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Film restorers James C. Katz and Robert A. Harris have just rescued Vertigo, the 1958 thriller widely regarded (in retrospect) as one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best films. They don’t seem overly contented about it, though, and not just because problems with the movie’s new digital soundtrack threaten an American Film Institute benefit scheduled to occur at the Uptown Theater in just a few hours.
“If someone gave me a billion dollars today to save all the films,” laments Harris, “I could do one a year. Unless I put a staff together. And then maybe I could do 10 a year. But we don’t have the infrastructure to deal with more than that. We don’t have the optical houses, we don’t have the laboratories. It is physically impossible to save these films. At this point, it’s like we’re doing triage. We’re trying to find the films that are in good enough condition to save. And we’re going to let the rest die.”
“It’s all for storage,” Katz rues. The owners of the master negatives “don’t want to pay storage.”
Yet maintaining a negative properly will save its owners money in the long run, Harris notes. “It’s a lot cheaper to preserve something than to restore it. Vertigo could have been preserved for $60,000, rather than restoring it at over a million.”
Katz and Harris already have restored Spartacus, Lawrence of Arabia, and My Fair Lady, and could have turned their attention to any of dozens of deteriorating classics. They’d been thinking about Vertigo, however, since the film’s 1984 reissue, “which I was responsible for as the president of Universal classics division,” admits Katz. For that reissue, he says, “not a lot of money or concern was shown”
“They spent $1,200, I think,” interjects Harris acidly, “for
“They went out in spite of the way they looked, and did $50 million worldwide,” says Katz.
“They were really horrific,” adds Harris. “They were really, really bad.”
Around that time, Harris remembers, he proposed showing the film in Vistavision, the wide-screen process in which the film was shot but never released. “We ran the first reel. It was then that we found out that the negative was so faded that you couldn’t make a decent print.”
By the time they began their restoration, Harris estimates, “this film probably had another year in the life of the negative. At which point it wouldn’t have been printable at all. Which is one of the reasons we chose Vertigo. I think it’s a better picture than The Man Who Knew Too Much or The Trouble With Harry,” other Hitchcock films that are candidates for restoration. “But at this point The Man Who Knew Too Much’s negative is gone. So there’s no rush. Trouble With Harry, 70 percent of the negative is gone. With Vertigo, 70 percent of the negative was printable.”
Although much material
that would have been useful
had been destroyed, Katz and Harris discovered some things they weren’t expecting, notably an ending shot for use overseas. “We don’t call it an alternate ending,” notes Katz. “We call it an extended ending, because it really was not meant to supersede the great, famous ending.
It was created because in certain countries there was a censorship problem; they had to have an ending that showed that the
bad guy was caught. It’s a
“It’s basically garbage,” interjects Harris.
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In the U.S., Katz adds, censors controlled just what laundry could be shown drying on a makeshift line after the Jimmy Stewart character pulls the Kim Novak character out of San Francisco Bay. “We have a letter, actually, saying that they didn’t want any recognizable women’s undergarments hanging on that line.”
“It’s actually Hitchcock’s underwear,” says Harris.
“So it looks like they put Hitchcock’s underwear up there,” agrees Katz. “It’s huge, huge stuff. It’s ridiculous.”
Novak’s wardrobe also played a role in the restoration process. Katz and Harris used one of her green outfitsas well as a paint chip from a 1957 Jaguarto establish color values. “If you’ve got the color of something,” says Harris, “you’ve got a reference.”
“We literally take the picture,” he says, “and take a 1958 printa film collector would have us slaughtered for this, and we try and find a really a bad print. But we literally cut it up into strips. So we have every shot in the film for reference.
“It gives you something close to what the original color was, as far as density. If you’re doing it shot by shot, why not have the shot? There are maybe 10 extant prints of Vertigo from 1958, and we’ve junked one of them. So, c’est la vie. It’s necessary; it’s our lab rat.”
The restorers made no effort to match the vividHarris calls it “hyped”hues of Technicolor, the process in which the film was originally made. “The film looks different than it did in 1958 because of the methodology of printing, Technicolor versus Eastmancolor,” he says. Making new Technicolor prints today “can’t be done.”
Katz notes some complaints that the restoration rendered the film too gloomyliterally. The duo are still smarting over one Washington-based reviewer’s gripe that they’ve made the final scene “dark and ugly,” says Katz. “But we went to great pains to make the ending dark and ugly, because that’s how Hitchcock wanted it.”
Darkness is also a matter of concern at the Uptown, where the film is now playing. Though undoubtedly the city’s premier moviehouse, it’s bedeviled by technical problems presented by its curved screen, a leftover from the brief era of enveloping “Cinerama” films. Asked about the screen, Katz is reluctant to quibble, but that reluctance quickly fades. “There’s nothing worse than a couple of cowboys coming in from California and criticizing the theater. The bottom line is that the Uptown is
a great theater. It’s got a great history;we’ve had tremendous luck there” with runs of their previous restorations. Still, he notes, “It’s known as a theater with less light on the screen
than any theater in the country, or pretty close.”
“We brought our own lamphouses,” Harris notes.
“They used to have a strip screen,” he explains, made of ribbons of white reflective material rather than a continuous sheet, and designed to reduce projected light from reflecting back onto the screen. “And rather than just fixing the strip screen, they elected to put in a new screen. And what probably should have happened was they should have just fixed the strip screen. Because now they have cross-reflection problems like crazy.”
“Which is the case in any Cineramalike theater,” notes Katz, “when you get a wrap-around screen like that. And that’s why they probably opted to keep the light level low”
“Because you get less reflection,” says Harris. “But you also can’t see the picture.”
“The irony of it is they have probably one the best projectionists in the country,” continues Katz.
“Keith Madden. He’s exceptional,” declares Harris.
“We consult him on theaters around the country,” notes Katz.
“He’s the poster boy for
union projectionists,” says
Harris. “This is the guy you
want running your film.”
“I think [the Uptown] is an extraordinary theater. And they have the capability, very easily, of making it into a perfect theater. And we’re certainly going to egg them on. They’re not afraid to put the money into it. They just need,” he smiles, “a little guidance from out-of-towners.”