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'Window' Dressing

Sharp. Rich. Vivid. Hitchcock's classic should look better than ever after intensive restoration using a cutting-edge process.

September 28, 1997|Bill Desowitz | Bill Desowitz is an occasional contributor to Calendar

First "Vertigo" was brought back from oblivion; now the ever-popular "Rear Window" is the latest Alfred Hitchcock classic starring Jimmy Stewart being saved from the ravages of time.

To enhance its image quality, the restored version will be among the first films printed in Technicolor's new dye-transfer process (so far used only experimentally with a few prints of Warner Bros.' "Giant" reissue and "Batman & Robin").

This marks the third Universal Pictures restoration by the team of Robert Harris and James Katz, following "Spartacus" and "Vertigo"--less expensive than their large-format projects ("Vertigo," for example, cost $1.3 million) but no less intensive.

"Like 'Vertigo,' we can make 'Rear Window' look like it's never looked before, with rich colors to show off the new process," says Katz, who produces the restorations. "This serves the future without forgetting the past."

Indeed, as Technicolor gears up for next year's high-tech return of dye transfer (abandoned since the mid-1970s)--which has suddenly become cost-effective in the current "event" film market--the "Rear Window" announcement proves that the process can also accommodate special reissues as well.

According to Frank Ricotta, Technicolor's senior vice president of worldwide technical and engineering operations, the new process yields sharper, less grainy prints than conventional color positive prints, as well as "an extended tone scale resulting in blacker blacks, whiter whites and improved color rendition."

The restorers concur that the results are impressive. " 'Rear Window' is a dark-looking movie," Katz says. "And in the tests, we've been getting a lot of detail in the blacks you don't ordinarily see. There's also increased sharpness. You can see it in the bricks on the buildings [in the courtyard] and in the patterns on the dresses."

"It also saves the restoration negative for you," says Harris, who performs the actual restorations. "You can't go back to make dupes because it is a restoration negative made up of bits and pieces, but with dye transfer you make a few trial prints [for color timing] and you have your matrices to make your release prints from. And dye-transfer prints don't fade."

Actually, "Rear Window" has never looked as good as it could have, according to Harris, even during its initial release, in 1954. That's because the first dye-transfer prints weren't made until the 1962 reissue, when they were badly timed and came out beige. "So this will be the first time we see the film's full-color spectrum," he says.

But first the restorers must clean up an extremely dirty negative, abused from the very beginning. "It's a mess," Harris says. "There were 400 runs off the camera negative before the end of 1954. We don't know why they didn't do it dye-transfer, which would have saved printing off the negative. This was reasonably unusual for the period. And we're missing 1,000 feet of negative."

It is ironic that "Rear Window" has suffered this fate, considering it was one of Hitchcock's personal favorites and his most successful film of the '50s (the first movie from his peak Paramount period, which he eventually owned outright and later withdrew for a decade). When last reissued, in 1983, "Rear Window" grossed an additional $9.1 million for Universal, which acquired it from Hitchcock's estate.

Inspired by Cornell Woolrich's cunning short story about murder, voyeurism and confined spaces, the director was obviously at his crafty best. He had all the technical toys he desired at his disposal, plus two of his favorite stars, Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly. Also, "Rear Window" was Stewart's favorite of the four films he made with the director.

Yet were it not for a recent technological breakthrough conceived by the restorers and developed by Phil Feiner, executive vice president of Pacific Title film lab, a complete restoration of "Rear Window" would not have been achievable.

Besides the accumulation of dirt, pieces of the original Eastmancolor negative that were dupes (titles and optical effects) have faded in the crucual yellow layer of emulsion due to aging and improper storage--a malady that sooner or later strikes all color negatives from the early '50s through the '80s, when a more stable stock was introduced. This first layer deterioration includes loss of contrast, blacks and shadows going blue and facial highlights turning, in the words of the restorers, "a lovely shade of crustacean."

Compounding "Rear Window's" problem is an additional reel of negative that had its yellow layer stripped off the emulsion when a lacquer that was applied and reapplied over the years to cover scratches was eventually removed.

"No one was malicious here," Katz says. "The film was a victim of its environment over the years. It doesn't stand alone. There are thousands of films out there like this. No one knew enough about the properties of emulsion or temperature control for color negatives."

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