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Cineaste (1997) - Back From Among the Dead: The Restoration of Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo"




The restoration of Alfred Hitchcock's motion picture "Vertigo" is discussed.


Incredible as it may seem, Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo will soon be forty years old. Released to mixed reviews in 1958, and a good deal less than the box-office hit Paramount had hoped for, Vertigo is now considered a key film not just in the career of its director but also in cinema history. Yet by the time many people began to realize just how important a movie it was, Vertigo became all but inaccessible. In the early Seventies, Hitchcock withdrew Vertigo from circulation, along with four other films he owned outright. It did not take long before the Library of Congress's circulation copy became so worn that they stopped screening it, forcing scholars and teachers such as me to go through all sorts of gyrations to arrange surreptitious screenings. During one summer in the late Seventies, I met, at a shoddy diner right off the Hudson River, with a tall, bearded man who looked every bit the part of the pirate. I handed him money collected from my students and out of my own pocket, and he handed me, for one screening only, a reasonably beaten-up, 16mm print of Vertigo. Thus were students in my Hitchcock course able to see (most for the first time) an indispensable link in the oeuvre of the Master of Suspense.

In 1983, two years after Hitchcock's death, the five withdrawn films were reissued. After a brief, limited-engagement theatrical release, they appeared on video. Vertigo was particularly disappointing. It was not masked for the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and, to make things worse, the intricate, geometrical abstractions of Saul Bass's brilliant title graphics were anamorphically squeezed into ovoid shapes. And, as in the film prints, the colors in the Vertigo video had much more of a pastel quality than I remembered them having when, as a mesmerized eighteen-year-old, I sat through two screenings of the film during its first run in the summer of 1958.

More than another decade of frustration followed the theatrical rerelease, until, in October 1995, Daily Variety announced that Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz were undertaking a complete restoration of Vertigo. Harris had earlier collaborated with Kevin Brownlow in bringing back Abel Gance's silent epic Napoleon. It was after he spent two years painstakingly assembling an entirely new negative of Lawrence of Arabia that Harris was joined by Katz, a producer who had been President of the Universal Pictures Classics division at the time Hitchcock's five withheld films were rereleased. With their company, The Film Preserve Ltd., as a base, Harris and Katz went on to do restorations of both Spartacus and Lady Fair Lady. Then came Vertigo.

After spending three years getting the necessary clearances, the team discovered all the elements of Hitchcock's masterpiece in a state of major deterioration, if they existed at all. The original camera negative had languished in a public-storage warehouse for eighteen years before it ended up at Universal, where all the proper storage in the world could not undo the existing damage. As early as 1983, when Vertigo was reissued, Harris had already noticed fading. But during the Eighties film companies were interested almost exclusively in new product, and it took younger filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg to get the execs to start looking backward. It also did not hurt when the megacorporations then buying up the film studios began to realize that certain items on their asset sheets were turning into vinegar.

Here are some of the problems that faced Harris and Katz. There are essentially two basic sets of elements that one turns to first in order to restore a film — the original negative, and the three tinted black-and-white (one each in yellow, cyan, and mag...

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  1. Music for the Movies: Bernard Herrmann is available on video from Sony. Most of the original music track has been issued on a Varese Sarabande CD that offers about twice as much music as the "original soundtrack recording" first released on the Mercury label in 1958. Varese Sarabande has also made a splendid new recording of the Vertigo music with Joel McNeely conducting the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.
  2. Published simply as Hitchcock by Editions Universitaires in Paris, the book did not appear in an English-language translation until 1979, under the title of Hitchcock: The First Forty-Four Films.
  3. P. 20. I am taking my Wood quotations from the edition, number two in the 'International Film Guide Series,' published in New York by Paperback Library in 1970.
  4. For a much more elaborate discussion, see my Overtones and Undertones: Reading Film Music (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1994), in particular the chapter entitled "Herrmann, Hitchcock, and the Music of the Irrational."
  5. David Boyd, "Introduction," in David Boyd, ea., Perspectives on Alfred Hitchcock (NY: G.K. Hall, 1995), p. 10.
  6. See my "Vertigo as Orphic Tragedy," Literature/Film Quarterly 14, No. 1 (1986), pp. 32-43; rpt. in David Boyd, ed., Perspectives on Alfred Hitchcock (see above), pp. 112-27.
  7. Originally written in 1973 and published in Screen in 1975, this article is now most accessible in a collection of Mulvey's writings entitled Visual and Other Pleasures (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1989), pp. 14-26. An attempt to refute Mulvey using the theories of William Rothman and Stanley Cavell appears in one of the worst articles ever written on Hitchcock or any other director, Marian E. Keane's "A Closer Look at Scopophilia: Mulvey, Hitchcock, and Vertigo," a chapter in the otherwise respectable A Hitchcock Reader, Marshall Deutelbaum and Leland Poague, eds. (Ames, IA: Iowa University Press, 1986), pp. 231-48.
  8. Slavoj Žižek, "Introduction: Alfred Hitchcock, or, The Form and Its Historical Mediation," in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Lacan (But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock), Slavoj Zizek, ed. (London/NY: Verso, 1992), p. 1.