In 1953, I saw a three-dimensional film for the first time.  It was a André de Toth’s  House of Wax, with that perfect slice of ham, Vincent Price, playing the curator of a wax museum in New York City, circa 1910.  Having gone bats after a fire destroyed his original establishment, Price decides he can best repopulate his rebuilt museum by snatching beautiful women from the streets and transforming them into mannequins by spraying their comely bodies with molten wax.

At 11, I was entranced.  As I watched, the screen’s frame seemed to melt away, and I entered into the space of the narrative unfolding before me.  It seemed I might reach out and protect the lovely young women fleeing from Price through midnight streets, an illusion that definitely had its appeal.  Even more enthralling, objects were coming right off the screen.  In one scene, policemen attempting to capture Price in his laboratory rammed a poker through its wooden door, doing little to dislodge it but scaring up plenty of screams from the audience.  That poker came thrusting into the orchestra until it was right under my nose.  I knew instantly that this was my acid test for 3-D aesthetics: If things came off the screen, the film won my stamp of approval.

3-D films have been around for quite a while.  Some were made in the silent period, and a spate of them came out in the early 50’s when Hollywood was trying to wow audiences away from that upstart medium, television.  They never took permanent hold, however.  This is probably because they require special glasses to see the stereoscopic effect of two filmed images projected an eyes’-width apart to simulate normal vision.

As I write, Hollywood is betting once again on 3-D—this time, with new and improved peepers.  If it pays off, 3-D may inaugurate an entertainment change as thoroughgoing as the introduction of sound in 1929 and color in the late 1930’s.  Soon we may be watching a wizened Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones swinging grumpily from the end of his whip into the orchestra seats to snag the holy grail of box-office returns.

But will the public wear those glasses, however sophisticated?  I was OK with them at 11, but today I have glasses of my own, thank you.  And what about the higher ticket price charged for the privilege of seeing bullets, babes, and bruisers fly from the screen?  As unsure as 3-D’s future is, one thing is certain: Should the process prevail as did sound and color, film’s vocabulary and syntax will be utterly changed, perhaps not for the better.  When films became talkies, they lost much of their visual ingenuity.  Silent filmmakers had made an art of showing sound.  A villain would shoot a gun, and the camera would cut to a flock of birds scattering into the sky.  With sound, however, the gun’s bald bang was enough.  When color showed up, audiences began to lose interest in film noir’s crisp, high-contrast black-and-white cinematography as well as the velvety monochromatic luminescence that had molded Gene Tierney and Ingrid Bergman into the beauties they would never quite be in color.  Despite these aesthetic losses, Hollywood was convinced, with some evidence, that the public wanted as much aural and visual fidelity as technically possible.

The better film becomes at creating the illusion of reality, the more apt it is to sacrifice artistic expression.  This is especially true of 3-D films.  The ones I’ve seen recently have for the most part given in to the temptation to make visual high fidelity their primary goal.  There’s no denying that Avatar and Alice in Wonderland look spectacularly real.  After the initial astonishment of seeing a flat screen dissolve itself into the third dimension, however, the illusion becomes surprisingly vapid.  It’s a little like those stereoscopic photos in a View-Master.  Delightful, certainly, but how many can you look at before you’ve seen enough?

Furthermore, 3-D sacrifices the pleasing defects of 2-D cinematography.  What are these defects?  Presenting the solid world in two dimensions involves distorting your subject matter.  Anyone who takes photographs knows this.  Regardless of what shows up in the viewfinder, the resulting photo will be weirdly distorted unless the photographer takes precautions.

Here’s an example.  You prepare to snap a picture of an unsuspecting friend.  At the last possible moment, she sees what you’re doing and throws her hand toward the camera to defend herself against undesired replication.  The resulting photo shows a huge hand in the foreground that dwarfs your friend’s head and body behind it.  This is because the camera does not register perspective as do our eyes.  When you saw your friend thrust her hand toward your camera, you saw it in 3-D and it looked its normal size, proportionate to the rest of her.  When it’s rendered in two dimensions, however, perspective is lost, and the hand swells to Brobdingnagian proportions.

Directors and their cinematographers are generally careful to avoid such visual infelicities.  They arrange objects and actors within their shots so that they don’t seem bizarrely out of proportion to one another.  There are times, however, when distorted perspective is just the ticket.  Take an early scene from Hitchcock’s 1951 black-and-white feature, Strangers on a Train.  Congressional aide Guy Haines (Farley Granger) accidentally meets Bruno Antony (Robert Walker) on a train traveling to Washington, D.C.  The stranger is beguiling but dismayingly well informed about Guy’s affairs, most particularly his unhappy marriage and his current romance with the daughter of the senator for whom he works.  Having charmed Guy so that his misgivings are allayed, Bruno invites him to lunch in his private compartment.  The next scene opens with the two men sitting across from each other over a dining table.  On the extreme right side of the screen, we see a seemingly huge two-pointed object in the foreground, something like a black mitre.  After a few seconds, it becomes apparent that this object comprises a pair of expensively shod feet.  Bruno is reclining, and he has thrust his legs into the foreground.  Most directors would have avoided positioning an actor in this manner.  The two-dimensional image makes Bruno’s shoes appear preposterously large compared with the actors sitting less than a couple of feet farther from the camera’s lens.  Rather than hiding 2-D’s distortion, Hitchcock made it work for him.

Had we witnessed this scene being recorded on the film’s set, we would not have noticed anything unusual.  Our eyes in conjunction with our brains would have automatically compensated for seeing in depth.  This is because we have “learned” perspective without realizing it and “know” that objects farther from our eyes look smaller in relation to those closer to us.  Psychologists have a term for this reflexive interpretation of visual data: size constancy.  We realize that things do not shrink or swell because they’re farther or nearer to us.  The camera, however, can make no such interpretive compensation.

Hitchcock inventively and systematically employed the camera’s distortion in Strangers as he did in many of his films.  He repeatedly shot Walker in the foreground so that his feet, his head, his entire body dwarf the other actors in the middle distance.  Consequently, he appears to be a dominating force.  His gargantuan shoes announce that he is about to run roughshod over Guy’s life.  Appropriately so, since Bruno is something more than an antagonist.  He is the metaphoric embodiment of the monstrous if unacknowledged anger welling up in Guy.  His lower-class wife has become an inconvenience to his ambitions, and he wants to be rid of her, but she refuses to agree to a divorce.  Phoning the senator’s daughter to tell her of this impasse, he uncharacteristically loses control and shouts that he could strangle his spouse.  While the restrained, career-conscious Guy would never do such a thing, Bruno would and does.  Bruno is Guy’s own stifled will brutally asserting itself regardless of decorum and morality.  Using two-dimensional cinematography, Hitchcock marvelously visualized the argument between prudence and impulse that lurks within us all.

So, the question is this: Will 3-D reduce films to animated View-Master spectacles, so realistic as to be nearly indistinguishable from the reality they mechanically record, and thus leaving little space for art to create its magic?  For an answer, we return to Hitchcock and his one foray into 3-D, Dial M for Murder.  This 1954 film is far from Hitchcock’s best, but it illustrates how a masterful director can artfully employ 3-D technology.  In the film’s climactic scene, a thug is strangling Grace Kelly.  The would-be murderer has Kelly flattened across a desktop as he tightens a scarf around her neck.  To defend herself, she desperately reaches for a weapon.  It’s at this moment that 3-D proves its aesthetic worth.  Kelly stretches her arm backward over her head seemingly reaching right into the audience.  Finally, her fingers find a pair of scissors.  So armed, she swings the scissors over her head and plunges them into her assailant’s back.  This is so cleverly staged that the audience cannot fail to sense, however subliminally, that it has participated in the killing.  The scene perfectly serves one of Hitchcock’s abiding preoccupations.  In most of his films, he sought to implicate the audience in the violence they had come to enjoy at a safe, voyeuristic distance.  When Kelly’s hand comes through the screen to seize the scissors as though from our hands, we’re no longer spectators in the dark but her bloodstained accomplices.  Hitchcock implies that the scene’s brutality is what we’ve come for, and he’s not going to allow us to escape our responsibility for what we’ve seen.  Bruno’s 2-D shoes may be marvelously monstrous, but they don’t have anything on Kelly’s grasping 3-D desperation.

So what will it be in the cinematic sweepstakes, 3-D or 2-D?  With those pesky glasses in the equation, no one can tell.  I can say this, however: If 3-D prevails, I will miss 2-D in much the same way I miss the expressiveness of black and white and an earlier generation missed the eloquent silence of pre-talkie productions.  At the same time, I take solace in knowing there will always be inspired filmmakers who will find ways to make poetry from even the most literal-minded, reality-obsessed of our media.