It’s a promising project for Allied Artists: William Cameron Menzies does a spooky horror movie in 3-D! Something creepy’s going on in a mysterious Scottish castle, something to do with problems in the lineage to a Barony. It’s also a 3-C epic: Candles, Cobwebs and Corridors. Add a frightened, shivering heroine in a nightgown and the horror recipe is complete. It’s another restoration treat from the 3-D Film Archive.
KL Studio Classics
1953 / B&W / 1:37 Academy / 80 min. / Street Date April 24, 2018 / available through Kino Lorber / 34.95
Starring: Richard Carlson. Veronica Hurst, Katherine Emery, Michael Pate, John Dodsworth, Hillary Brooke, Stanley Fraser, Lillian Bond, Owen McGiveney, Robin Hughes.
Cinematography: Harry Neumann
Film Editor: John Fuller
Original Music: Marlin Skiles
Written by Daniel B. Ullman, from a novel by Maurice Sandoz
Produced by Richard V. Heermance, Walter Mirisch
Production Design and Directed by William Cameron Menzies
The Whole Picture Is Like a Living 3-D Pop-Up Book
Walter Mirisch rose to head of production at Allied Artists by a hard road. In the late 1940s all of Hollywood had to find ways to economize, but the tiny studio AA had little fat to cut away. Mirisch’s ‘Bomba the Jungle Boy’ series kept the cash flowing in, as did the equally frugal Bowery Boys series. Allied also made heavy use of Cinecolor, to make its pictures at least seem competitive. Realizing that the choice was to evolve or die, AA tried to stay ahead of trends, as with Flight to Mars, a science fiction movie. Producer Mirisch was also in on the studio’s earlier name change from Monogram, to shake its old Poverty Row image.
Perhaps the smartest move by the studio was when they contracted with Walter Wanger, helping the big producer to regain his industry stature after a personal scandal. Allied Artists put Wanger’s name on a couple of already produced movies, to show Hollywood that he was back in business. Wanger then produced some excellent pictures for the studio — Riot in Cell Block 11, Invasion of the Body Snatchers — raising AA’s prestige profile.
In 1953 Mirisch got Allied Artists involved in the 3-D craze, not because he believed the format had legs, but to show that his company could navigate a hot trend as well as the big studios. Everything about the 3-D show was a smart deal. Frustrated in his attempts to engage an outside 3-D camera company (the specialists wanted a profit participation), Mirisch found that the technicians in AA’s own camera department were eager for the challenge of putting a proprietary 3-D rig.
For a leading lady, a British actress was imported from a UK company that had a business relationship with Allied Artists. Mirisch already had a working relationship with the star Richard Carlson, from Flat Top. Carlson had been wanting to direct but Mirisch instead turned to the famed design genius William Cameron Menzies, who had just done the popular scare show Invaders from Mars and was known for creating striking effects on a budget. Mirisch didn’t commission a story but dusted off a horror-mystery property already in AA’s files, a novel that had gained some attention because its first edition was illustrated by the surrealist Salvador Dali. The puzzle pieces fit together: Menzies had previously interpreted Dali visuals for a much-touted dream sequence in Hitchcock’s Spellbound. Mirisch knew that he and his studio would get nowhere doing the same tiny program pictures on the same tiny sets. If Menzies could create something exceptional, great things might result.
The Maze is a small-scale gothic thriller that generates some reasonable atmosphere; viewers not tipped off to its surprise conclusion find it suspenseful as well. It takes place among the European smart set, although all we see is a swimming pool and a hotel lobby. Scottish noble-in-name-only Gerald MacTeam (Richard Carlson) is wealthy and carefree; at present he’s two weeks away from marrying his English girlfriend Kitty Murray (Veronica Hurst) and is vacationing in the South of France with Kitty and her Aunt Edith (Katherine Emery). A telegram summons Gerald back to the remote Craven Castle, where a relative has died leaving him with serious ‘family responsibilities.’ Expected to return in a few days, Gerald instead waits weeks before breaking off his engagement without explanation. The furious Kitty rushes to the MacTeam castle with Edith, but is greeted by a prematurely aged, hostile Gerald. He now lives alone with his loyal, closed-mouthed servants, led by William (Michael Pate). Completely changed in personality, Gerald explains nothing and expects his guests to stay locked in their rooms at night, when something mysterious moves through the hallways and into a large hedge maze on the castle grounds. When more of Gerald’s friends show up, expecting a party, things really get strange.
The biggest expenditure on The Maze must have been the 3-D, which uses at least double the film and slows down production. Yet the crack crews at Monogram/Allied Artists progressed almost as fast as on a 2-D shoot. The show has good performances by its four leading players, but the real star is director William Cameron Menzies. Although it doesn’t look as if he designed the sets in detail — this is not the visual knockout that was his Columbia picture Address Unknown — Menzies’ camera angles and blocking are always dynamic. Seen in 2-D, the show seems slow and somewhat static, but the 3-D direction adds greatly to the visual interest. No shots are allowed to throw away the depth illusion. Objects are often arranged on multiple planes, often with one plane in relative darkness. Menzies does allow some dialogue scenes just to ‘sit’ and record the acting within a proscenium. That’s the opposite of today’s action filmmaking, where the fear of ‘just watching actors’ makes directors move the camera at all times, even if the subject is just two seated people conversing.
Atmospheric effects are especially good in scenes with fog and smoke. the opening has a rather dumb acrobatic dance trio tossing a woman at the camera, but Menzies saves the story-related ‘in our face’ effects for special moments. Much of the fun is just enjoying the spatial relationships on different sets, with different focal lenses. The occasional trucking shots in 3-D are terrific.
We enjoyed The Maze on TV as kids because it delivered a real monster. Some haunted-house bats in the first half are so pathetic, they make us nostalgic for Universal’s fake bats from the 1930s. But the corridor set they fly through is worthy of any gothic ‘walk with a candle’ nighttime sequence. I always thought the ‘thing’ revealed at the end of the show to be quite effective. It’s both totally unexpected and weirdly sympathetic, and is sufficiently outlandish that we aren’t tempted to laugh at it. Some critics like to call the film ‘Lovecraftian,’ perhaps because Aunt Edith says that the ‘thing’ she saw was indescribable. But the film’s pitch is not surreal but straight-up gothic, with creepy locked doors and family secrets familiar from romantic literature. Good old 1950s realism requires Richard Carlson’s Gerald to give us a full Psycho– like recap of what we’ve seen. Years later, David Lynch’s Eraserhead would tell a somewhat similar story from the queasy inside, expressing the intolerable horror of ‘otherness.’
Director Menzies was reportedly not keen on the details of directing actors, and likely wouldn’t mind if Richard Carlson tried to get involved. The performances of the principals are good, but the weak dialogue for the group banter — stupid jokes, etc. — doesn’t allow the support cast to come off well. Carlson’s Gerald is morose, Veronica Hurst’s heroine is spirited and feisty and Katherine Emery’s Aunt Edith has a short temper.
Aunt Edith is employed to ‘tell’ the story in occasional cutaways to an odd composition where she barely peeks over the bottom half of the frame. Nobody’s come up with a satisfactory explanation for the odd framing, but it aligns with the eccentric graphic ideas seen in Our Town and For Whom the Bell Tolls, where Menzies designs create visual tension by jamming the actors into corners of the frame. Since Emery’s storytelling bits exist outside the main narrative, I’m surprised that Menzies didn’t position her in some kind of foggy ‘limbo,’ like John Newland in TV’s One Step Beyond, or Grace Kelly in Dial ‘M’ for Murder.
The unfamiliar Veronica Hurst is quite good, and holds the screen throughout the movie. Hillary Brooke returns from Menzies’ Invaders from Mars. Neither she nor extra uninvited guest Lilian Bond is allowed to make much of an impression. I’m surprised that nobody mentions that Lilian Bond delivers a standout performance in the recently restored macabre James Whale classic The Old Dark House. White hair doesn’t really change Richard Carlson that much, so his dour attitude is mostly a drag: if Gerald is so defeated by his troubles that he has to treat Kitty so poorly, she could do better elsewhere anyway. Compensating mightily is the expert Australian actor Michael Pate as William, the caretaker of Craven Castle’s mysterious secret. Pate plays secret agent Felix Leiter in the eccentric first TV show escapade of James Bond (1954). As the Apache menace of Sam Peckinpah’s Major Dundee, he makes a strong impression with less than thirty seconds of screen time.
The Maze paid off well for Allied Artists, mainly because they got their product to market fast, while the 3-D craze was still hot. Too many 3-D titles produced just a year later, including AA’s Dragonfly Squadron, were produced in depth but ended up being distributed in flat 2-D only.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of The Maze is one of the best 3-D discs yet, mainly because the film’s visuals are so well designed by William Cameron Menzies. Shot after shot is like a living 3-D pop-up book. Although a minor movie, the spatial illusion is rock solid. Many shots have the ‘organic’ look lacking in movies where the 3-D has been created in post production. Objects and people have a rounded appearance, and wider shots have the feeling of a depth continuum, not a stack of planes.
The image is a beauty. Rather than having to work with mismatched or poorly stored film elements, the 3-D Film Archive for once had materials in excellent condition. They also worked in conjunction with Paramount Pictures and The Film Foundation in a cooperative deal perhaps aided by Martin Scorsese. Thad Komorowski performed the visual cleanup, while the 3-D restoration was entrusted to the Archive’s Greg Kintz, whose experience enables him to quickly solve the strangest optical problems. We’re told that AA’s camera department’s 3-D rig had some alignment issues, and that Kintz digitally fixed and finessed various mismatches that might cause eyestrain. This means that the 3-D Blu-ray technology gives the viewer a better 3-D experience than was had in original theatrical presentations. Kintz even discovered that the ‘eyes’ for the film’s Intermission card had been swapped, and fixed that as well.
The ‘restored’ 3-channel stereophonic audio was actually recreated, as the film’s original tracks no longer exist. Audio engineer Eckhard Büttner’s filtering tricks yield a clean separation, with the directional effects heard in multi-channel movies of the 1950s.
Kino and the 3-D Archive do not skimp on the extras, starting with a busy audio commentary. Tom Weaver sounds audibly excited about this title, and eagerly discusses its possible real-life historical inspiration, which tangentially involves the British Royal Family. Although this particular genetic curse was supposed to have begun in 1750, the truth of various Royal relations shunted away and forgotten in asylums is pretty unpleasant. Tom’s good stories of the production make use of info gleaned from interviews old (Michael Pate) and recent (Walter Mirisch). He enlists his familiar cohorts as well. David Schecter discusses the soundtrack music by Marlin Skiles, and Dr. Robert J. Kiss goes over the film’s release history (Kiss thinks that the short Doom Town is anti-nuke). 3-D expert Bob Furmanek ‘drops by’ to dish salient facts about his team’s restoration; we’re glad that the expertise of his team is now being recognized by the studios. Much more historical detail about The Maze can be read at Furmanek’s 3-D Film Archive page on The Maze. Salvador Dali’s interesting ‘trick’ illustration from the original book can be seen there as well.
A big surprise is a brief interview with actress Veronica Hurst, who communicates affection for her Hollywood debut even if she has only very generalized memories of the experience. Loaned out to Allied Artists, Ms. Hurst filmed two pictures in quick succession. On a break in the filming, she traveled to San Francisco to visit relatives of her boyfriend William Sylvester, the future star of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
An original trailer is in clean, sharp 3-D as well. 3-D enthusiasts with the proper equipment don’t need to be sold on The Maze. My shelf of 3-D attractions contains a growing number of Golden-Era ’50s classics, a bunch of which are due to the work of The 3-D Film Archive. Their next is supposed to be the adventure movie Sangaree with Fernando Lamas and Arlene Dahl. Right now I wish somebody could set a fire underneath Hollywood to not abandon the excellent Blu-ray 3-D system. Perhaps when James Cameron’s new Avatar films come out (?) there’ll be a resurgence. The John Wayne western Hondo was remastered in excellent 3-D years ago; it really needs a home video release in depth. It would probably draw crowds with a theatrical reissue.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
3-D Blu-ray rates:
Video and 3-D: Excellent
Sound: Very Good 3-Channel Stereo
Supplements: Tom Weaver Commentary, Interview with Veronica Hurst, original Trailer in 3-D
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 8, 2018
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson