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American Cinematographer (1996) - Vertigo Restored to Dizzying Splendor




Universal recently launched a major restoration effort on Vertigo under the supervision of industry veterans Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz, proprietors of The Film Preserve Ltd. The same team was instrumental in restoring Lawrence of Arabia, Napoleon, Spartacus and My Fair Lady. YCM Labs of Burbank, Technicolor, Inc., and Pacific Title also contributed their skills to what may be the most elaborate film restoration to date.

"Our ethic is do it right or don't do it," Harris comments. "We want to feel that Hitchcock would be happy with what we have done." Katz adds that "between Lawrence and My Fair Lady we had every problem one could possibly have, so we knew what we were getting into ‑ and, for some reason, even that didn't stop us."

An abundance of problems surfaced on Vertigo, the new prints of which were made on 70mm. Production photography on the original VistaVision negatives was fully exposed and had faded somewhat, but less than the other elements. The special effects scenes, which were composited using duping stocks that have faded badly, were "basically gone," according to Harris. Also seriously faded were many of the heavily filtered San Francisco "fog" scenes and numerous chunks of dupe negative footage which had been cut in over the years.

Vertigo was originally released with a monaural soundtrack, but an original three‑track stereo version exists ‑ and has been retooled into a six‑track digital stereo for the new prints. Part of the Bernard Herrmann score had been recorded in stereo in England and mastered on one kind of film, while the rest was done in mono in Vienna on a different stock. Both had become "vinegary" and, as Harris notes, "Even the vinegars are different." Worse yet, some of the recording had been junked in 1967. In spite of these obstacles, the Herrmann score was successfully reconstructed for 70mm presentation in DTS digital stereo ‑ a first for the arena of restoration.

The sound‑effects tracks were in such poor condition that it was necessary to redo much of them with new effects, which included extensive foley work. "We tried to use all of the techniques we had without destroying the original aesthetics of the movie," Katz says.

The new edition of Vertigo premiered with four screenings at the New York Film Festival on October 5, and is now in release to selected theaters.