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'Vertigo' Takes Restoration to New Heights

June 16, 1996|Bill Desowitz | Bill Desowitz is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles

Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo" is about to be reincarnated--and just in time.

The original 1958 film elements have deteriorated to a near-fatal condition, which is why the ghostly thriller currently looks like a pale imitation of the visual masterpiece that many filmmakers and critics consider one of the 10 best films ever made.

Enter James Katz and Robert Harris, who between them have restored "Lawrence of Arabia," "Spartacus" and "My Fair Lady."

They're giving "Vertigo" the most ambitious high-tech restoration available--at a cost of$1 million. It will be reissued for the first time in 70 millimeter and DTS (digital sound), providing a new experience when watching James Stewart and his fear of heights, as well as his postmodern obsession with Kim Novak and death.

The restored version may be seen as early as September at American Film Institute benefit screenings in New York and Los Angeles. Universal also is planning a limited theatrical release.

"What we're doing here is very unique," Katz says. "We're creating a new preservation negative in 65mm from all the original large-format elements. But instead of reduction printing in 35mm, we're transferring to 70mm. This has never been done before. We tested for 15 months before we even approached Universal. Now we're halfway through the restoration. We're calling it Super VistaVision 70."

The VistaVision tag refers to the popular 1950s horizontal photographic process that utilized the equivalent area of two frames to achieve greater resolution and sharpness. The negative was then reduced to conventional 35-mm by Technicolor using its now-defunct dye transfer process, providing spectacular colors not duplicated today. (Technicolor, however, is preparing to revive its dye transfer process next year after a 22-year hiatus, now only affecting future films but the restoration of many classics.)

In the case of "Vertigo," the result was one of Hitchcock's greatest artistic triumphs, with San Francisco never looking more inviting as a hypnotic setting where fantasy and reality converge.

"We have the color negative and the black-and-white separations, neither of which are just printable," Harris says.

"The camera negative is faded, the opticals weren't that great, the focus is soft and too contrasty and 1,300 feet of rear projection process shots contributed to the deterioration. We discovered Bernard Herrmann's original music tracks in a Paramount vault and they had turned to vinegar."

Katz and Harris are re-creating the film frame by frame, doing new sound effects, remixing the music and redoing the entire title sequence digitally, including restoring the black-and-white Paramount logo. (The film was made for Paramount but reverted to Hitchcock's control years later and now is owned by Universal.)

"We're trying to achieve a very, very close approximation of the film's original look," Harris adds. "It won't be Technicolor. No one can do that anymore because it was a false look. Actually, what we can achieve is more accurate and sharper.

"A good example is the famous scene where Kim Novak throws herself off the Golden Gate Bridge. When we watched it at the Hitchcock Theatre [on the Universal lot], we could actually count the vertical support cables on the bridge."

Referring to themselves as the "restoration police," Katz and Harris have become alarmed about the status of other large-format films from the '50s and '60s, even to the point of alienating studio executives.

"We've become activists and a lot of companies don't want to hear from us," says Katz, who had a hand in the 1983 re-release of "Vertigo" during his stint as president of now-defunct Universal Classics. "They think we're trying to embarrass them, but we just want to save these pictures. When you're making a movie now for $50 million, what's $1 million to save a viable part of your library? The executives are here temporarily; it's a guardianship."

Harris scoffs at the studios' complacency: "They're doing preservation of their 35mm films on a daily basis, but they are not doing the large-format films. It's expensive and they're afraid of screwing it up. Their attitude is, 'We'll fix them when we have to.' But time is running out because the color on these films is fading and the safety stocks are turning to vinegar.

"It's just coming out now that in all probability--unless there's some minor miracle--'Around the World in 80 Days' will officially become the first Academy Award-winning best picture to be lost this year. The original Todd-AO 30-frame-per-second [large-format] version is gone."

Harris, in fact, has compiled a list of two dozen other large-format films in need of restoration. They include "Ben-Hur," "West Side Story," "Lord Jim," "The Alamo" and Hitchcock's "North by Northwest."

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