The Maze (1953)

The Maze (1953) is not film noir but an odd offbeat horror from the era, shot in 3-DIMENSIONS by William Cameron Menzies, and starring Richard Carlson, Veronica Hurst and Hillary Brooke. 

Despite its intentions and odd style at times, those times being when you forget you may or should be watching a three-dimensional movie, The Maze  (1953) does amply demonstrate what classic film noir began to offer horror.

Horror films in the film noir era certainly began to use the techniques of darkness, shadows and psychological suspense in ways that had worked well for film noir.

Directed by the great Scottish art director and set designer William Cameron Menzies, the film has a proper gothic atmosphere, making the most of the decrepit big houses or past favourites of the style, including Dracula's castle, Paul Leni’s The Cat and the Canary and Joe May’s The House of Fear.

Noir-a-like effects include long hallways, high ceilings, and cobwebbed passages. Some of the cobwebs are over the top, but the effect of a cobweb is as psychological as it is a physical threat.

Menzies and cinematographer Harry Neumann provide the film with some great tracking shots of the castle and its grounds, with some of the more memorable thick blankets of fog, in an age when thick blankets of fog were commonplace cinema.

The Maze opens with the engagement party of Gerald MacTeam (Richard Carlson) and Kitty Murray (Veronica Hurst from Peeping Tom).  

After the happy couple spends a night of celebration with Kitty’s Aunt Edith (Isle of the Dead’s Katherine Emery) at a nightclub, Gerald gets a letter from Craven Castle, an old place in the dreads and dampness of Scotland, that belongs to his family and in which his uncle lives.  

Richard Carlson in The Maze (1953)

After reading the letter, Gerald leaves for Craven Castle, promising Kitty that he’ll be back soon.  He doesn’t return, instead sending a letter calling off their engagement.

Kitty and Edith are concerned, and the two women decide that the best thing to do is to go and see him at the castle.  When they arrive, Gerald is sickly and gaunt, and seems aged and full of doo, simply moodily brooding around in an ill fashion.

Gerald tries to make the women leave, but relents and lets them stay.  He tells the servants, William and Robert to lock them in their quarters at night, but Kitty finds a secret passageway in her room that leads to a window that overlooks a huge hedge maze on the castle grounds.  

While looking down at the maze, Kitty sees something moving around in there.  The next morning, on her way outside, Kitty discovers upon a weird footprint on the stairs, which Robert quickly cleans up!

The horror unspools over time and wordy encounters, with the psychologically spooked premises giving away very little, if anything at all. 

Originally shot in 3D, Menzies does not go for the normal clichés associated and actually the letters and little else seem to help identify it as having been a 3-dimensional feature.  

Forgoing the main 3D gimmicks (the paddle ball in House of Wax; the thrusting spears of Treasure of the Four Crowns), Menzies goes for the depth of his sets as his 3-D play piece, except in one moment where the most unconvincing bat in all of cinema flits through. Certainly the highlight and the most striking part of the design is the giant hedge maze of the title, which perhaps is used too sparingly, even though restrictions seem to have been in place constructing a set worth of the maze itself.

Perhaps this hedge maze set foreshadows the more elaborate hedge maze of the Stanley Kubrick horror, The Shining.  The climactic scene of Kitty and her aunt pursuing Gerald and his secret through the door of the maze is the best in the picture in terms of its tension and impact. 

Some of these scenes are mini-masterpieces, especially when you see Gerald and his servants accompanying the mutated lord down the stairs and through the house into or out the maze.  Kitty and her aunt creep along the walls of the maze by candlelight, and the sound at this point, being the wet and shambling noises, pick up the horror proper.

The dashing lead is Richard Carlson, a man remembered kindly for a string of science-fiction pictures from the early 1950s: It Came From Outer Space (1953), The Magnetic Monster (1953), Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and  the far more fact-based Riders to the Stars (1954), which he also directed. 

A strange intensity and similar lack of drama entire is brought to effect by having the lead character tell her story direct to camera. It is a strange choice, especially when trying to envisage what the 3-D add in to it was going to add. The effect is almost certainly intended as theatrical, which is an antiquated but pretty use of the screen. It seems however, not similar at all to the film noir voiceover.

Studio writer Daniel B. Ullman kept the gothic feel of the mystery novel, and Menzies directed the black-and-white film more like a thirties horror movie than a fifties science fiction film. The narration by Edith Murray, who delivers speeches straight to the camera in the style of a TV presenter, does set the tone as that of an old-time ghost story, and not a classic film noir.

Once you know that this film is in fact based on a surrealist novel, The Maze by Morris Sandoz, which in fact was illustrated by Salvador Dali, maybe things make more sense yet. 

Maurice Sandoz (1892-1958) was a Swiss author and composer who earned a PhD in chemistry but devoted himself to the arts. His fiction often included elements of horrorand bordered on the fantastic and surreal.

This novel The Maze (1945), was based on the legend of a monstrous heir of Scotland's Bowes-Lyon family kept hidden in a secret room in Glamis Castle. 

The novel, set in the fictitious Craven's Castle, is superficially a Gothic SF mystery, and suggests that the hidden heir as a 175-year-old mutant whose embryonic development was arrested at the amphibian stage. 

Sandoz's later book The House Without Windows (1950) is a philosophical novel which features a house with such futuristic innovations as an elevator, diffuse lighting, and hidden heating in pre-World War One Switzerland. 

Fantastic Memories (1944) and On the Verge (1950) are collections containing bizarre stories, often with elements of Humour and horror. All these volumes were illustrated by Salvador Dalí (1904-1989).

Sandoz also wrote the play Spring-heeled Jack, or The Terror of London (1928), based on a London legend related in the penny dreadfuls; this was later filmed as The Curse of the Wraydons (1946; vt Strangler's Morgue) directed by Victor M Gover, and again as the made-for-television Spring-Heeled Jack (1950).

The roles in the film version are curiously not strong and as for the visual denouement and the effects, maybe nothing should be said. Other than this the true horror of the beast as revealed is never going to satisfy, using the low budget and the techniques of the era. A real bull frog filmed by Menzies and shot against a miniature version of the sets caused and causes laughs in an audience that are authentically primed for shock.

A writer perhaps raised on Moravagine for inspiration, seeking the absurd, the shocking surprise, and at the same time the stretches of human possibility, in a weird Scottish castle. 

Lost in The Maze (1953)

Intermission - - rest your eyes from The Maze (1953)

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