The absorption and circular dichroic (CD) spectra of purple membrane films in which the plane of the membranes is oriented perpendicular to the incident beam are compared with the solution spectra. This enables one to relate structural features of the purple membrane to a coordinate system as defined by a normal to the membrane plane and two mutually perpendicular in-plane axes. The film and solution absorption spectra were similar except for a relative depression in the 200 - 225-nm region of the film spectrum. However, the CD spectra showed significant differences in the visible region, where the biphasic band in the solution spectrum was replaced by a single positive band at 555 nm in the film spectrum and in the far ultraviolet region, where the 208-nm band was deleted from the film spectra of the native and regenerated membranes. Moreover, a small shoulder occurred at 208 nm in the film spectrum of the bleached membrane. The near ultraviolet spectra also showed differences, whereas the 317-nm band remained essentially the same for both spectra. Based on excitonic interpretations of the visible and far ultraviolet spectra the following conclusions were reached: (a) a relatively strong in-plane monomeric interaction occurs between te retinyl chromophore and apoprotein; (b) the helical axes of the native and regenerated membrane proteins are oriented primarily normal to the membrane plane; and (c) the helical axes of the bleached membrane proteins are tilted more in-plane than the axes of the native or regenerated membrane. Additional conclusions were that an interaction occurs between an in-plane magnetic dipole moment of the retinyl chromophore and probably an in-plane electric dipole moment of a nearby aromatic amino acid(s), and that although the membrane is anisotropic with respect to coupling between electric and magnetic moments of the aromatic amino acids, the transition dipole moments of the aromatic amino acids are not preferentially oriented in either direction. © 1979, The Biophysical Society. All rights reserved.