From the title alone, it sounds as though 'Man in the Dark' is the kind of hardboiled noir the likes of which Raymond Chandler would concoct. Instead, this pulpy thriller starring Edmond O'Brien ('The Hitch-Hiker') delivers an entertaining, if not completely solid mishmash of ideas that flirt with the more typical notions of a crime drama, a dash of the ever-popular tale of one man's redemption, and, surprisingly, some compelling science fiction themes that would later be far more pronounced in things like, Anthony Burgess' 1962 novel 'A Clockwork Orange.'
Released in 1953 with the completely unnecessary-yet-attention-grabbing declaration of being the first 3-D motion picture to be produced by a major studio (which is in no way supported the story, even if it is by the filmmaking); it was essentially the kind of film that attempted to appeal to a wider audience through the use of (at least then), stimulating, but occasionally unpersuasive technology. Even by today's standards, where it seems everything is being slapped with an up-chargeable option for a headache inducing experience, this rather modestly told tale of a man-on-the-run being gratuitously augmented through 3-D is the kind of shallow gimmick that would be akin to arbitrarily throwing a shoddy third dimension onto something like, say, a documentary about U.K. boy band 'One Direction.'
On the other hand, 'Man in the Dark' has enough weirdness and 'Twilight Zone'-esque plot points going on in its genre-hopping storyline that throwing 3-D in there might have actually felt like the next logical step, considering the movie so readily attempts to defy convention. The story begins in a hospital where career criminal Steve Rawley (O'Brien) undergoes an experimental brain surgery intended to eliminate his predilection toward criminal behavior. Early signs suggest the surgery was a success, but the side effect of the procedure is Rawley's near-complete amnesia – which, one might think, could possibly account for his recent personality change.
Before 'Man in the Dark' can delve too deeply into a discussion of nature vs. nurture, free will, and the ethics of scientifically tampering with and altering the behavior of a human being for the purpose of social good, Rawley – who is now going by the name James Blake – is abducted from the hospital by the members of his former gang. As it turns out, Rawley's old crew – now led by the thuggish brute, Lefty (Ted de Corsia) – is on the prowl for the loot he stashed before being nabbed by the police a year ago. Naturally, given his post-surgery condition, Rawley has no clue as to who these men are, much less where the money is hidden. Rawley, or rather, Blake, finds himself at the mercy of his old gang, biding his time until he can piece together the mystery of his past, all the while hoping to avoid capture by the authorities, who mistakenly believe he's returned to his old thieving ways.
Joining Blake on a journey through the past is his old girlfriend, Peg Benedict (Audrey Totter), who takes a shine to the new man hiding underneath such a familiar face. As it turns out, Blake's newfound penchant toward morality and upstanding behavior is more to Peg's liking than any of his past criminality ever was. With that, Blake and Peg make their way through what little they can piece together about Rawley's final moments as a free man, to arrive at the only place the money could be. What happens next, however, is a test of Blake's free will and self-restraint. When faced with the possibility of starting anew, will the former criminal with no memory of his past revert to his old ways, thereby proving he had no choice in who he is, or will he choose to live the life of James Blake, a newly formed individual unfettered by a past he can no longer recall?
Director Lew Landers manages to work in some intriguing thematic questions about autonomy and self-governance, while intimating at the larger issue of society's desire to curb violent criminal behavior at any cost. While 'Man in the Dark' is, for the most part, the kind of crime movie its title suggests, the rather unexpected and, admittedly, unexplained addition of such a radical and fantastical surgical procedure affords the film a great deal of leeway in probing the question: At what cost comes the effort of ridding the world of criminal behavior? On the individual level, Landers and his screenwriters George Bricker and Jack Leonard seem to think the cost may be a complete loss of self, with the rather startling suggestion that, in certain cases, such a thing may lead to the ultimate change.
In the end, 'Man in the Dark' boils down to a slick film noir with some ideas that are perhaps bigger than a film sold primarily on the promise of its visuals, was ready to follow through on completely. The seeds are definitely planted here, but it would be 13 years later, with John Frankenheimer's phenomenal 'Seconds,' where the idea of science tampering with identity, and its effect on the human psyche would bear far more substantial fruit. Still, for a film saddled with an unnecessary gimmick, 'Man in the Dark' is a much smarter, and more ambitious film than such a device would suggest.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Man in the Dark' comes from Twilight Time as one of 3,000 available copies. The film itself is housed in a single 25GB Blu-ray disc in an eco-keepcase. Along with the film, there is also a booklet featuring an essay by film critic Julie Kirgo. Aside from the option to watch the film in 2 or 3-D, an isolated score track, and the theatrical trailer (which is quite a kick, actually), the disc is rather barebones.
Depending on which version of the film you're watching, 'Man in the Dark' is present in a 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 codec for 2-D, while the 3-D version is given an MVC encode. What's truly impressive about both transfers is how well each has been preserved, and the phenomenal job that was done to bring both images to Blu-ray.
The 2-D version is about as pristine as you can get – especially for a film that will be 61-years-old this year. Presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, the image retains a good amount of film grain, but it is the kind that only serves to enhance the viewing experience. At any rate, the grain does nothing to deter the film from exhibiting high levels of fine detail and remarkably clear images. Contrast levels are terrific; whites, blacks, and grays all have a wonderfully wide scale and tend to be distinct throughout the film. There are a few shots where the focus goes a little soft, but that doesn't seem to be a product of the transfer. Overall, this is a very nice looking 2-D image.
Surprisingly, the same can be said for the 3-D image. The film features plenty of "look at me" shots that highlight the medium – one of which happens early on and depicts a cluster of surgeons hovering over their patient – while others simply utilize objects placed in the foreground to enhance the stereoscopic effect. The image here is actually quite good; there is little evidence of ghosting to be found, keeping the effect from being marred in any significant way. There are a few places where the image alters the depth of the scene in a strange, and likely unintentional way – some indoor shots make the rooms look enormous – but, like the soft focus, they're few and far between.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track is fairly basic. The intention of the audio here is to deliver dialogue in a clear, precise manner and the disc does that with aplomb. Truth be told, however, despite its thriller pedigree, 'Man in the Dark' does not subscribe to the aural conventions of the genre that many contemporary viewers would consider essential. There are a few moments when the sound aims to highlight something other than the character's talking, and in those instances, the mix does a good job in balancing the dialogue with sound effects and music.
For the most part, though, the mix on 'Man in the Dark' is notable for the lack of damage that's present in the sound. There are no unwanted elements, zero hissing or popping, and, overall, the few elements that are present all sound rock solid throughout. This clearly wasn't a film that aspired to much in terms of sound design, but that doesn't mean it sounds bad; there just isn't much there to report on.
'Man in the Dark' is the kind of little-seen film that deserves some attention on home video, and this presentation is just the ticket. Not a great film by any means, this genre-hopping noir has some interesting ideas to begin with, but once the plot get rolling, they mostly go by the wayside. And that's too bad, as the script seems interested in exploring things beyond the obvious criminal escapades and thin romance between Blake and the girl he doesn't remember. Mostly, this will be a gem for 3-D enthusiasts, who want to see a picture done in the medium before technology made it a staple of blockbuster productions everywhere. Although the disc could have used a few special features, it does include great picture and quality sound, so, for those interested, perhaps that will be enough. Recommended.