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Films in Review (1996) - The politics of film restoration: Jim Katz talks about Vertigo




For the last three years, Robert A. Harris has been fighting to save Alfred Hitchcock's film "Vertigo." Harris and his partner, Jim Katz, are readying the version of the film on VistaVision negative that was never used for release.


Robert A. Harris has been fighting the good fight to save our film heritage for many years, from Napolean to Lawrence of Arabia, from Spartacus to My Fair Lady, and now to Vertigo. For the last three projects, he has been partnered with Jim Katz, who talked with your editor by phone from the post production room where Vertigo is being readied for release this October. Not rerelease. This isn't the film we saw in 1958, or 1964, or 1984. This version is from the VistaVision negative which was never used, and therefore is being presented in the VistaVision aspect ratio in which it was never shown. This was the film that Hitchcock intended. And it has been a technical as well as political battle from the time the restoration began over a year ago. The original elements were faded beyond repair, and MCA Universal, though sympathetic (they'd done well financially with Spartacus four years back), were aware that an inferior negative had served the studio just fine in the recent past, so why mess with success?

One morning two months ago, Rocco Simonelli and I joined Harris, Katz, and Marty Scorsese at the Ziegfeld Theater in New York for a private screening of comparison reels of the new and old Vertigo. Rocco and I sat two rows behind Scorsese, who was quite verbal during the presentation, as were the restorationists, carefully explaining what they'd done. Scorsese bemoaned the loss of Saul Bass, who had created the titles for Goodfellas, Cape Fear, The Age of Innocence, and Casino. He bemoaned the loss of Bernard Herrmann, whose work he had recreated for Cape Fear. And it also seemed like he might have been bemoaning the loss of FIR's old format when I gave him a copy after the screening.

What fascinated me was why Scorsese was there. He was about to leave the country for a while and wanted so see how the restoration was progressing. Understandable. But in addition, he's tied to MCA Universal in a successful working relationship, and has long been an outspoken advocate of film preservation. That uphill restoration battle needs support from all quarters whenever possible against the resistance of the powers that be. Or so I sensed.

Katz: Marty had been helping us earlier. Tom Pollack (former President of MCA Universal) was here, and Marty had a relationship with Universal. We had a dialogue going, not only about Vertigo, but about preservation in general insofar as Universal was concerned. Since I ran their Classics Division in the 80s, and reissued these pictures in '84, I had a history with these films as well. And even though they made fifty million in '84, the materials were in terrible condition.

The Vertigo project is political in the sense that we're selling someone else's pants. Bob and I are the only independent restorers, the only ones out there who are not involved with the studio in any way.

FIR: Describe the battle you wage to get new money invested into old movies.

Katz: It's been said that if you want to save a B&W film in 35mm its going to cost thirty thousand dollars, and a color film will cost between one and two hundred thousand. But nobody else goes back to recreate the negative the way we do. We go all the way up the celluloid chain. The studios skip steps. We have to persuade them to create preservation elements that will allow the film to be shown on the screen for perpetuity. The by‑product of that is first‑rate materials for their laser disc and video releases, and great stills. We're creating materials that you would have for the most part on a new film, and as a result they can treat them as new films.

It seems to me my job is to sell the commitment to them. We have to pick a title that we feel they will make their money back on. Is it a mass audience picture? Is it a large format picture? Would it be possible to make it again? Most of the ones we've done would be impossible to make again.

Usually the pictures we pick are very important films in the scheme of things, and probably the biggest titles in the studio library. You start with the high profile films with the big stars and directors. Films like Giant...like The Wild Bunch...like Doctor Zhivago. But where these restorations have fallen short is by being done in‑house to save money. Once you're in‑house you lose your objectivity and the number crunch starts winning.

The thing that awakened the studios to the need for preservation was, in the early 80s, when the Japanese and multi‑national companies started to buy studios, and the first thing they asked was "What's in your library?" In the printout the studio had all these films, but when they went back to their libraries, they found it was only on the printout, not in the can.

When I was running the classics department I tried to create an awareness of the viability of classic titles by releasing packages. A Preston Sturges package...a Douglas Sirk package...When the Sturges package played the Regency Theater in New York and we did seventyfive thousand dollars in one week, it kept coming back on the sheets as seventy‑five hundred. I asked why, and found out that it was because they couldn't believe it was making seventy‑five thousand, so they kept changing it.

All this helped our cause. As did Tom Pollack, who was very preservation-minded. Since he left MCA, Seagrams has certainly taken up the mantle; they're very much behind us, as is Dan Slusser, Vice President of Studio Services, who has picked up from Tom and become our guardian angel. From the standpoint of his prestige, Scorsese keeps the message out there. Don't forget, right now it's very politically correct to save movies. Still, many people in preservation are doing a bad job. I mean, there's no such thing as a video restoration, which is what some people think constitutes saving a film. People like that are tapping into the market place without really saving the asset. In the long run they're making video the only revenue source.

When we come into a place like Universal, we probably deal across departmental lines more than anybody. We're dealing with the film division, with Studio Services in the vault area, with Marketing, with Home Video, with Post‑Production, with the dubbing theater, with merchandizing, with the Hitchcock Foundation, with music. Every conceivable department is involved in one way or another with the reissue of Vertigo. And eventually with foreign marketing, and with television‑because I feel there's a potential network sale here. And all this is part of the seduction. Going in and saying, "Let's do this right."

FIR: It sounds as if you're satisfied with both the studio's cooperation and the film, or am I wrong in that second assumption?

Katz: They're really behind it. They're giving us ten 70mm prints. They're giving us eight cities in 70mm. And we're coming up with an innovative 35mm program, a great marriage of old filmmaking and new technology to the point where we're trying to do the 35mm prints in the new IB process. We're dealing with DTS sound; it's going to be the first 70mm DTS sound ever. At the same time we have to maintain the spirit of the movie. We can't get gimmicky. I was just inside lecturing our sound mixers, "Don't think you're doing Dragonheart here. Make believe Alfred Hitchcock's sitting here. With Hitchcock, less was more. Bernard Herrmann hated effects under his music, so don't start slapping the waves of San Francisco Bay up against the wall when Herrmann's got a nice romantic two‑minute thing going there." In addition, Bob is sitting over the bench looking at color, trying to make 70mm today look like an IB print from 1958.

Kim Novak has been very cooperative. It's always helpful if someone's alive from the movie to promote it and be part of the laserdisc presentation. She sees herself 38 years ago, and while some people would have trouble with that, she's very comfortable with it. She did some really good work in the film; it wasn't as clear at the time‑with Hitchcock's attitude toward actors as cattle‑as it is today.

All this is really a means to an end for us. As we direct our skills to save the movie, we're justifying the expenses by maximizing the profit potential. And if that's what we have to do to get the job done, great. But the bottom line is we want audiences to see the motion picture on the big screen. We have high visibility now, making it's a little easier with each picture. Initially people think that our motives are financial, but this is not a situation where we get rich. I don't look at it as charity, but I assure you, commensurate with our knowledge, we're not being paid huge sums of money... don't want to be arrogant and say we're being underpaid, but in some ways I look on it as giving something back to the industry.