Monday, February 15, 2010

"Vertigo" Restored and Redeemed

“Vertigo” (1958) still shocks, thanks to its restoration in the mid-1990s. Especially shocking is the realization that until its restoration, the film was fast on its way to disappearing for good.

“Vertigo” is regarded by many as Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece, and his most personal film. The restoration done by Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz saved the film, but also shows us what this story is about in a manner that was not fully appreciated when it was a fading Vista Vision fifth or sixth generation reprint.

We get it now. It is a curious set of circumstances when a film is not merely given new life by restoration, but that its reputation as a classic among future generations will be based almost entirely on the restoration and not on the original.

Rich in imagery and a complex plot, the film relies on the use of color, light and dark contrast, and shading to texture the storyline. We discussed “Vertigo” in this previous post, so I won’t review the film again. Instead, its post-premiere life is what we might focus on to understand the peculiar legacy of this film.

Its earnings upon release were mixed, and its reviews the same. The New Yorker called it “far-fetched nonsense.” Time famously called it “another Hitchcock and bull story.” According to “Vertigo, The Making of a Hitchcock Classic by Dan Auiler (St. Martin’s Press, NY, 1998), the film was re-released in theaters in 1963, and again in the late 1960s. In 1968 the rights for the film reverted to Mr. Hitchcock. After a limited period of exposure on television, the film was pulled from all distribution by Hitchcock in 1974. It was not seen again until its release in December 1983, after Hitchcock’s death.

In those years, the film’s reputation grew somewhat among film scholars. However, until its early ‘80s release, it was unknown to a new generation of filmgoers. Instead, it was famed to the public more for being one of the five so-called “Lost Hitchcock’s”, which included “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1956), “Rear Window” (1954), “The Trouble With Harry” (1955), and “Rope” (1948).

When the public finally got a chance to see it, the film they saw was seriously faded, with a diminished sound and visual quality that must have made some wonder what the big fuss was about. I can remember being less than impressed with a television print of it in the mid-1980s, but being unaware at the time that the movie I saw was reprint of a reprint of a reprint of a film that was disintegrating. When Mr. Katz and Mr. Harris set to work restoring the film, they discovered cans of rotting film stock.

A very interesting documentary about the restoration, originally an American Movie Classics channel production, called “Obsessed with Vertigo” is part of the bonus features on the “Vertigo” DVD released in 1999. It’s a fascinating look at the meticulous work of film restoration, and the enormous challenge of finding enough original material to compile into a restored film. Before and after shots are remarkable, not only for the success of the restoration which made faded scenes vivid again, but for the realization that this film was only a couple decades old before it began to fade. Keeping the original safe in a vault was not keeping it safe at all.

We are accustomed to believing that film stars achieve a kind of immortality on film. They don’t. They are only as alive as long the nitrate does not decompose.

Many film buffs and historians will point with regret how so many silent films, particularly most of the body of the work of the great Lon Chaney, has been lost forever. It is unfortunate, but perhaps more understandable that would happen to those old films, with poorer film stock of that day, inadequate storage methods, and the practice of films being routinely discarded, or recycled for their silver content.

It is somehow harder to swallow the thought that a well-made film from 1958 (its Vista Vision production was technologically the top of the line at the time), of esteemed and well-known reputation could have been lost as easily as an obscure film from 1908.

It was almost too late. The documentary of the restoration recounts the scramble for prints of the film of dubious quality from various parts of the world, of searching for analog sound clips of 1950s cars for to replace on the new soundtrack, of using Hitchcock’s original notes to recreate lost elements. They found the green dress Kim Novak wore as “Judy”, and used it to discover what hue the now much faded green dress in the movie was really supposed to be.

Thanks to the efforts of the restorers, “Vertigo” has been transferred with painstaking detail from Vista Vision to 70mm, digital sound, in a manner Alfred Hitchcock himself never saw. It is all there, the breathtaking colors in the flower shop when door is first opened, the evocative score by Bernard Herrmann, the pastel backdrop in sharp detail of San Francisco, the vibrant, classic color of the Golden Gate Bridge, and Judy’s now very green dress.

Now, we get it.

All film deteriorates, and most is not restored, but only copied and copied again until it is faded. Restoration is difficult technical work. It is expensive. The purpose of this blogathon sponsored by Self-Styled Siren and Ferdy on Films is to generate awareness about saving America’s film heritage. The National Film Preservation Foundation, a non-profit organization set up by the U.S. Congress, is where you can donate to make this happen.

The NFPF will give away 4 DVD sets as thank-you gifts to blogathon donors chosen in a random drawing: Treasures III: Social Issues in American Film, 1900-1934 and Treasures IV: American Avant Garde Film, 1947-1986.

Please visit the other blogs taking part in the blogathon. You can find a list of them over at the Siren’s place.


Unknown said...

I didn't realize Vertigo was in such bad shape before restoration--fascinating post. Yes, we do tend to associate lost films with London After Midnight or others of that era, not classics from the 50s!

Marilyn Ferdinand said...

Jacqueline - This is a great contribution. We all take it for granted now that Vertigo is a classic, but the mishandling of the film makes it all too clear that the business end of show doesn't care about art, legacy, or integrity. I'm very thankful you provided this short precis of the restoration and are supporting our cause. Thanks!

PS - Thanks for the fantastic music!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Hi, John. Yes, finding out how close to the brink "Vertigo" was is kind of jaw-dropping. But then, I have a DVD set of Ken Burn's "Civil War", WHICH WAS RESTORED FROM THE 1990 documentary. Needing restoration after 17 or 18 years? In a word, yikes.

Marilyn, thanks for your comments, and thank you so much for co-hosting this very worthwhile blogathon. This is a real achievement, and you and the Siren are to be commended.

I'm glad you like my "soundtrack".

Meredith said...

This has become my all time favorite film, it's incredible how close it came to being lost forever! I am very much in debt to those behind the restoration, as without them I may never have seen it at all.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Hi, Meredith, thanks for stopping by. I agree with you that we owe a debt to the restoration crew. That first look we get of the brick-red bridge in the sunset is stupendous. I can't imagine losing that forever.

Joe Thompson said...

Thank for pointing out how close we came to losing Vertigo. I remember the excitement when the "Lost Hitchcock" movies were shown. We went to see them at the Bridge Theater in San Francisco.

The Siren said...

Jacqueline, I saw Vertigo with the four other "lost Hitchcocks" upon their 80s re-release and even in that unkempt state it knocked me out. But now, ah now...That final screen cap, I can't stop looking at it. Thanks for this post.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Hello, Joe! Hello, Siren! Thank you so much for commenting. I regret that I had not seen "Vertigo" or any of the "lost Hitchcocks" on the big screen when they came out. I wish I had. That must have been terrific.

Thanks, Siren, for co-hosting this impressive blogathon. I hope the contributions roll in.

David said...

Very well written and well expressed the thoughts. Finally restored a hard work, I would say.
Thanks for the content. Keep posting more like this.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you, David. I suppose it seems especially poignant that our most technologically advanced art form can be possibly the most fragile of all.

Tinky said...

A strong argument for restoration and a fascinating one as well......

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you, Tinky, and I agree that the "Vertigo" restoration experience is quite compelling.

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