The death of pulp maestro Mickey Spillane (1918-2006) reminds us that he was indirectly responsible for what is indisputably the greatest 3-D film noir ever made, the 1953 screen version of Spillane’s first novel, I, the Jury.
These days, when 3-D is joined at the hip with the fantasy genre (the 3-D versions of Polar Express, Chicken Little, Superman Returns, and the forthcoming Monster House), it is useful to remember that in its all-too-brief 1950s heyday, the polaroid 3-D process was applied to virtually every conceivable genre: musicals (Kiss Me, Kate), westerns (The Naked Spur), Hitchcock thrillers (Dial M for Murder), Martin & Lewis comedies (Money From Home), horror films (House of Wax), and what-have-you’s (Robot Monster).
And there were 3-D film noirs. The first was Man in the Dark, directed by Lew Landers, and starring Edmond O’Brien as an amnesiac former criminal. This was followed by The Glass Web, directed by Jack Arnold, and starring Edward G. Robinson and John Forsyth as co-workers in the world of ’50s live television. Reminiscent in some ways of Lang’s Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street, The Glass Web finds cultured Robinson tormented once again by a heartless femme fatale (Kathleen Hughes) whom he murders. Audiences apparently preferred the 2-D version, so The Glass Web never achieved the same 3-D classic status as Arnold’s better-known It Came From Outer Space and Creature From the Black Lagoon. Regardless, when I saw The Glass Web properly projected at the American Cinematheque’s 3-D Marathon, it looked great.
However, the true jewel in the crown of black-and-white 3-D noir is 1953’s I, the Jury, starring aptly-named Biff Elliot as Mike Hammer. Direction is credited to Harry Essex who most likely got the job because he had written It Came From Outer Space (or, rather, adapted it from Ray Bradbury’s screen treatment), but the source of ITJ’s stunning look could not have been anyone other than its director of photography, master cinematographer, John Alton. Hungarian-born Alton, who photographed such noir classics as T-Men, Border Incident, and The Big Combo, who wrote the book, Painting With Light, and who was, in a word, a genius. ITJ’s plot is forgettable – Private Eye Hammer looking for the killer of his buddy and finding various shifty crooks and sultry-looking women along the way – but the film’s angular interplay of light, shadow, and depth is pure eye-popping pleasure. Of particular interest is the film’s use of L.A.’s deco-styled Bradbury Building (later reused in Blade Runner) with its spacious multi-story interior, winding staircases, and wrought-iron gated elevators – an incredible location, perfect for 3-D – where Hammer supposedly maintains his office. This would be one of the great L.A. films, worthy of inclusion in Thom Anderson’s Los Angeles Plays Itself, were it not ostensibly set in New York.
ITJ’s producer, Victor Saville, went on to produce more Mickey Spillane/Mike Hammer epics including the Holy Grail of apocalyptic noirs, Kiss Me, Deadly.