A Very Different "Slice of Cake"
Restoring Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo
"Some films are slices of life, mine are slices of cake," said Alfred Hitchcock to the French critic-turned-director François Truffaut. What Hitchcock meant was that in his view, he was an entertainer - he could still tell stories of significance, but his objective was never to be dull or "downbeat." Hitchcock occasionally set aside commercial considerations to reveal a more personal side of his art.
Such was the case with his 1958 masterpiece Vertigo, which in a new 70mm presentation was a featured attraction of the 34th New York Film Festival in October 1996. The anticipation of Universal's re-release - of a motion picture that has been widely available to television, revival houses and home video since its re-issue in 1983 - was due to the fact that it was to be fully restored by Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz, the noted film doctors responsible for saving and restoring such classics as Spartacus, Lawrence of Arabia and My Fair Lady.
Vertigo was a very different slice of cake from the previous films Alfred Hitchcock made with James Stewart and Paramount Pictures. The difference was in the film's tone, and its lack of a "Hollywood" ending. In the 1950s, audiences had come to expect a high level of excitement, wit, and sophistication from a Hitchcock movie. Rear Window, To Catch a Thief and The Man Who Knew Too Much, all scripted by John Michael Hayes (who also wrote the director's The Trouble with Harry), had conditioned audiences to light comic thrillers, each presented in widescreen and Technicolor (the latter three in VistaVision, Paramount's widescreen process which produced a larger and sharper negative by running the 35mm film horizontally through the camera rather than vertically). The director's first production after his four-film collaboration with Hayes was The Wrong Man, made for Warner Brothers in black and white, with a dark and gloomy script based on actual events. The picture failed at the box-office.
When Hitchcock returned to Paramount to make Vertigo, advance publicity boasted a return to Technicolor and VistaVision, and a tried-and-true Hitchcock star, James Stewart. How could they go wrong? What Hitchcock and the studio had not reckoned, was that his lighter features and enormously popular television series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, left audiences unprepared for the emotional realism and deeply personal statement Hitchcock made in Vertigo.
The combined talents which came together on Vertigo include stellar performances from the film's stars James Stewart and Kim Novak, a sensitive and moving score by Bernard Herrmann, and the subtle lighting and exquisite camera movement of Hitchcock's cinematographer, Robert Burks. Also noteworthy are Edith Head's costumes, Henry Bumstead's production design, George Tomasini's magnificent editing, and one of the most honest, revealing and mature scripts Hitchcock ever worked with, written by Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor.
In a sense, Vertigo has been undergoing a "restoration" since the end of its first theatrical run. Not a restoration to a deteriorating negative, but of the high regard that even Hitchcock had for the film. The original ads for Vertigo, designed by Saul Bass and approved by Hitchcock, were rather vague, yet boldly included the words "Alfred Hitchcock's Masterpiece". After the picture failed to meet its commercial expectations, the studio publicity department replaced the Saul Bass ads with more of a "hard sell" approach. The following week, the box-office receipts had again risen, but faltered not long after. Vertigo made a small profit, but Hitchcock was always disappointed that the film he chose to sell as his "masterpiece" was not embraced by audiences.
Today, Vertigo makes its perennial appearance on various top ten lists; was among the first twenty-five films chosen for the National Film Registry in America in 1989; and has had its second major reissue since the director's death in 1980 - not bad for a picture that was largely dismissed nearly forty years ago. That, of course, is a testament of Alfred Hitchcock's genius as an artist, entertainer and pop-culture icon.
Vertigo's reputation has improved with age. The ad promoting the restoration and new 70mm presentation is the original Saul Bass design which Hitchcock approved. The physical restoration of the VistaVision negative, and the restoration of the film's prominence in cinema history would appear, at last, to have been complete.
As I sat in New York's Ziegfeld Theater on the first day of the commercial run of the 'restored' Vertigo, I could not help but put myself in the place of John "Scottie" Ferguson, the obsessed detective played by James Stewart. For through the course of the narrative, Scottie is subjected to an impostor, for the Madeleine he falls in love with is not really Madeleine at all, but rather, as the second half of the film reveals, Judy Barton. Having first heard the soft, tortured whispers of Madeleine, it was easy for Scottie to fall in love. When Scottie first meets Judy as Judy, his ears are subjected to her somewhat harsh, nasal voice, as she utters such phrasings as "What do you want?" and "Go on, beat it." The reason I felt like Scottie was that the film I was hearing was not Vertigo, but rather a poor imitation. (Shortly after seeing the 'restoration' in New York, I viewed it at the Avco Westwood Theater in Los Angeles and noted and reconfirmed those differences.)
Robert Harris and James Katz are to be commended for their painstaking effort. However, after looking forward to the presentation of the 'restored' print for sometime, I am saddened to say that the effort was disappointing. The presentation at the Ziegfeld opened with a filmed introduction by Martin Scorsese, who went on to extol the virtues of Vertigo, the genius of Alfred Hitchcock and the importance and urgency of film preservation and restoration. Scorsese has long been a champion of film preservation and has been responsible for much interest in the rediscovery of both underrated classics as well as highly regarded films such as Vertigo. In the restored print following the Universal logo, the original Paramount Release and VistaVision logos have been restored to the film - both had been absent from the prints and videos of the film since Universal released the picture in 1983.
The main title sequence, designed by Saul Bass and accompanied by Bernard Herrmann's brilliant score, was in excellent condition. There was only one noticeably torn frame in the print, during the scene where Scottie asks Judy to change the color of her hair. And except for the flashback sequence where Judy (Kim Novak) recalls her climb to the tower where Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) waits with the body of his wife, the negative seems to be in fine shape. That sequence in the 'restored' version (as it does in the 1983 prints and video release - albeit less so) stood out from the rest of the picture for its graininess. The timing of the print in New York was also uneven. In particular, the finale, where Scottie brings Judy back to the scene of the crime, was printed much too dark. It is one of the greatest sequences in the Hitchcock canon and much of its impact was lost due to the fact that the actors were difficult to see. The timing of the Los Angeles print was much better.
Visually, the 70mm print is stunning. Where the 'restored' version fails however, is in the new sound mix. The texture, tone, and level of many of the film's sound effects and in some instances, dialogue passages, have been degraded for the sake of utilizing a digitized recording of Bernard Herrmann's original score. Employing foley artists to create whole new sound effects tracks, the restorers claim in the press kit for the release to have utilized the pages and pages of Hitchcock's personal sound notes, however Harris and Katz have rather boldly second guessed Alfred Hitchcock (and an Academy Award Nominated sound crew). Instead of trying to recreate the sound effects as closely as possible to the original film, the 'restoration' uses additional sound effects which were never there to begin with, and in a few instances sound effects have been omitted.
These differences may seem minor to the casual viewer. However, to someone familiar with the film, from the very first gun shot of the opening sequence to the ringing of the tower bell in the finale, the differences are jarringly apparent. These variations from the original work go beyond the scope of what a restoration should be.
The level of each newly created footstep, the rustling of papers, and the automobile sounds appeared too hot throughout the picture. Perhaps I am being too critical of the mix, feeling that the sound effects were not at all subtle - almost as if the foley artists wanted to call attention to their work - but one cannot be too critical of the creation of effects that were never there before, especially since the restorers had the original film to guide them.
At a single viewing of the 'restored' Vertigo, I noted the following major differences - during the scene where Madeleine jumps into San Francisco Bay, the original picture does not contain sounds of seagulls, however the 'restoration' does. The day after Scottie saved Madeleine from the bay, he follows her in his car as she drives back to his house. At one moment a car can be seen pulling into the street on the right side of the frame. In the original film, the sound of a car horn accompanies this point of view shot, and is absent in the 'restoration.' Later in the same sequence, Scottie makes a gesture to engage the hand-brake as he parks his car, and the accompanying sound effect is no longer there. At the end of the nightmare sequence, Herrmann's cue on original track fades out as the scene dissolves from the closeup of Scottie to an exterior shot of the sanitarium. The 'restored' mix left in an additional odd musical note over the latter shot, which clearly had been faded out in the original mix. Later, when Scottie returns Judy to the Empire Hotel following their first date, the original picture does NOT have the sound of the parking brake, and the 'restored' version DOES. In the scene in Ransohoff's, where Scottie gives a saleswoman specific instructions as to the clothes he wishes to buy for Judy, the 'restoration' now includes the familiar chime of department store elevators, whereas the original soundtrack does not. When Scottie is waiting for Judy to return from the beauty salon, he stands in the doorway to hotel room, and in the original picture there is the sound of the elevator door sliding open and then Judy appears. In the 'restored' version, the sliding elevator door is replaced with a bell sounding the arrival of the elevator. Finally, as Scottie and Judy arrive at San Juan Batista for the finale, a rather loud ambient effect of crickets is now on the track where it hadn't been before. So much for an Academy Award Nominated sound track.
The issue has been debated and the restorers have defended their work on various internet discussion lists, where they claimed "the new sound was based upon the original mono mix which is heard on the 35mm optical 1958 prints AND... the magnetic combined m&e (music and effects track)..." which "contains more information than the optical track." It would seem that the new sound should only have been "based upon" the original track of the 1958 prints -- after all, was that not the version that was among the first twenty-five films selected for the National Film Registry in 1989?
Audiences in 1958 got to see Vertigo printed in IB Technicolor. The color process in which colored dyes - yellow, cyan and magenta - are actually placed on the film. The beauty of true Technicolor is obvious to anyone fortunate enough to see a screening of an archival print in a revival house or museum. During their Hitchcock retrospective last spring, the American Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, screened an original 35mm IB Technicolor print of Vertigo. The print, while suffering some signs of its age (1958), was quite beautiful to see. There were colors and subtleties that I had never seen before in any of the 1983 release prints.
Harris and Katz went to great pains to locate original costumes and paint chips from antique cars in order the match the look intended by the original filmmakers. The purpose of this seems more a means of showing off. IB Technicolor prints of Vertigo are in existence. These original prints would have served as the best guide to match the colors and sound. The green dress worn by Kim Novak does look a certain way in reality, but that is not necessarily the shade of green that it might appear in Technicolor. All the restorers really needed to do was look at the original film as printed in Technicolor, and sequence by sequence, scene by scene, they had same palette from which Hitchcock created the look of Vertigo. Aside from some printing problems, which were corrected in the print I saw in Los Angeles, the restorers have done an admirable job pictorially. James Katz was also quoted in the September/October Films in Review as stating that subsequent 35mm prints may be printed in IB Technicolor. Imagine new 35mm IB-Technicolor prints of Vertigo with the original sound track - now that would truly be a restoration.
The fear now is, will this be the only version available? Unfortunately MCA-Universal has made the decision not to include the original soundtrack on one of the audio tracks for the DVD release. It's hard not to make the comparison to the "new" Coca Cola fiasco of years ago. Please bring back the original!
The preceding originally appeared (with slight variations) in Cinema/Stage and in Ken Mogg's The MacGuffin.