By Tony Williams.
Fortunes are now spent on the kind of computerized special effects that appeal to the Super Nintendo mind-set of the present-day twelve-year-old, for whom adult relationships, political beliefs and the bitter-sweet ambiguities of love and loyalty – the magical stuff of Casablanca – are as remote and boring as the kabuki theatre.” (1)
Tom Gunning’s celebrated essay on “The Cinema of Attractions” is a key critical component of contemporary film criticism relevant to both the past and present. From late 19th century exhibition to the mind-numbing spectacles of 21st century CGI special effects mind-numbing spectacles, the concept still has great significance to criticism today. Is any particular new effect ephemeral, or a harbinger of great things to come when technology makes its future application both possible, without flaws, and as a component part of the entire cinematic process? Attempts at color, sound, and widescreen appeared decades before their eventual satisfactory realization. The quest for “Smell-O-Vision” remains moribund after Mike Todd’s unique attempt with Scent of Mystery (1960). Despite a later attempt to revive the process in 2015, this did not stimulate the sensory imagination of studio executives: rather than rich and strange, smell-o-vision was ripe and stale. (2) Champions of silent cinema such as Rudolph Arnheim opposed the introduction of sound into cinema well into the end of their lives. But in that case, the battle was already won, though it did not negate the fact that certain sound films often gained from particular silent moments, according to Hitchcock’s definition of “pure cinema,” rather than the new technique becoming a distractive, ephemeral, device, merely there for novelty value.
As one audio-commentator notes on this set from Flicker Alley, most 3-D films employed the devices of extending space or “Coming At Ya” as in the 3-D version of The Charge at Feather River (1953) with arrows, lances, and other weapons flowing directly before the gaze of spectators wearing disposable cardboard red and green lenses. However, in that case, the devices became as disposable as that forerunner of Brad and Leonardo, Guy Madison, before the fashionable era of uncreative postmodernist recycling dominated the industry shamefully supported by those espousing dubious types of critical “appreciation.” “Oh yes, I remember it well,” gentle viewer, since I saw the original, non-flat version of that film whose plot became recycled in a later episode of the Cheyenne (1955-1963) TV series. Cheyenne also recycled one of the studio’s earlier films To Have and Have Not (1944), with Clint Walker and Peggie Castle as poor substitutes for Bogie and Bacall in “Fury at Rio Hondo” (1956). (3)
Perhaps the only successful 3-D film using both devices with serious authorial and creative imagination was Dial M for Murder (1953), mostly available in flat prints afterwards. The flat version appears a static theatrical type of film, but the 3-D version employs Hitchcock’s intelligent use of depth and space between different characters, which becomes evident when circumstances within the plot cause a change in relationships, with character interaction matching spatial placement. Hitchcock even gives the one “Coming at Ya” device in the film a special moral sensibility. When attacked by Anthony Dawson, Grace Kelly’s arm reaches out to the audience in the cinema as if appealing as a cry for help. Whether each audience member takes it as a mere special effect device or realizes the director’s intention in employing this type of spectacular device is an issue they must individually consider.
I mention these issues more as considerations for the implications concerning the use of 3-D technology than anything else. In this Blu-Ray set, Flicker Alley has again contributed to the widespread dissemination of an “archaeology of cinema” not just by making previously rare films available but also by providing material that can contribute to an ongoing debate, such as what can new technology add to cinema and whether the application is worth it. If the latter aspect becomes dominant, then critics may further consider other alternatives similar to Hitchcock’s earlier use of the device in 1953.
Flicker’s selection may be viewed either three or two dimensionally. If viewers do not have a pair of 3-D glasses available (as I did from having purchased the concluding installment of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Tempest with 3-D red and green lens spectacles included) one can easily work out how 3-D devices operate; this parallels watching the flat version of House of Wax (1953). This set contains several examples of 3-D technology, beginning with the 1941 comedy short A Day in the Country (that I may have seen a decade or so later), a gimmickier and more trivial example that belongs in the category of “mindless entertainment.” The 1952 ballet short The Black Swan follows along with Games in Depth (1966) and a trailer for the exploitation film Frankenstein’s Bloody Terror (1968/72) as well as vintage 3-D slides, including some from Harold Lloyd’s own collection.
The feature highlight is the restored Spanish language 3-D version of El Corazon y la Espada (1953), later circulated in a dubbed version retitled The Sword of Granada. It features gay caballero Cesar Romero forming an alliance with Ponce De Leon, fiery cross-dressed, Spitfire Lolita (Katy Jurado) and Fra Angelico performing an advance guard action to rid Spain of the Moors, making Charlton Heston’s task in El Cid (1961), a little easier. Cinema has its own rules, so if Prometheus can get Kirk Morris out of a tight spot in 17th Bonnie Scotland in Maciste in Hell (1962), why not bring together Fra Angelico and Ponce de Leon in a supposedly noble cause? Despite wearing the kind of male attire that got Joan of Arc burnt at the stake several centuries before, Katy Jurado proves herself a respectable sword-wielding heroine more mature and voluptuous than Vladimir Nabokov’s title character. She parallels Binnie Barnes in The Spanish Main (1945), a role reprised in Jacques Tourneur’s Anne of the Indies (1951), and Maureen O’Hara who is certainly no son of Athos, contradicting the title of Sons of the Musketeers (1952) to Cornel Wilde’s consternation.
Both The Black Swan and El Corazon y la Espada have accomplished audio-commentaries by competent scholars. Admitting that he is no expert of ballet, 3-D historian Mike Ballew provides helpful information on both technique and the historical/industrial circumstances of the making of The Black Swan. Two audio-commentaries by Dr. David Wilt and film historian Dr. Robert J. Kiss complement the expertise of Mike Ballew on The Black Swan, providing valuable information on the history of Mexican cinema, the production circumstances surrounding the particular films and the aftermath of each production.
This set reminds me of when Spike Lee introduced the DVD version of Malcom X (1992), affirming the valuable information that many audio-commentaries provide. I cannot imagine any review that deliberately ignores this important educational component available today, especially now that higher education appears in terminal decline.
1. J.G. Ballard, “Magical Days at Rick’s”. A User’s Guide to the Millennium: Essays and Reviews. New York: Picador, 1996. 6
2. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scent_of_Mystery. One can eagerly imagine a revival of the 1941 3-D short A Day in the Country with “Smell-0’Vision” applied to certain agrarian scenes!
3. I wonder if this was one of the many TV westerns Hawks saw on his return to Hollywood after the failure of Land of the Pharaohs (1955). It may not only gave him the idea for part of the title of his 1959 Western but also might have inspired him to re-name James Caan as Mississippi in El Dorado (1966), the name of Castle’s character in the Cheyenne episode. Anyway, that series recycled so many old warner Bros movies such as Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) where Cagney’s descendent played by Edd Byrnes definitely turns yellow when facing his swinging demise in “The Brand” (1957).
Tony Williams is an independent film critic and a contributing editor to Film International.