The return of 3-D, lost gimmick of the '50s

Attention movie fans and nostalgia buffs: Dust off those old 3-D glasses. Three-dimensional movies -- the great lost gimmick of the '50s -- are making a comeback.

Right now, most of the action is going on at the 8th street playhouse here, which has launched a five-week long 3-D festival including around 20 features, plus various shorts. The first item on the schedule is "Dial M for Murder," the only 3-D film directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

"Dial M" had a "re-premiere" in Hollywood recently, and went from there to a few other cities where theaters have maintained their 3-D equipment in workable condition. But the 8th Street Festival marks the first attempt to revive 3-D on a massive level -- and exhibitors around the United States will be watching carefully to see whether "3-D nostalgia" is really the wave of the future.Early indications are good: Even before the festival opened, the 8th Street received so many inquiries from would-be-spectators that plans were discussed to make the program even longer and more inclusive.

The 3-D craze began in 1952, when "Bwana Devil" came out -- and grossed some than 50 films were made in 3-D. Some were substantial movies that used 3-D to enhance their visual styles. Others had no greater ambition than to hurl gorillas, buckets of water, locomotives, the Three Stooges, and other unsettling things into the faces of helpless viewers.

Soon the public wearied of all this, and the process was abandoned. "Dial M for Murder" is probably the most artful picture ever shot in 3-D. Yet, ironically, it was completed just as the fad faded away -- and virtually all its original engagements were played as a conventional "flat" film in a mere two dimensions.

Today, only a few 3-D films have survived in their original form, though others may be gathering dust in studio vaults, and efforts are being made to ferret these out. According to the entertainment newspaper Variety, rumors floated about for some time before Warner Bros. finally checked and verified the existence of original "right eye" and "left eye" negatives for "Dial M for Murder."

And even then, there were plenty of problems in restoring the picture. After lying fallow for 25 years, the nega- tive had undergone shrinking and fading. Technicians were called in at Technicolor to reprint and resynchronize the parallel strips of celluloid.Since younger employees had never worked with 3-D materials before, old-timers were called in from retirement to assistin the restoration.

The cost of the reconstruction came to more than $6,000. Fortunately, the finished product looks just great -- and makes a fitting testament to the great experimenter named Hitchcock, who used the 3-D process with great subtlety to heighten the physical and psychological tensions of the story. Most of "Dial M" takes place in a single room. Yet in -D, much more than in 2-D, it is anelegant and evocative visual adventure.

I can't say the same for "House of Wax," with Vincent Price and Charles Bronson, which is a lot of fun, but hardly worth the millions of dolars it made in 1952. "Creature From the Black lagoon" and "It Came From Outer Space" -- due for a double bill at the 8th Street -- look rather tame in 2-D, though 3-D may bring out beauties that have lain hidden since the early '50s. As for "Inferno, " "Gorilla at large," "Mad Magician," and "Drums of Tahiti," your guess is as good as mine. Undiscovered masterpieces or campy disappointments, they will unspool at the 8th Street to be treasured or hissed off the screen, according to their merits.

If the 8th Street festival builds into a major success, other exhibitors are sure to follow suit. But it would be costly. In the original 3-D process, filming was done by two giant cameras mounted in tandem. When the movie is shown, two reels must run in perfect syncronization, aimed at a special "silver screen."

The extra cost of making 3-D movies was one factor in the demise of the process. Today, it is estimated that a 3-D theater must invest up to $5,000 for the equipment necessary to show the films, including "interlock motors" to synchronize know how to get this sort of machinery into working order, and the projections must know exactly what he's doing.

It's a lot of bother and expense. Yet organizations such as Warner Classics and the 8th Street Playhouse are making the plunge in a big way, confident that a large audience exists.

The dream of 3-D has never disappeared entirely. During the '70s, a new 3-D process was even developed, using polarized light -- and largely wasted on such schlock as "The Stewardesses" and Andy Warhol's "Frankenstein," also on tap at the 8th Street. Today, a long list of studios is cooperating in the hunt for old, forgotten 3-D films, and specimens have been exhibited on screens as various as the Berlin Film Festival and the adventurous Thalia Cinema in Manhattan. The craze isn't likely to conquer the '80s any more than it conquered the '50s. But if you missed it the first time around, your golden opportunity could be just around the corner.

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