Tag Archives: Dial M for Murder (1954)

Dragonfly Squadron

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

Dragonfly Blu

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

DVD Savant Interview: Greg Kintz of The 3-D Film Archive

The Twilight Time limited edition video label has just released its first 3-D Blu-ray, which just happens to be the first 3-D film released by a major studio right at the beginning of the big 3-Dimension craze that began with 1952′s Bwana Devil. The film is Man in the Dark (1953), a fast-paced mystery noir in which crook Edmond O’Brien undergoes a brain operation to ‘remove’ his criminal tendencies. As tends to happen in gimmicky sci-fi noirs (or Sci-fi pix of any kind), things go wrong. The crook wakes up minus any memory whatsoever of his past identity or criminal history — which makes him an easy target for his old gang. Noir icons Audrey Totter and Ted de Corsia respectively romance O’Brien and beat him senseless, in an effort to find out where he’s hid $130,000 in ill-gotten loot. But the secret only reveals itself through O’Brien’s weird dreams.

I asked Bob Furmanek, President of the authoritative 3D Film Archive if his website would be covering this 3-D Blu-ray release. In answer, the 3D Film Archive’s Technical Director Greg Kintz offered to answer my less-than-expert questions. I’ve worked in pre-digital special effects and was a projectionist for Douglas Trumbull’s experimental Showscan format back in the late 1970s, but my exposure to 3-D isn’t that extensive. Here’s how Greg responded to my questions, and then followed up with some better questions of his own.

Glenn Erickson: Hello Greg. The liner notes on Twilight Time’s 3-D disc of Man in the Dark stress that unlike Warners’ House of Wax and Dial M for Murder, Columbia’s 3-D film was shot very quickly (just eleven days) with a custom rig engineered in its own camera department. I hear that 3-D at this time could be problematical, and that some of these rigs were difficult to work with. Were these cameramen really sharp, or lucky, or do 3-D experts like yourself see a few flaws showing through?

Greg Kintz: The cameramen were extremely sharp. Most studios at that time had their own camera departments, which fostered originality and furthered pride in their work. Bob Furmanek has a number of correspondences from original 3-D shoots, and it is clear they cared about doing quality 3-D productions, despite what some of the recent press has tried to portray. With that said, unlike today’s digital 3-D gear where a tech can instantly check the stereoscopic alignment and/or make relatively quick adjustments in post-production, the 1950s 3-D was of course completely analog with no 100% guarantee that everything being shot was all aligned properly until it was screened later. Due to these factors, issues occasionally could and did occur. Some misalignments occasionally made it to final release prints. 3-D corrections were often done in post-production, but this required another generation loss and more time-consuming optical realignment.

Glenn: On the much-ballyhooed roller coaster scenes, the actors are just photographed in front of a 2-D rear projection, which would seem a real cheat. Comments?

Greg: For decades, this has been the biggest gripe folks have had with Man in the Dark. On one hand, in the context of the entire feature the roller coaster “POV” sequence is a relatively short part of the movie. I first saw this movie in 3-D some ten years ago knowing about the rear screen projection in advance, and ended up not being bothered at all by the timesaving technique. With that said, was it a missed opportunity? Oh, absolutely. It was interesting recently watching Man in the Dark with my wife who had been studying the 3-D Blu-ray artwork before seeing this for the first time. Afterwards she commented, “If the (original & new) artwork heavily plugs a roller coaster and 3-D, shouldn’t the roller coaster segment actually be in 3-D?” I couldn’t help but chuckle. But again… everyone’s tastes vary, and I still very much enjoy the overall story and shooting style. And in the end, they only had 11 days to shoot, so something had to give, and I guess it was the POV roller coaster segment.

Glenn: I thought that the early trick 3-D shot in the brain operation scene was very well-judged, but one or two of the later stick-things-at-the-camera shots look like they were shot with long lenses — is the 3-D funky in these scenes?

Greg: With the different resurgences of 3-D movies over roughly the last 100 years, there have been varying degrees of just how far one can shove something out of the stereo window — and to what degree audiences in general can handle those off-screen effects, from a 3-D eyestrain standpoint. Today’s movies are by far the most conservative in this aspect. Those of the 1980s typically were the most aggressive. The 1950s “Golden Age” 3-D titles for the most part were a balance between those two time periods and (IMHO) struck the best balance of the two. With that said, there are just a few thankfully very brief shots in Man in the Dark where if you look at the screen in 3-D, but with your glasses off, your eyes are being call upon to do some tough viewing.

As you noted, the opening brain operation was well judged, as well as most of the other off-screen effects. I think this was also one of the most aggressive 3-D movies of the 1950s in that respect. It was Columbia’s first 3-D title, so they were learning, and suppose they felt they had an obligation to “deliver the goods” so to speak, and present a good share of off-screen effects.

Glenn: I would think that the most ‘aggressive’ Columbia 3-D picture of the decade had to be a Three Stooges short subject — everything got stabbed into our eyes in 1953′s Spooks! Did you see any particular issues with Sony’s 3-D Blu-ray of Man in the Dark?

Greg: In the era of 1080p/3-D, and with most studio content being culled from the best archival elements possible, it’s quite easy to be spoiled. On the other hand, it is also easier to rightfully expect more things to be handled correctly. Overall, Sony did a great job. It is clear they have done some basic vertical realignment and further convergence to the original stereoscopic photography, which for the most part has helped. But like the recent 3-D HD restoration of The Mad Magician, Sony leaves any left/right size differential issues untouched, which still causes alignment issues and eyestrain. If you see vertical misalignment in the Man in the Dark, most of the time it is a L/R sizing issue that could have been corrected. Please don’t get me wrong — if you are a fan of noir and any type of 3-D fan, this is still a must- own and very enjoyable 3-D presentation. Could it have been better? Sure. Personally I think the best compliment that the 3D Film Archive has received was when we were grilling Warner Bros. on different alterations we had found in the House of Wax 3-D Blu-ray. WB’s head of restoration Ned Price actually thanked us for the critiques and said he prefers his team be kept on their toes. That’s a great mindset.

Glenn: Didn’t most Golden Age 3-D movies have an intermission card, due to the required 35mm dual projection reel change?

Greg: Yes! Man in the Dark was no exception and also had its own unique intermission card to be shown just before the required mid-show reel change. Sony has opted not to include the original card in this case. It’s possible it was not included in the original camera negative version, if that is the sole element they culled from.

Glenn: I’ve noticed some 3-D movies have brief sections where the image goes flat .. as in 2-D. Why is that?

Greg: The answer is a mix. Sometimes there were problems in the original photography. Even in the original release, these very brief segments or shots were instead shown as 2-D, or were slightly pushed behind the stereo window for a fake 3-D effect. Hondo and Revenge of the Creature are some of the best examples of when camera malfunctions required brief flat segments in the final 3-D release.

Greg: Other cases can involve the loss of original elements on one side, but not the other. In the case of the Man in the Dark 3-D Blu-ray, I’ve seen both scenarios. There was one 2-D ‘flat’ shot that lasted roughly 40 seconds, but I am 99% sure it was 3-D on previous elements. I would pull some older elements to check if I only had more time. That shot is thankfully brief, and the few other very brief 2-D ‘single’ shots were that way in the original presentation.

The 3-D Film Archive’s own comparison images of the left- and right- eye frames during Man in the Dark’s most squeamish 3-D effect. The reverse shot of villain Ted de Corsia’s lit cigar approaching Edmond O’Brien’s eye packs even more of a jolt.
Glenn: Overall, would the 3-D Film Archive recommend this title, and are you guys planning an “in-Depth” review of this release?

Greg: Quite frankly, we at the 3D Film Archive would have loved to have done a full review on this title, but at the moment we simply have our hands full. If all goes as planned, we should have three or more vintage 3-D Blu-ray titles out in 2014. I’d say more, but will leave announcements like that to 3D Film Archive President Bob Furmanek and the distributors.

As for an overall verdict on Man in the Dark, we would absolutely recommend this title. The 3-D Blu-ray format has been in place for a while now, and it is a shame that so far this is only the fourth Golden Age title released. For a feature that was originally a rush job, Man in the Dark has a certain charm and certainly plenty of dynamic 3-D moments. To see this title in a high quality 1080p 3-D format even five years ago would have required some very expensive gear. Jump to present day and Twilight Time has delivered the goods. How can one say no?

Glenn: They might say no, but 3-D devotees need to be reminded that the Twilight Time disc is a collector’s pressing limited to 3,00O units. So if you want to keep up with classic-era “Third Dimension” attractions, it’s probably not wise to wait too long. Thanks Greg, especially for coming through on such short notice — I didn’t see anybody discussing the realities of 3-D filming out in the trenches of low-budget Hollywood of the 1950s.


Twilight Time’s
Man in the Dark 3-D Blu-ray
is available through Screen Archives Entertainment.
Interview date: January 20, 2014