Robot Monster Makes History with Overlooked Effect

Depending upon how you look at life Robot Monster is either depressingly bad or so bad it’s fun. Robot Monster is the kind of film that makes a reviewer reach for hyperbole like: like this is the worst film ever made, but to say that you’d have to have seen every film ever made. The movie was shot in what was billed as TRU-3 Dimension (so low budget they couldn’t afford the plural) and released in 1953.  I recently saw it at the Egyptian in Hollywood as part of the 3D Expo so I had a chance to compare its stereoscopic cinematography with that of the other films shown, like Miss Sadie Thompson and Kiss Me Kate.  Notably the stereo photography of Robot Monster was as good as the photography of the big budget pictures.   

Why then, when everything about the film is so lousy, is the stereo photography on a par with what the majors were doing in their class pictures?  This is apparently the last and 199th film shot by Jack Greenhalg Jr. who worked as a cinematographer beginning in 1926 and as an assistant DP through the talkies.  His credits include films with titles like Yes Sir, Mr. Bones (1951), Hitler’s Madmen (1943), Reefer Madness (1936), Buried Alive (1939), and what I think is the most plaintive, Sing While You’re Able (1937). I think that is pretty good advice, and I want my kids to realize that their father needs to sing, sing, sing, and they should stop groaning when he does.  I put up with a lot from them, like string beans up the nose, but I digress.

Mr. Greenhalg also worked as a cameraman on Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels and although he worked on B pictures for his entire career, he obviously was a craftsman who took what he was given and, I bet, made the most of it.  And he did as well as any of the better know DP’s who shot films like Dial M for Murder or Creature From the Black Lagoon.

While Mr. Greenhalg’s craftsmanship may explain why the worst movie ever made has pretty good stereoscopic cinematography, it does nothing to explain this breakthrough: Robot Monster represents the first commercial use of binocular or retinal rivalry in the history of the cinema.  Robot Monster, and I am not making this up, is the first movie in history to show one movie in one eye and another movie in the other.  The effect, which occurs for a few seconds, perfectly expresses what the filmmakers had intended, namely scenes of apocalyptic destruction and the wrath of the Robot Monster race as they destroy the human race.  If you closed one eye you saw hurricanes and if you closed the other eye you saw building crumbling, or some such.

The effect is dazzling and confusing, and that is exactly what was required.  In a movie where the villain wears a decrepit gorilla suit and a washing machine on his head for a space helmet, and whose technology consist of a rabbit ears antenna and a bubble machine, you better believe that nobody paid attention to this filmic discovery.  Makes me think of the close-up shot of the gun pointed at the audience in Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery, or Hitchcock’s train whistle tuning into a scream in Saboteur.  The retinal rivalry effect of Robot Monster is up there with the most important filmic innovations and buried in a film with no obvious merit.  I don’t know if we can know who is responsible but it probably was either the director Phil Tucker, or the editor Merrill White, who edited The Fly.  If I had to guess it was Mr. White because flies have many of eyes so they must have lots of retinal rivalry.

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