Friday, February 15, 2013

Hitchcock's Ghost: James Allardice

It was forty-seven years ago today that Alfred Hitchcock's ghostwriter, James Allardice, died suddenly of a heart attack. For a little more than a decade, Allardice penned the introductions and closings that helped transform the British filmmaker into a household word in the US through his television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents and its hour-long incarnation, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. Even more than these little vignettes that suited the public persona that Hitchcock wanted to portray, during that time, Allardice regularly wrote speeches, articles and other remarks for the director.

Allardice first made a name for himself as a playwright with the successful run of his comedy At War with the Army, which he wrote while at an Army training camp in Kentucky in 1944, and later revised while attending Yale School of Drama. The comedy hit Broadway in 1949 and a year later it was bought by Paramount Pictures to become the basis for one of the Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis movies not produced by Hal Wallis. Following that successful teaming, Allardice would go on to write the screenplays for three more Martin and Lewis comedies—Sailor Beware, Jumping Jacks, and Money From Home—each produced by Wallis.

Allardice really hit his stride, though, writing for television, winning an Emmy for Best Written Comedy Material in 1955 for writing The George Gobel Show. While writing the intros for Hitchcock's series, Allardice tried his hand at hour-long drama for such programs as Lux Video Theatre and Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse. His true talent however was in comedy. Mention Hazel, Gomer Pyle: USMC, F Troop, I Dream of Jeannie, My Favorite Martian, My Three Sons, Hogan's Heroes and The Munsters, and it seems that Allardice wrote a handful of episodes for nearly every popular comedy series from the early to mid-1960s.

In many ways, Hitchcock's "ghost" has haunted Hitchcock ever since, as it's the public persona that Allardice helped create which is the impression of the director most familiar to the general public.* That caricature of the droll Hitchcock, spewing out bits of macabre humor, may have been clever branding that helped the director achieve and maintain a certain level of commercial success, but in another way, it may also have delayed what Hitchcock desired even longer—being taken seriously as an artist by the "establishment."

*It is also a myth is that Allardice's untimely death brought about the end to Hitchcock's venture in television, when in fact the series had ended its run more than nine months prior.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

An Inconsequential Yarn: Writing Alfred Hitchcock's VERTIGO

“They say every true San Franciscan has one foot on a hill and the other in the past.”—Kate in Samuel Taylor’s The Pleasure of His Company 

Since Vertigo is a film that garners such personal reactions, I wanted to begin this piece on something of a personal note. It’s not a matter of whether one likes the film or doesn’t.  For those who truly connect with Vertigo, it’s because it resonates with something inside of them. I was in high school when I saw Vertigo for the first time and the build up to seeing it was intense. It was only a few months before that I had begun to seriously study the master’s work, having been introduced to The Lodger, The 39 Steps, Sabotage, Notorious, Rear Window, and North by Northwest. Having become hooked on Hitchcock through that line up in school, I began my own exploration of every Hitchcock film I could get my hands on and by reading the corresponding chapter from Donald Spoto’s The Art of Alfred Hitchcock afterward. Then I’d re-watch the film over again, etc.

Given the laudatory opening paragraphs on Vertigo in Spoto’s chapter, as well as its massive size in relation to chapters on other films, I knew to expect something very special. When I finally did see Vertigo, I was swept away by its beauty, its movement, the emotional punch it delivered, and by its haunting images and score. Over the next five years or so, I would watch it once a month—yes, I was that obsessed (I would perform the same monthly ritual with Rear Window and North by Northwest as well). To this day, I still get goose bumps during certain sequences, and on occasion well up by the final moments of the film.

After a few years of immersing myself in my own Hitchcock education, I had become increasingly curious about his collaborators, particularly his screenwriters. I was of course familiar with the countless statements Hitchcock made about how for him the most creative part of the filmmaking process was the writing and preparation stage, and that the actual process of shooting the picture was boring. Statements like this fed my curiosity to know how much of an impact his writers had on the finished films. What did they bring to the table? What contributions did they make beyond the dialogue? I found myself becoming more and more fascinated by these writers who had sat beside Hitchcock, not merely observing him create and taking down dictation, but who’d earned a seat in the inner sanctum and engaged with him in creating these films.

Of the Hitchcock screenwriters of the 1950s and 1960s, Samuel Taylor was not the most prolific. Although he directed a film after having written only two screenplays, Taylor did not adapt quite as well to the Hollywood lifestyle as say John Michael Hayes, Ernest Lehman, or even Joseph Stefano. Each of these writers found their niche—Hayes as adapter of “difficult” material, Lehman as adapter of road-show musicals, and Stefano brought his special touch to the small screen as principal writer for The Outer Limits. Sam Taylor however was more at home writing plays in Maine and then seeing them through to production on the New York stage. Yet, in spite of a short list of screenwriting credits in comparison to say Lehman or Hayes, Taylor played a significant role in shaping and refining Hitchcock’s most dreamlike film.

An Unconventional Screenplay

By conventional screenwriting standards, the screenplay for Vertigo could be regarded as a failure. It contains so many “no-nos,” cheats, and just plain writing crutches that most writers would never attempt to get away with all in the same script—flashbacks, a dream sequence, and a lengthy voiceover where a character composes a letter on screen in order to explain much of the plot. But these devices, to name just a few, are exactly what make Vertigo work. The illusory nature of the movie required an unconventional script.

By the end of 1956, Hitchcock had already been through three writers in adapting the Boileau and Narcejac novel D’Entre les Morts. Playwright Maxwell Anderson had a go at a first draft which Hitchcock found lacking in mood, direction and structure. Hitchcock then turned to his old friend Angus MacPhail who knocked out a very rough outline—what today might be called a step-sheet. Structurally, the MacPhail outline closely resembles the finished film and Hitchcock hoped he would be up to the task of roughing out a construction or treatment from which Anderson would write a second draft. However, MacPhail opted to bow out gracefully. Hitchcock then turned to Paramount contract writer Alec Coppel, who had provided the text for one of the threatening notes used in To Catch a Thief when a re-take was needed after principal photography. Coppel worked closely with Hitchcock in fashioning a screenplay that followed MacPhail’s structure and now included most of the visual set pieces that Hitchcock envisioned for the film.

With Coppel’s draft, Hitchcock now had a mysterious, moody love story with elements of the supernatural, and a big twist to be revealed in the final scene—the supernatural elements were merely a hoax conceived to cover up a murder. Hitchcock returned to Anderson to finesse the dialogue and clarify the characters’ motivations, but the writer turned him down. As was custom when he needed a new writer, Hitchcock reached out to his go-to agents, one of which was Kay Brown, who on learning the film was to be set in San Francisco immediately suggested her client Samuel Taylor.  

Hitchcock’s New Writer

Although born in Chicago, Samuel Taylor grew up in San Francisco and attended the University of California, Berkeley, so he was already quite familiar with both the flavor and history of the City by the Bay. In fact, at the time Kay Brown suggested Taylor to Hitchcock, he was busy writing his play The Pleasure of His Company which was also set in San Francisco. No doubt, this appealed to Hitchcock who longed to film the city for the big screen (an early treatment for I Confess and an aborted adaptation of David Duncan’s The Bramble Bush had both been set in and around San Francisco).

Taylor was sent the Coppel script and Hitchcock’s notes and after some initial uncertainty, he accepted the assignment and met with the director. “When I read the screenplay that had been written, I was quite confused because I couldn’t follow it at all,” recalled Taylor. “When I saw Hitchcock after I read the script, I knew what the problem was. I said to him, ‘It’s a matter of finding the reality and humanity for these people. You haven’t got anybody in this story who is a human being—nobody at all. They’re all cut-out cardboard figures.’”

This was exactly what Hitchcock wanted and needed to hear. When writing for Hitchcock, you were hired because you brought something to the table that Hitchcock, as producer, felt the project needed. In the case of Vertigo, it was the emotional story and characters that needed work at this point. Taylor told Hitchcock he would need to invent a character to help make Scottie real. To Taylor’s surprise Hitchcock said, “Fine.” And with very little discussion about it, he went off and created Midge.

According to Taylor, once he invented Midge, the whole picture fell into place for him.  “All the Midge scenes were mine,” recalled Taylor. “He didn’t know anything about Midge until he read the script and liked it.” Midge provided Taylor the opportunity to give Scottie more back story and allowed him to eliminate any scenes with Scottie’s police colleagues. Midge became the cynical voice of reason—much like Stella in Rear Window—not believing in any of the Carlotta Valdes nonsense. Taylor also added to the San Francisco flavor of the story by changing Madeleine’s dead ancestor from the novel’s Pauline Lagarlac to Carlotta Valdes, drawing on the local Spanish history. The Carlotta Valdes back story—that she was of Spanish-American ancestry, had been raised on a mission settlement, and that at a young age was a cabaret entertainer who became the kept woman of a wealthy, powerful man who abandoned her after having his child—added a social/sexual subtext that had been lacking in the previous scripts.

To speak even more about that history, Taylor added the character Pop Leibel. The Pop Leibel Taylor recalled from his childhood ran a candy store instead of a bookshop. Taylor knew the bookshop atmosphere well from having worked in a similar one while in college. With the invention of Pop Leibel, Taylor introduced a phrase that added to the script’s subtext. “Power and freedom” are used three times in the film significantly—first by Elster to Scottie, then when Pop Leibel refers to the man who left Carlotta but kept her child, and finally by Scottie to Judy. All the talk about “wandering” that pervades the movie also came from Taylor. And with these changes, Taylor helped Hitchcock layer the script into something very special.

And yet Taylor found that something was still missing. Something he couldn’t quite put his finger on. He told Hitchcock that it was lacking a “Hitchcockian thing.” And then it hit him. Rather than saving the big reveal for the ending, they should let the audience in on the secret—that Judy was the woman who had pretended to be Madeleine. “The whole first act is deception,” said Taylor. “But once you get past the death and actually have destroyed the man, you’ve got to tell the audience that this was a plot. It can’t be a surprise. You can’t go all the way to the end of the picture.”

Hitchcock agreed. Thus the flashback showing Judy reaching the top of the mission tower where Elster was waiting with his dead wife and Judy’s letter writing scene were written. Taylor’s instinct was exactly correct and followed the Hitchcock suspense principle in providing the audience with information. Yet, in retrospect, Taylor felt that the letter writing scene was weak. “I think, Hitchcock and I goofed,” remembered Taylor. “After the Mozart scene, we should have said, ‘What about the girl? This is the time to tell the audience what is happening.’ And we should have gone back to Gavin Elster. We shouldn’t have forgotten about him and the girl that cavalierly.”

Taylor said years later that the letter writing scene was inept; pointing out that he also hated resorting to it in the film adaptation of his own play Sabrina Fair, which he adapted with Billy Wilder. Taylor suggested that the “argument scene” between Judy and Gavin Elster should not have been played offstage. “You would get a much stronger feeling about the girl if she had to face Gavin Elster and say, ‘You’re going away, and without me.’”

Taylor reasoned that primed with this knowledge before hand, the audience would have a much greater sense of apprehension, anxiety, and foreboding at watching Scottie wander around San Francisco looking for Madeleine. On this point, I couldn’t disagree more. The audience needed to meet Judy from Scottie’s point of view before Hitchcock could cut away to hers. Furthermore, Hitchcock’s concern was with Scottie and Judy. There was no dramatic reason to see Elster or Midge again. As the world of the film became smaller—i.e. fewer and fewer characters—the situation between Scottie and Judy intensified.

Perhaps Taylor’s Monday morning quarterbacking was due to the criticism Vertigo received on its initial release. Nevertheless, even with its disappointing performance at the box office, Hitchcock had enjoyed working with Taylor enough to invite him back to collaborate on the screenplay for No Bail for the Judge—after Ernest Lehman turned him down. Sadly, Taylor’s script was victim to the director’s move from Paramount to Universal in 1961 and it remained unproduced. Taylor and Hitchcock would remain friends socially, and the writer came back to help Hitchcock with a rewrite on the troubled Topaz.

Inconsequential Material

I’ve always felt that Samuel Taylor best articulated Hitchcock’s approach to film and to working with writers when he said that constructing a film was like putting together a mosaic. And for Hitchcock, that mosaic was comprised of his favorite scenes, but when he didn’t have a good writer, there were pieces missing in that mosaic.

Taylor also understood that to Hitchcock, plot was secondary to story, observing that while the plot of Vertigo may be farfetched, the story is honest and true. “Hitchcock was a very emotional man,” recalled Taylor. “And having a good actor in Stewart, and having a good situation of a man driven almost to madness by what has happened, he was able to infuse it with enormous emotion. He preferred telling an inconsequential yarn, but bringing to it all the artistry he had.”

Taylor was not denigrating his own work when he referred to Vertigo as “an inconsequential yarn.” To put it in other terms, one could say that the director and his writers were constructing their yarn out of—if not smoke and mirrors—mirrors and some carefully placed fog. The film was constructed and designed to be Hitchcock’s ultimate love story, and in that respect, it succeeded on every level.

  • Samuel Taylor is quoted from a talk he gave at Pace University (my alma mater) in June 1986, and from the BBC’s Omnibus (1986).
  • For more on the structure of the Vertigo screenplay see The Hitchcock Kiss.
  • For a complete account of the screenplay’s development, I recommend Dan Auiler’s Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Alfred Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection Blu-ray Review

The most anticipated Blu-ray release of the year shipped a few weeks ago—Universal’s Alfred Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection. I’ve gone through the individual titles to give an extensive review.

Now depending on whether you go for the US or the UK release, the set comes with 15 or 14 titles. The US edition includes a reissue of the Warner Brother’s 50th Anniversary Blu-ray release of NORTH BY NORTHWEST. So if you already have that, you might want to consider the UK Limited edition which comes in a rather nice keepsake coffee table book, which includes a number of other extras – like reproductions of costume sketches, posters art, storyboards, production correspondence and more. It definitely makes for a nice package. Other than the inclusion of NORTH BY NORTHWEST, disc-wise, the releases are identical…which means thirteen Hitchcock titles that are brand new to Blu-ray with this release. (PSYCHO had been the only Universal title released thus far) Now there’s some great news and some really awful news about this release. The best news first: REAR WINDOW and VERTIGO will definitely impress.

The first thing you will notice about the presentation of REAR WINDOW is the amount of detail you’ve never seen in previous video releases. Both inside Jefferies’ apartment and outside in the courtyard, there’s much to take in. The colors are rich…nice blacks in the night scenes…and fairly accurate skin tones throughout. This is a title that never quite looked as good as it should have, even on the 2008 double DVD release…and it gets the treatment it deserves here.

Universal's Legacy Series DVD Comparison to Blu-ray
The huge sigh of relief over VERTIGO had little to do with the image quality and more to do with the sound. Many of you know I’ve been pretty outspoken about the botched job that Robert Harris and James Katz did on the 1996 “restoration” of VERTIGO which replaced Hitchcock’s carefully designed and mixed soundtrack with a completely unsubtle, in-your-face, mash-up of foley effects, out of sync music cues and drowned out dialogue. Happily, Universal has NOT included that abomination here. VERTIGO sounds like VERTIGO again! Visually, again, like REAR WINDOW…detail and color are impressive. It’s Hitchcock’s most beautifully shot and designed film and for those times you can’t make it to the Museum of the Moving Image to catch a vintage 1958 IB Technicolor print, this Blu-ray makes a fine substitute.

Now just for these two titles alone, in the condition that they’re in, the Hitchcock Masterpiece Collection is worth the price of admission. But let’s take in the rest of the collection in chronological order.

SABOTEUR has its problems, mostly having to do with its weak script and weaker cast, and so it generally is ranked to minor-Hitchcock. The one knock-out scene for which the film will always be remembered is the Statue of Liberty sequence, which is still a model for cinematic suspense. As for the Blu-ray, it is absolutely gorgeous to look at.

SHADOW OF A DOUBT is surely one of Hitchcock richest and at the same time deeply disturbing works. Often cited as being among Hitchcock’s personal favorites, here on Blu-ray it’s given a presentation worthy of the film. This was Hitchcock’s second film for Universal, and his second with Director of Photography Joseph Valentine. Unlike the almost B-picture look of SABOTEUR, the transfer here shows off Valentine’s carefully textured and lit scenes.

The next item in the collection is ROPE, which was Hitchcock’s first venture into color and as it happened, his last film with Joseph Valentine. While it’s not a gorgeous transfer by any means, it’s the most satisfying presentation of the film on video to date. The main problems with ROPE on Blu-ray are in the flesh tones, which are often under saturated.

REAR WINDOW, yet again, can’t say enough good things about it…it’s arguably the highpoint of the collection.

THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY is another stunning addition on Blu-ray. Hitchcock and Bob Burks’ second VistaVision film together— they had just completed TO CATCH A THIEF when they set out to capture the Vermont countryside in the glory of its autumn colors—and the warmth and the vivid colors are done justice in this transfer. For a film that generally lacks the visual panache of many of Hitchcock’s other films of the period, Harry certainly benefits, and of course, HARRY marks Hitchcock’s first collaboration with Bernard Herrmann. The sound on this and pretty much all titles in the collection is spot on.

The next film in the collection, THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH is certainly one that deserved the kind of treatment given to say REAR WINDOW or VERTIGO. They share the same leading man in James Stewart, it’s another globetrotting adventure in VistaVision, with location filming in Marrakesh and London, it contains one of Hitchcock signature set pieces—the assassination at the Royal Albert Hall—but sadly, the color as presented here is all over the map…even within individual shots. You can literally see Doris Day’s dress change colors before your eyes. There’s frequently a fluctuation in the colors that is visible on the print that was used for the transfer. This is a title definitely in need of some TLC and a whole new transfer.

VERTIGO, the next in the collection has already been praised.

PSYCHO is the one Universal title that had already been released on Blu-ray previously, and the transfer here is pretty damn good. The image is sharp, there are a lot of fine details to take in. It’s a great way to show off just why the film had the impact it did in 1960.

Unfortunately, THE BIRDS is a bit of an uneven mess. Yes, there are sequences that look great… the colors and the details are enhanced nicely on Blu-ray. But given the amount of special effects shots in the film, a good number of them have not translated well to high definition.

Next to THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, MARNIE is perhaps the biggest disappointment in the collection. The graininess and noise are just out of control in this one. This is another title that is in serious need of a new and improved transfer.

TORN CURTAIN was never one of Hitchcock’s more visually pleasing films. I always felt that it looked quite flat and studio bound. The transfer to Blu-ray captures the essence of the film quite well. It’s a mildly entertaining but minor Hitchcock disappointment, due in part to two terribly miscast stars and one very mediocre script.

The look of TOPAZ always appeared a welcome relief to me after TORN CURTAIN. On TOPAZ Hitchcock opted for much more location shooting and the result was a richer looking film. Like its predecessor, TOPAZ suffers from casting and script issues, but on Blu-ray you are better able to appreciate the look of the film.

FRENZY should have looked much better than it does on Blu-ray. Yet, thankfully, the pre-release issues with the re-done titles that introduced typographical errors have been corrected, and the colors are vividly presented. It’s arguably Hitchcock’s last great film and sadly, it doesn’t look as well as it should.

Now, without question the absolute worst looking transfer in the collection is probably the one that shouldn’t have been, considering it’s the youngest film of the bunch. Simply put, FAMILY PLOT has never looked worse. The film always suffered from that bad 1970s TV look. Like it was a CHARLIE’S ANGELS or ROCKFORD FILES episode. There’s no getting around the look of the era here, but the horrible job on the rear projection in the car sequences is just horrendous to look at. The halos that were always bothersome on DVD have been magnified tenfold on this one. It just may be worth holding onto your DVD for the time being, because the Blu-ray is just embarrassingly bad.

Now with all that said, do I welcome the addition of 13 Hitchcock titles to Blu-ray? Certainly. For the most part, SHADOW OF A DOUBT, REAR WINDOW, THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY and VERTIGO look absolutely amazing. So it’s worth getting , but do definitely shop around for the best price. In this case, the UK edition, which is completely compatible in the US, is the better buy.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Rear Window in 3D?!?

Mock up of the bogus 3D Blu-ray packaging complete with Rear Window binocular cut-out glasses included.

In 1953 while under contract to Warner Bros., Alfred Hitchcock embarked on a screen adaptation of Frederick Knott's stage hit Dial M for Murder. At the same time that he was preparing to film his Warner picture, he began planning Rear Window for Paramount. Both films would be technically challenging for Hitchcock and his production team—the former largely because it was to be filmed in the fad of the day, 3D.

It is interesting to speculate on what was going through Hitchcock's mind at the time. No doubt he knew that Rear Window was going to be much more of a visual tour-de-force, so I posed the question, could it be possible that Hitchcock actually filmed Dial M for Murder in 3D merely to get his feet wet before embarking on the much more challenging film?

While we know this was absolutely not the case, as an April Fool's gag this year I put together a video for some friends and colleagues with the premise that Hitchcock had at one time intended to film Rear Window in 3D but then abadoned the idea. But now, with Hitchcock's "true" intentions  uncovered, a dimensionalized version of Rear Window was in the works. Thankfully, this was not the case...but it almost seemed a plausible idea—plausible enough to get some interesting reactions from friends, and to cause some chatter among a few HD video enthusiasts.
The fabricated letter in Hitchcock's actual handwriting was simply assembled from snippets of correspondence reproduced in Dan Auiler's Hitchcock's Notebooks.

To help sell the idea in the video—which was to take the form of a making-of featurette—I created a letter from Hitchcock to his director of photography Robert Burks using Hitchcock's actual handwriting and merely rearranging key phrases and words to suit the story. I then created some graphics to illustrate the process that was involved in adding dimension to the 2D movie, and finally "dimensionalized" a handful of shots from Rear Window in After Effects. If you've got a 3D monitor and glasses handy, you'll be able to see some 3D footage within the video that starts at 4:19. Set the 3D mode to "Interleaved." Enjoy!

Below is the flat version of the video in case you're unable to view it in 3D.

Another mock-up of the binocular glasses with cyan and red lenses.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Hitchcock Perfects His Craft with SABOTAGE

I've always had a fondness for Alfred Hitchcock's Sabotage, while being fully aware that it is in many ways the darkest of what has long been known as the classic thriller sextette from the director's British period, that string of films done mostly in collaboration with screenwriter Charles Bennett that includes The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, Secret Agent, Young and Innocent, and The Lady Vanishes. While each of these films has its moment where Hitchcock gets to showcase his visual panache, as well as his understanding that sound too should be used cinematically, it is in Sabotage that Hitchcock really struts his stuff.

In the sense that The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes are generally remembered more fondly, I've often likened Sabotage to The Godfather Part II in that it is generally regarded, by movie-people at least, as the "better" of the first two in the series, while The Godfather is generally speaking the more entertaining movie. Coppola's later effort, like Hitchcock's, is the more technically complex and refined film. In the video above, I discuss some of the techniques that Hitchcock brought to Sabotage and why I regard it as the dark masterwork of his English period.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Hitchcock@113, August 13 in NYC

It's hard to believe that thirteen years have passed since what seemed like a year of centenary celebrations for Alfred Hitchcock in 1999. I hope you will come and join me as I mark Hitchcock's 113th at Barnes & Noble in Union Square.

Event Details

Having lived in Westchester County for a good part of my life, I've enjoyed the view of the Palisades, the cliffs that run along the Hudson River, for many years. Whenever I watch Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest, there they are, right out the window of the dining car on the Twentieth Century Limited as Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint dance around the idea of her inviting him into her drawing room to spend the night. In this video I visit the Philipse Manor Train Station in Sleepy Hollow, just north of the Tappan Zee Bridge, which can also be seen in the film. It was here that the train makes an unscheduled stop and the New York State Police board in search of United Nations killer Roger Thornhill.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Re-restoring Hitchcock's VERTIGO

This weekend, New Yorkers have a rare opportunity to see Vertigo the way Alfred Hitchcock intended—in 35mm IB Technicolor, with its original soundtrack. The Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria will be screening a print from the film's 1958 first run, just as they had done in the summer of 1996, a few months prior to the premiere of the much-heraleded and much-hyped "restoration" by Robert Harris and James Katz which deservedly caused a stir because of their decision to scrap Hitchcock's original sound mix and create all-new sound effects tracks so that they could incorporate the stereo tracks of Bernard Herrmann's score that had been uncovered during their search for original production elements to assist in their restoration. They dodged, and danced, and put on a bit of a dog and pony show, in defense of their decision, but in spite of the fact that the decison may still haunt them, Universal never fully came down on the side of definitively righting the wrong by Harris and Katz by making certain that all future video releases include at least the option of selecting Hitchcock's original sound mix. Is the difference that apparent you ask?

Here's what I wrote about it after seeing the "restoration" of Vertigo at the Ziegfeld Theater in New York in October 1996 and then a month later in Los Angeles:

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.

A few years after the "restoration" I spoke at a screening of Rear Window held at the Museum of the Moving Image. That film had also been restored by Harris and Katz, who by this time had the good sense not to tamper with the soundtrack. So with that said, get yourselves to the Museum of the Moving Image this weekend as Vertigo will be screened in its original glory and beauty on Saturday and Sunday at 6:00 PM. And if you're able to make it to the screening in Astoria, I hope you will come and join me as I mark Hitchcock's 113th at Barnes & Noble in Union Square on August 13 @ 7:00 PM.