasn’t even in the movie. I could tell right away that I was looking at a strange movie at least ten years old, and its very existence baffled me. Nonetheless, its 3-D effects, filmed in “4-D” Space-Vision, were nonetheless impressive, sometimes even startling. Decades later Rhino released a very poor, unrepresentative DVD of the film, badly converted to anaglyphic (i.e., “red-green”) process. It only delivered about one-tenth of its full impact.

Conversely, the 3-D Film Archive’s Blu-ray presentation of The Bubble, here under its original title, far surpasses all expectations. As a movie, The Bubble is draggy and obviously fairly cheap, resembling as it does a protracted episode of ‘60s sci-fi shows like The Outer Limits and The Invaders. But it’s also so strange that, even though it borrows elements from those TV shows, written science fiction, and even E.C. comic books of the early ‘50s, as to be a unique synthesis all its own. Even without the 3-D, there’s no movie quite like it.

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The primary reason to watch The Bubble, however, is for its 3-D photography and effects, and on that count the picture is quite remarkable. An early scene, which in terms of the plot has no reason to exist at all, features a tray holding two glasses and two bottles of beer. It floats about the room, gradually drifting out into the movie audience. The effect is almost perfectly realized (the wires suspending it become visible toward the end of the shot); it’s still one of the most impressive 3-D effects shots ever done.

The 3-D Film Archive, primarily Bob Furmanek and Greg Kintz, have done another incredible job here, literally rescuing the nearly-lost film: the original negative was rotting away in a stiflingly hot public storage locker rather than an environmentally-controlled film vault, its reels kept in rusted film cans. A restoration demonstration makes clear how much work was done to remove visible negative splices and other viewing imperfections. The presentation now is probably better than when the film was new, and the 3-D is spot-on perfect throughout.

The 3-D craze of 1952-54 petered out quickly after 20th Century-Fox’s hugely successful dissemination of CinemaScope during late-1953 and early-1954. The only major 3-D release between Revenge of the Creature (1955) and The Bubble had been a Fox film called September Storm (1960) shot in Stereo-Vision 3-D and converted to 3-D CinemaScope. However, it was not a success, and led to no additional 3-D productions.

Radio writer-producer-director Arch Oboler, a kind of Bush League Orson Welles, broke into films in the 1940s and almost all of those he wrote, produced, and directed are unusual. His first film as a director, Strange Holiday (1945) had Claude Rains returning home from a fishing trip only to find America had been taken over by fascists. Five (1951) was the first American feature to depict life after a nuclear war. The Twonky (1953) has Hans Conried at odds with a strange, walking television set that takes control over his life.

But Oboler’s greatest success came with Bwana Devil (1952), the first sound-era feature-length 3-D movie, an independent film that, along with This Is Cinerama, released that same fall, caused a firestorm within the Hollywood film industry, leading eventually to the widescreen revolution, the biggest sea change since the Dawn of Sound.

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Oboler returned to 3-D moviemaking with The Bubble, which utilized Robert V. Bernier’s special 3-D cameras and lenses. Primarily, Space-Vision allowed for “polarized” 3-D movies to be photographed and exhibited on a single-strip of film, rather than the two interlocked cameras and projectors system used during the ’50s craze. This significantly reduced production and exhibition costs and allowed for color and ‘scope productions such as The Bubble.

The movie is a more a vehicle for this process rather than a film enhanced further by 3-D. After an unseen narrator instructs the audience to put their 3-D glasses on, the picture opens with young married couple Mark (Michael Cole) and Catherine (Deborah Walley) aboard a small plane piloted by care-free Tony (Johnny Desmond). Catherine has gone into premature labor while the couple was vacationing, and they’re frantically trying to reach the nearest hospital.

A big storm forces Tony to land on a runway that turns out to be an ordinary road leading to an anything-but-ordinary small town nearby. Catherine gives birth at a small hospital without incident, but Mark and Tony gradually – too gradually – begin to realize something is amiss. The town resembles a studio backlot (and so it was; The Bubble was filmed at the former Republic Studios, then called CBS Studio Center, in the San Fernando Valley north of Hollywood). A New York subway entrance leads nowhere. Several buildings are strangely fused. Old West buildings, including a saloon, are located further down one street, along with a partial carnival. A road leading out of town is dotted with gargoyles (possibly from 1963’s The Raven), statues and fake boulders. And, just out of town, is a partial representation of the Lincoln Memorial, the statue of Lincoln being the same one Eddie “Rochester” Anderson falls onto during the climax of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963).

More disturbing, the residents of this strange place wander about with glazed-over eyes like zombies, saying the same few words over-and-over again. A bartender at the old saloon repeatedly asks, “What’ll it be, gents?” while a taxi driver (Vic Perrin) asks “Cab, mister?” ad infinitum. Unbelievably, Mark and Tony initially find this rather amusing if bemusing. They help themselves to drinks at the saloon, cars parked in the streets, etc., and initially aren’t terribly concerned by everyone’s strange state.

The real trouble begins with the threesome decide to leave town, only to find the entire area encased by an impenetrable bubble many miles in diameter and stretching across the sky, thus explaining the distorted sun and moon.

The Bubble premiered at 112 minutes but almost all reviews of that version complained that at that length the movie was interminably paced. It was subsequently cut to 91 minutes, its Blu-ray length, and even that is a bit overlong, the pacing partly dragged down by Mark and Tony being so slow on the uptake about the strangeness of the town and its potential dangers. The deleted scenes, offered in screenplay form as an extra feature, help to explain some matters obliquely referenced in the shorter cut, but overall the picture is probably better off with all the editing.

If you thought 2001: A Space Odyssey perplexing, The Bubble positively confounds. Mark, without any evidence, suggests some possible explanations for the bubble’s origins and particulars about why things are what they are, but the story pretty much ends without any real answer about what the audience has just witnessed. Just what the bubble is, who put it there, and why remains a baffling mystery. If one tries to make sense of The Bubble’s plot, they’ll probably be disappointed. But on a dream-like, Twin Peaks-type level, the movie and all its strangeness is moderately effective.

While many have pointed out the story’s resemblance to various Twilight Zone/Outer Limits/The Invaders episodes, the movie is peculiarly adult in other ways. Mark and Catherine’s baby was conceived while the couple “made love” and she forgot her contraception. (Later on is a scene where she breastfeeds her newborn.) He complains about her “bitching” in one scene, and it’s clear Tony is having a sexual relationship with the Old West saloon’s dancer (called “Talent” by him and on the credits), even though she’s basically a mindless zombie.

The cast is good, particularly Michael Cole (Mod Squad), whose second film this was. He’s so good, in fact, one is reminded of Steve McQueen’s similar “debut” in The Blob. Indeed, The Bubble almost plays like The Further Adventures of Steve and Jane, as if the young teenagers from that film had gotten married and were expecting a baby only to run afoul of The Bubble.

The rest of the cast consists of actors Oboler must have known from his radio days, many of whom coincidentally worked regularly with Jack Webb, notably Virginia Gregg, Vic Perrin, and Olan Soule. The credits and the IMDb list Gregg as playing the ticket cashier but this is incorrect. She plays the nurse, who in the short version at least has no lines. The actress playing the ticket cashier (“Tickets? Tickets?”) resembles Patricia Barry.

As a showcase for 3-D effects, the film is a delight. The Bubble bursts open with an exterior shot of the plane, one of its wings sticking way, WAY out toward the movie audience. There are startlingly good 3-D shots every few minutes: a baby in an incubator, Talent’s high-kicking saloon dance, numerous shots of Mark and Catherine in a mine shaft, he hoping to tunnel their way under the bubble. Even ordinary scenes are staged to maximize the process. Although a few ideas are more than a little silly (Tony having visions of floating rubber masks, for instance), visually speaking, The Bubble is quite spectacular, a real crowd-pleaser.

The picture allegedly cost around $500,000 to make. It looks inexpensive but not desperately cheap. Many Blu-ray fans that recently purchased Shout! Factory’s Vincent Price Collection II set will be amused. If, as I did, you watched Return of the Fly, The Last Man on Earth, and The Bubble over the last few weeks then you’ve heard the same Paul Sawtell/Bert Shefter music three times.

The 3-D Film Archive restored The Bubble from the inaptly stored, original camera negative and the results are extremely impressive. With its 2.50:1 aspect ratio, the image is sharp with accurate, corrected color, while many imperfections, including film damage and apparently a few misaligned shots, have all been fixed. It’s too bad Oboler didn’t release The Bubble is stereophonic sound as well (as many early 3-D titles were) but the mono audio here is more than adequate.

Supplements include a standard, 2-D version of the film, as well as original and highly deceptive reissue trailers, both in 2-D as well. A restoration demonstration is offered in both 2-D and 3-D. There’s also a nice still gallery, screenplay excerpts of the deleted scenes, and a BD-ROM essay about The Bubble by Bob Furmanek, which is also available on the 3-D Film Archive’s website.

As a movie, The Bubble is far from great but, perhaps having already experienced it several times before, this time I found myself rather liking its bizarre plot as well as its plentiful, eye-popping 3-D effects. For aficionados, The Bubble is a must.

Dragonfly Squadron

3-D Blu-ray Review: “Dragonfly Squadron” (1954)

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Well this is a treat! As a movie, Dragonfly Squadron (1954) is fairly ordinary, a war movie with a familiar story and genre stereotypes: hardline, humorless commanding officer; sly second-in-command; subordinate with a personal grudge against his commanding officer; a woman emotionally torn between the dedicated, self-sacrificing doctor she married and the commanding officer she loves, etc.

Conversely, Olive Films’ release of this 3-D Film Archive restoration is one of significant historical importance. Dragonfly Squadron was photographed but never released in 3-D. By the time it opened in March 1954, the new widescreen and stereophonic sound format pushed by 20th Century-Fox, CinemaScope, had won the technological dissemination battle. The original 3-D negative film elements managed to survive, but a 3-D Blu-ray release of a movie as obscure as Dragonfly Squadron, a movie produced not by one of the major Hollywood studios but rather by lowly Monogram/Allied Artists, a Poverty Row company, was practically nonexistent until Bob Furmanek and Greg Kintz of the 3-D Film Archive came along and pushed for its stereoscopic restoration.

For fans and admirers of older 3-D movies, Furmanek and Kintz are providing an invaluable service, preserving, restoring, and making available 3-D features and shorts that might otherwise be lost forever. Classic 3-D movies are rarely theatrically revived, and when they are almost invariably what gets shown is either House of Wax (1953) or Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder (1954), with a few scattered other titles (Creature from the Black Lagoon, for instance) exhibited less frequently. I’m reminded of a press conference Jackie Gleason gave announcing the redistribution of “Lost” Honeymooners episodes. Asked why he chose to make them available, Gleason slyly replied, “I’m sick of watching those other Honeymooners,” referring to the “Classic 39,” episodes rerun ad infinitum. The same holds true for classic 3-D, turning even a movie as  minor as Dragonfly Squadron into a major viewing event.

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Though set just before and during the outbreak of the Korean War in May 1950, Dragonfly Squadron’s story harkens back to World War II movies like Flying Tigers, They Were Expendable, and Back to Bataan, with maybe a dash of Go for Broke! (1951). John Hodiak stars as Maj. Mathew “Matt” Brady, a celebrated but grounded-for-medical reasons Air Force instructor tasked with training green American and South Korean pilots at Kongku Air Base, with little more than three weeks to whip them into shape. (Among the young pilots is James Hong, uncredited.)

He discovers that his ex-fiancée, Donna Cottrell (Barbara Britton) is also stationed there. They planned to marry until she learned that her supposedly dead husband, Stephen (Bruce Bennett), a prisoner tortured in Indo-China was, in fact, alive. He loves her and as he’s a saintly, dedicated physician (despite mutilated hands) she remains devoted to him, despite her feelings for Brady.

More familiar plot points emerge: Capt. Veddors (Harry Lauter) resents Brady, blaming him for the death of their mutual best friend in a plane crash. Other genre stereotypes: Capt. Woody Taylor (John Lupton) and Anne (Pamela Duncan) are a young married couple anxious to return to the States after being stationed in Korea for two years without a break. Matt’s best friend is Capt. MacIntyre (Gerald Mohr), whose genial wisecracks contrast by-the-book Brady’s stiffness. Also in the squadron are the requisite southern hick (Fess Parker), an elfish flyer (Eddie Firestone, uncredited) always hiding a mutt under his leather jacket, and a soft-spoken, efficient junior officer (Adam Williams) who all but has “Doomed” painted across his helmet.

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Dragonfly Squadron’s plot may be familiar but its execution, under the sure hand of efficient B-movie director Lesley Selander, is nonetheless involving and well-paced for a picture of this type and budget. Reportedly the film’s cost was around $300,000, dirt-cheap by major studio standards but a bit more expensive than the usual Monogram/Allied Artists programmer from this period. Air Force and Marine Corps. hardware helped make the film look a bit more expensive than it actually was, but Selander’s good direction adds to the film’s modest polish.

The film also makes use of stock shots, some in regular 2-D, and there are few opticals. A battle and evacuation near the end of the picture offer the best 3-D effects, with everything done full-scale with on-set special effects. Much of this material looks great.

It also helps that good actors populate the story. John Hodiak was a bona fide star, albeit a fading one, Hodiak one of dozens leading men who established themselves during the early ‘40s, when many established stars had abandoned Hollywood temporarily to fight the war, only to leave actors like Hodiak struggling once they returned.

There are a few up-and-comers in the cast, notably Fess Parker and, much later in the story, Chuck Connors, both oozing charisma and obviously on the ascent. Decent actors who regularly toiled away in cheap films dominate: Bruce Bennett, Gerald Mohr, Adam Williams, Frank Ferguson, etc. Pretty Barbara Britton’s career was, like Hodiak’s, in gradual decline; she co-starred in the first 3-D feature of the 1950s, the one that launched the craze, Bwana Devil (1952).

Dragonfly Squadron lacks the kind of in-your-face 3-D effects many wrongly assume all ‘50s 3-D movies overdid, the Western Charge at Feather River being an obvious example. Despite a dearth of eye-popping effects, Selander subtly and intelligently stages many scenes to bring out multiple planes of depth. In a bar, for instance, all the chairs are stacked up on tables while on the bar itself are various half-empty glasses, to emphasize the depth of the bar a bit more, while many of the sets have doorways leading to back rooms and whatnot. It’s a far cry from the drab art direction of a typical Monogram movie, e.g., Louie’s Sweet Shop in the Bowery Boys pictures. It’s not a great showcase for 3-D, but what’s there is well executed. Several scenes are also staged in darkened rooms, and the perception of depth is quite interesting.

Dragonfly Squadron is presented in its original 1.66:1 widescreen format. The black-and-white film has its share of speckling and, surprisingly, little bits of faint, barely perceptible color (on the tip of an actor’s nose, for instance) I would guess was somehow used to align the image during postproduction. Mostly though the picture looks very good, and the 3-D is spot-on perfect throughout. Cheap as Dragonfly Squadron may have been, in some ways the use and ultimate look even of ordinary 3-D scenes here is somehow more impressive compared to how unimaginatively most new 3-D films use the process today. (The same proved true on another cheap 3-D title now on Blu-ray, Man in the Dark.) The presentation includes the film’s original intermission card, a nice touch. While some of the bigger 3-D movies were exhibited with stereophonic sound, Dragonfly Squadron was always mono, and thus presented that way here. It’s fine, on par with other mid-‘50s mono releases. It’s also worth noting that the film’s original 3-D title cards, heretofore presumed lost, have  been reinstated.

The Blu-ray comes with a standard 2-D version of the film, along with a lively (2-D) trailer.

Dragonfly Squadron might not rank alongside the great Hollywood war movies, but its release, finally, in 3-D deserves all the accolades Bob Furmanek and Greg Kintz are receiving. Also with this title they’ve clearly demonstrated how desirable titles like this one can be restored and presented in flawless 3-D for a reasonable amount of money. And that, in turn, will hopefully prompt more 3-D Blu-ray releases like this one in the future.

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Man in the Dark Featured new

Savant 3-D Blu-ray Review: “Man in the Dark” (1953)

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When Arch Oboler’s Bwana Devil set off a stampede to promote 3-D as the savior of Hollywood, the first studio picture on screens was a Columbia quickie filmed in record time, on the cheap. Producer Wallace MacDonald had the 1936 amnesia-plastic surgery potboiler The Man Who Lived Twice reworked as a very lightweight noir thriller. Man in the Dark pulled in customers primed by the big publicity push being given 3-D. Warners’ House of Wax followed two days later, losing the race to be first but reaping much bigger returns.

The refurbished storyline drops the plastic surgery angle but retains the now- disturbing idea that doctors might use brain surgery to “cure” lawbreakers of criminal tendencies. Convicted criminal Steve Rawley (Edmond O’Brien) volunteers for the operation half-assuming that he’ll not survive. He awakes with total amnesia and a more cheerful personality. Under a new name, “Blake” actually looks forward to beginning life afresh tending the hospital’s hedges. Steve is instead kidnapped and beaten bloody by his old cronies in crime Lefty, Arnie and Cookie (Ted de Corsia, Horace McMahon & Nick Dennis), who want to know where Steve hid the loot from their last robbery. Steve remembers nothing, and kisses from his old girlfriend Peg Benedict (Audrey Totter) fail to extract the location of the $130,000. But weird dreams provide clues that might lead Steve and Peg to the money everyone is so desperate to possess.

Columbia chief Harry Cohn’s commitment to 3-D had its limits, as Man in the Dark is a real quickie distinguished only by its cast of noir icons. The adapted storyline is packed with somewhat limp ‘smart’ dialogue. Indicating how conscious writers of this time were of previous hardboiled thrillers. One speech even borrows a line about money “being a piece of paper with germs on it” from Edgar Ulmer’s Detour.

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Man in the Dark is sometimes listed as a sci-fi movie, owing to its notion of using surgery to correct criminal behavior. If that idea had been developed beyond gimmick status the movie might connect with later sci-fi efforts like A Clockwork Orange. As it is Dr. Marston (Dayton Lummis) merely succeeds in making a blank slate of Steve Rawley’s mind. It is just assumed that he’s no longer a crook. The doctor sees nothing wrong in wiping out the identity of a human being, but he does object to Rawley being questioned by the insurance investigator Jawald (creepy Dan Riss). Although one would think that Steve’s post-operative brain might be a little on the tender side, he suffers no ill effects from the beatings delivered by the sadistic Lefty.

Understandably disenchanted with his new/old cronies, Steve breaks free to get the missing moolah for himself. But can he remember where he left it? Peg Benedict thinks that he’s reverting to his wicked ways. The rather inconsistent Peg initially acts as a standard-issue femme fatale, seducing Steve to find a short cut to a big payday. Later, she accuses her former crook boyfriend of ‘being himself’ and starts complaining that since they’re in love they don’t need the money.

Some tension arises when Jawald’s detective proves to be just as slimy as the crooks — he’s perfectly happy to allow the dangerous fugitives to stay at large and pummel Steve, as long as they lead him to the cash. The subject of crime-fighting ethics is dropped like a hot rock, along with any and all questions about the exact nature of Steve’s brain operation. We instead get a few back-lot chases and a dream sequence in which Steve and a dozen cops pile into an amusement park ride. While an animated statue of a fat lady laughs, the hallucinated cops pull their guns and shoot at Steve at the same time.

The big finish — promised in all the ads — sends Steve on a wild roller coaster ride. It’s the famed Pacific Ocean Park Pier, whose massive wooden roller coaster can also be seen (from several of the exact same angles) in the same year’s The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. A big chase between Edmond O’Brien and Ted de Corsia’s stuntmen takes place on the rooftop of Columbia Studios at their old Sunset & Gower location. Look closely and you’ll spot the first two letters of the Hollywood Sign, and a few seconds later, the distinctive sign for the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel.

Director Lew Landers (Louis Friedlander) made his career by grinding out movies at a blistering pace, averaging about six features a year. The IMDB lists twelve Landers titles for 1942 alone! Landers’ direction of Man in the Dark hypes the 3-D by making sure that small objects are thrust into the camera at regular intervals — medical instruments, guns, spiders, a bird. Variety’s review called the 3-D effects the real reason to see the movie. That trade magazine’s coverage rather ungallantly suggests that “Miss Totter’s figure is a definite 3-D asset.” Reviewers made the same promises about the erotic potential of 3-D for their coverage of Universal’s It Came From Outer Space.

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Edmond O’Brien’s career as a leading man was winding down by this time, as was the enticing Audrey Totter’s tenure as a top noir siren. Both give solid pro performances, although the baddies Ted de Corsia (The Naked City, The Killing) and Nick Dennis (Kiss Me Deadly, Spartacus) are more fun to watch. The costumers give Dennis the cheesiest-looking striped suit imaginable, which with his wild shock of hair makes a perfect low-rent impression.

The Twilight Time Blu-ray + 3-D of Man in the Dark is a pristine transfer of this oddity, one of only two official films noir shot in the 3-D format. The Academy aspect ratio is correct and consistent with the April ’53 release date. An Isolated Score Track gives us the full effect of stock film music rearranged for a movie, rather than composed for it. The work of half a dozen composers blends together unobtrusively.

Twilight Time’s first 3-D offering is also a disc debut for Man in the Dark. The trailer included in the package is a teaser item hyping the special shoot as if it were the Manhattan Project. Edmond O’Brien addresses a sales pitch directly at the camera, just outside a stage where the “top secret” film is being shot.

The menu for the 3-D version encoded on the disc comes up only on 3-D disc players, otherwise the disc reverts to the fine-quality flat HD version. The 3-D effect is satisfying, although most shots are not as carefully designed for the process as they are in more expensive pictures. It is interesting that this Columbia show chooses to use a roller coaster ride as a way of showing off its 3-D depth — the year before, the initial This Is Cinerama launched the mad race to defeat Television by starting with a roller coaster ride. Audiences may not have felt the same jolt, however, as the roller coaster sequence is all done with 2-D rear projection.

Julie Kirgo’s liner notes detail the custom rig used to film Man in the Dark and add some thoughts about the use of 3-D in the dream sequences. This disc will be a sure sell to the owners of 3-D home theater equipment.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
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Man in the Dark

Blu-ray + 3D

Twilight Time

1953 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 70 min. / Street Date January 21, 2014 / available through Screen Archives Entertainment / 29.95

Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly?
YES; Subtitles: English

Packaging: Keep case

Starring Edmond O’Brien, Audrey Totter, Ted de Corsia, Horace McMahon, Nick Dennis, Dayton Lummis, Dan Riss.

Cinematography Floyd Crosby

Film Editor Viola Lawrence

Musical Director Ross DiMaggio

Composers of Stock Music George Antheil, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, George Duning, Herman Hand, Paul Mertz, Ben Oakland, Hans J. Salter, Marlin Skiles.

Written by George Bricker, Jack Leonard, William Sackheim, from the 1936 film The Man Who Lived Twice by Tom Van Dycke & Henry Altimus

Produced by Wallace MacDonald

Directed by Lew Landers