Man In The Dark (1953)

Man In The Dark (1953) is a rough-edged and semi-sleazy fantasy Lew Landers 3-D amnesia criminal mystery drama low-budget film noir, starring solid noir scions Edmond O'Brien, Audrey Totter and Ted de Corsia.

Going so far as to include mad scientist elements in the hand of of some fully state operated crazy medicine men, Edmond O'Brien plays a criminal who undergoes a brain operation which serves to remove the part of his brain that makes him such a bad-ass robber, thug, and hater of and sneerer at humanity.

The downside of the operation is the loss of the criminal's memory, and so another case of amnesia noir commences, as Edmond O'Brien plays the weakened male lead, once more lost without a brain in the city and in a world of crime.

Criminal surgery in Man In The Dark (1953)

There are women and there are thugs and he can't remember where is $120,000 is. With kidnap and car chase action noir and a shoot out car chase, Man In The Dark (1953) is such an action and fantasy prototype, it is veritably possible to see all the alternative methods of dealing the lost male, the amnesiac criminal male, the vulnerable man in a violent city, rising to the fateful dark. 

Most of the films between 1930 and 1960 that deal with amnesia were films noir. You can evidence some of that at the Letterboxd classic movies about amnesia, an excellent list.

3-D shoot-out in Man In The Dark (1953)

It is always noted in the context of this slice of film study that if a noir is a Christmas noir, that will be rightly noted. It's true that despite Man in the Dark being a Christmas noir, there is not a lot of Christmas to its noir, other than the odd wreath in the distance in some shops, and the slight positioning of the theme on occasion at the edge of the frame.

Steve is as is mentioned throughout, wild and crazy and from the jungle, plate smashing instead of doing the dishes, and snogging Audrey Totter violently to keep his temper in check.

The joint was quiet, too quiet, as the flicker of the silver screen cut through the smoky haze. There I was, thinking I'd stumbled upon a relic from Fritz Lang's own vault—those tight shots, skewed angles, and the kind of glass that doesn't just break, it explodes. But then it hit me like a slug from a .38—it was Lew Landers' name on the marquee. 

Lew, the old workhorse, churned out B flicks like a machine, but this... this was something else.  Man in the Dark  wasn't your run-of-the-mill Columbia picture show. It had the kind of shadows and light that would make a gumshoe nervous, a black and white caper that played the 3D gimmick straight from the shadows. 

Behind the lens was Floyd Crosby, painting the town in shades of gray that made the dark corners darker and the bright lights blinding. Edmond O'Brien and Audrey Totter, they were the real McCoy, lifting the words off a script that smelled of mothballs and making them sing. 

In Man In The Dark (1953) it's the dream that'll get you—the kind of nightmare where you're running from the bulls in bumper cars, and no matter how fast you drive, you're just spinning your wheels. That's cinema, kid. That's Man in the Dark. These 3-D-dream sequences are bizarre in the most friendly manner.

Ted de Corsia and Audrey Totter in Man In The Dark (1953)

Noir is a style of profound richness, and it would be reductive to suggest that these are its sole preoccupations. However, the aforementioned themes—the urban tableau and the omnipotence of the past—resonate with particular profundity. 

The early 1930s depicted the metropolis in stark verisimilitude, as a crucible for narratives of the underclass and the criminal element. By the twilight of the 1930s, the cityscape had metamorphosed into an idyllic backdrop for tales of romance and opulence. Yet, as the war’s echoes faded, the urban allure transmogrified into something more sinister, more enigmatic. 

Noir cinema juxtaposed the sanitized banality of suburban life with the city’s newly minted aura of peril and seduction, often portrayed as a beleaguered leviathan, ensnaring or beckoning those who sought to extricate themselves from its grasp, compelling them to confront phantoms of their former transgressions in pursuit of elusive contentment.

Illustrative of this thematic preoccupation are two quintessential noir sequences: one from the oeuvre of Fritz Lang, and another showcasing Glenn Ford’s portrayal of a detective ensnared by his own inner turmoil. These vignettes exemplify the genre’s fixation on the urban domain’s beguiling menace and the haunting omnipresence of the past.

3-D cigar work in Man In The Dark (1953)

The style, with its heightened visual lexicon and its exploration of the labyrinthine human psyche, did not serve as a mere reflective surface for our postbellum contentment. Rather, its raison d’être transcended mere reflection, endeavoring to both entertain and to inject a renewed vitality into the crime film paradigm, particularly in its representation of urbanity in the post-conflict epoch. Moreover, it underscored the inexorable influence of the antecedent, the specters of yesteryears we presumed interred, in their uncanny capacity to contort our destinies at the most unforeseen junctures.

In an exercise of intellectual flamboyance, one might articulate that the inflationary zeitgeist of the 1920s precipitated a thermodynamic overextension of our economic machinations, culminating in the austere recompense of the Depression era. 

This noir-matic cinema-philosophical postulation insinuates that, akin to the chiaroscuro tapestry of film noir, our collective gaze was retroactively oriented, eschewing the prospective horizon. In the aftermath of global conflict, our societal disposition was not so much marred by disillusionment as it was effervescently beguiled by the prospects of peace, a collective consciousness discordant with the sombre motifs of film noir.

Hollywoodland sign just about visible in Man In The Dark (1953)

A chase across the sound-stage roofs in Man In The Dark (1953)

Conversely, Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947) introduces us to Jeff Bailey, portrayed by Robert Mitchum, who embodies the doomed romanticism of the era. Initially depicted as a man who has fled the urban labyrinth to a desolate crossroads, his ostensibly rehabilitated self becomes entangled with a modest yet astute local woman. Nonetheless, the inescapable shadows of his former life in the criminal underworld resurface, compelling him to confront a past rife with deceit and betrayal within the infernal confines of San Francisco.

These films underscore the noir conviction that one cannot elude the specter of the city, nor the darkness within oneself. Moreover, they often positioned younger, less experienced individuals at the heart of a morally bankrupt urban milieu, individuals who aspire to transcend their circumstances but find themselves ensnared by the city’s relentless grip. 

Anthony Mann’s Railroaded (1947) serves as a prime example of this theme, preceding his ascent in the industry and his subsequent creation of more sophisticated noirs, such as Side Street (1950), which also explores the plight of innocents yearning to extricate themselves from the urban maelstrom.

The noir style, in its intrinsic melodramatic essence, perhaps exaggerated the city’s nefarious allure and simultaneously failed to appreciate the pastoral charm of rural environs. Filmmakers, as consummate purveyors of drama, seemed to advocate for the enduring relevance of the urban landscape—a milieu they held in higher regard than the prosaic suburban life, with the city’s erotic escapades being portrayed as more titillating than their suburban counterparts.

Two cinematic works of the noir tradition poignantly highlight the enduring, albeit malevolent, allure of the postwar city. John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950) vividly encapsulates the director’s vision of a morally ambiguous and convoluted cityscape, ensnaring its protagonist, the indomitable Sterling Hayden, in his quest for one final heist to reclaim the idyllic pastoral life of his youth—a pursuit that culminates in an ironic and tragic denouement.

In the postbellum American zeitgeist, the metropolis was increasingly relegated to the annals of yesteryear, its once formidable influence supplanted by a perception of disarray and petty criminality. 

The quintessential patriarch, as depicted in the cultural lexicon, had transformed into the archetypal Organization Man or the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, traversing the urban expanse solely for pecuniary pursuits, with the populace harboring concerns over the city’s potential to erode his essence. Yet, as the clock struck the end of the workday, he would expediently decamp to the sanctity of his suburban domicile.

In the cinematic landscape of yore, the archetypal villains of crime movies were often depicted as mere brutes, save for the delightfully malevolent James Cagney. These characters lacked a psychosexual dimension in their nefarious deeds. 

However, the post-war era saw a proliferation of such twisted antagonists. In the year 1947, coinciding with the release of “Railroaded,” Richard Widmark’s character infamously propelled an elderly woman in a wheelchair down a staircase in “Kiss of Death,” while Raymond Burr portrayed a sadistic nightclub owner in “Desperate.” These acts foreshadowed Lee Marvin’s brutal assault on Gloria Grahame with a scalding coffeepot in “The Big Heat.”

These figures epitomized the malevolent essence of the urban jungle, suggesting that the nocturnal cityscape harbored threats far more sinister than mere bumbling criminals. They embodied the newfound cinematic recognition of psychopathy’s ability to insidiously disrupt the mundane. These characters were decidedly more malevolent and twisted than any previous cinematic villains, embodying a novel form of transgression that, while thrilling to audiences, did not pose a tangible threat to societal well-being.

Three-dimensional dream cops in Man In The Dark (1953)

Concurring with Paul Schrader’s observations, there is an unmistakable undercurrent of American disquietude within the classic noir genre, albeit symbolically rendered. Despite contemporary settings, complete with modern automobiles, attire, and furnishings, the noir universe often diverges into an almost parallel reality, akin to America yet distinctly other. Notably, many noir narratives culminate in tragedy, with protagonists whom audiences have been led to empathize with meeting their demise in complex, often fatal, conclusions. 

This narrative choice is not a mere reflection of what Schrader terms “the acute downer” of the era but rather an artistic expression of the past’s persistent influence on the characters’ fates, as exemplified by Robert Mitchum’s character in the evocatively titled “Out of the Past.”

The specter of the past, relatively dormant in pre-war cinema, emerged as a formidable force in post-war film noir, shaping destinies and ensnaring characters in a web of consequences from which escape was seldom possible. The genre’s exploration of this theme resonates with the broader cultural and social reflections of post-WWII America.

3-D spider gimmick in Man In The Dark (1953)

John Forbes, portrayed by Dick Powell, is steeped in a miasma of discontent, his wartime experiences lacking valor and his current occupation as an insurance claims adjuster offering little in the way of fulfilment. 

The domestic routine is punctuated only by tepid bridge games, and John’s once-vivid dreams of nautical adventures have dissolved into the ether of lost aspirations. The city, visible from their suburban vantage point, looms as an indistinct threat to Sue’s delicate contentment and John’s resigned acceptance of mediocrity.

A beating from the dream cops in Man In The Dark (1953)

André de Toth’s Pitfall (1948) is indeed a film that resonates with Paul Schrader’s depiction of the 1940s and early '50s as a period marked by American disillusionment. The narrative orbits around the suburban domicile of the Forbes family, a quintessential representation of the compromised American dream. 

The arrival of MacDonald, a private detective embodied by Raymond Burr, introduces an element of intrigue and disruption into John’s staid existence1. The film, while not widely available, thus remains a poignant exploration of post-war ennui and the perils of straying from the suburban ideal. It stands as a testament to the era’s cinematic exploration of the darker facets of the American psyche and the suburban landscape. If you’re interested in delving deeper into the themes and impact of Pitfall, I recommend exploring the available analyses and reviews to gain a more comprehensive understanding of its place within the film noir genre.

Edmond O'Brien, a mug with a noggin full of fog, didn't catch his amnesia from any tropical squall. No, this palooka lifted a cool $130,000 on Christmas Eve, got nabbed, and did his nickel. But the docs offered him a square deal—a brain job to snip the crooked wires. 

The day they set to scrub his slate clean, he balks, spitting out,  I was born on a Monday. Might as well scrub out like the week's dirty shirts. 

The sawbones work their magic, and bam, the past's wiped out, but the patter? That sticks like gum on a shoe.

3-D rollercoaster noir with Edmond O'Brien in Man In The Dark (1953)

Life's a breeze in the loony bin—trimming bushes, slapping paint—until his old cronies, led by the hard-nosed Ted De Corsia, snatch him up. They're itching for the dough that's still in the wind. A bloodhound insurance dick's on the prowl, too. 

And his doll, Audrey Totter? She's eyeing him like a winning ticket until she goes sweet on the new O'Brien and kicks her gold-digging to the curb. Totter's a knockout, especially when she's three sheets to the wind, asking the barkeep, Oh, Fred, what's the cure for the self-loathing blues? 

But the past ain't done with O'Brien. Nightmares start coughing up hints, nudging him and Totter, with the whole cast and the coppers on their heels, to an amusement park package pickup. It's the big show, a 3-D hullabaloo with cars zipping and diving on the coaster, fists flying high and low. 

These days, those 3-D flicks are like yesterday's soda—flat. Yet, they've got a charm, a snapshot of the times, complete with party-line pads and lampshades decked out in knockoff art.  Man in the Dark  may be a short ride, and could use another twist or two, but it's still got some pop.

The flick had a rep as a stale dish, another gangland tale spun with the usual suspects and a plot as thin as a dime-store novel. But I’ll be a flatfoot’s uncle if it didn’t turn out to be a real knee-slapper of a B-movie, complete with gags that pop out at ya like a jack-in-the-box.

Cut out passengers on the roller-coaster in Man In The Dark (1953)

Of enormous interest is the rooftop chase sequence which is most obviously staged on the roofs of the studio's own sound stages, the hanger type of ventilated massive Hollywood sheds are quite distinctive, and the Hollywoodland sign can even be seen in the background, in one of those shots.

Sure, the script was no Shakespeare—it had all the originality of a knockoff wristwatch. But Edmund O’Brien, that guy’s got chops. He turned a humdrum line into a symphony, and the rest of the cast? They weren’t just holding up the scenery—they were painting it with broad strokes.

And let’s gab about those 3-D high jinks—scalpels, stogies, heaters, and even a potted petunia coming at ya like they’re shot from a cannon. But the real McCoy, the bee’s knees of the whole shebang, was the live-action shots. A rooftop rumpus that’ll have you on the edge of your seat, and the amusement park caper? 

It’s the cat’s pajamas, with a roller coaster that’ll make your heart do the Lindy Hop and close-ups of Laughing Sal that’ll have you in stitches. If you’re gonna take a gander at this picture, do it for the belly laughs and the trip down memory lane to '53.

Man in the Dark (1953)

Directed by Lew Landers
Genres - Drama, Thriller, 3D Noir FFS |   Release Date - Apr 8, 1953 (USA - Unknown)  |   Run Time - 70 min.


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