I f the greatest movies, like the greatest of loves, are meant to linger in the imagination forever, Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo is an astonishing act of seduction.
The director's darkest, most dream-like tale of suspense, it draws the audience in with the air of a mystery then plunges into a dizzying exploration of romantic obsession.
Today, this same explosive theme, that of a man possessed and a woman hiding secret identities, has continued to excite audiences in some of cinema's biggest box-office suspense thrillers. But from its head-spinning imagery to its shocking psychological revelations, from its breathtaking cinematography to its dramatic Bernard Herrmann score, from its unwavering sense of mystery to its unanswered questions, Vertigo remains that irresistible first love.
Once seen, it cannot be forgotten; and the more times one sees it, the more fascinating it becomes.
Yet the full seductive powers of Vertigo have been marred up until now by deteriorating negatives and prints - prints that cut the visual allure that Hitchcock's most revealing film brought to audiences in its initial release.
Now at last, following one of the most massive restoration projects ever undertaken, Vertigo will have a chance to win over new audiences and resurrect the passion of long-time fans in a stunning new 70 mm version featuring DTS digital stereo.
Under the sponsorship of Universal Studios, Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz, the same team behind the restoration of such large-format films as Lawrence of Arabia, Spartacus and My Fair Lady , have spent the past two years painstakingly rebuilding, layer by layer, what is essentially a brand new 65 mm restoration negative.
Dan Slusser, Senior Vice President/General Manager, Universal Studios recalls: "We were faced with the simple question of do we let this great film go forever or do we bring it back? And we felt that it made both emotional and economic sense to give a new generation a chance to see something truly beautiful."
"We're in the business of snatching great films back from the brink of extinction. The negative had gotten to the point where if we didn't restore Vertigo now, it would have been too late," says Robert Harris. "Without this effort, no one would ever again experience Vertigo , for the glorious first time or a still-awed tenth, as it was intended to be seen."
Casey Silver, Chairman of Universal Pictures, comments: "Alfred Hitchcock's legacy is a great source of pride to the studio. He is a master filmmaker and Vertigo is a good example of a master at the top of his game. Now, a whole new generation of moviegoers will have the opportunity to be swept away by Vertigo on the big screen in 70mm."
Adds Jim Katz, "People who have seen Vertigo before have never seen it like this. Those who are lucky enough to be experiencing this film for the very first time will see it as Hitchcock would have wanted it to be seen today, with all the sound, visual effects and other elements of excitement at their absolute best and in sync with `90s technology. For decades, this has been a motion picture that people can't get out of their heads; and we want that legacy to continue."
So it was with great sadness that film restorers James C. Katz and Robert Harris discovered that the perfection Hitchcock demanded had deteriorated into shrunken and vinegared sound elements and faded negatives that could not possibly do his dark romantic fable justice.
For Harris and Katz the loss was unthinkable. Vertigo is truly one of the most important movies ever made," says Harris. "It's on the Library of Congress list of most important films; and on many critics' Top 20. It's unacceptable to think that such an incredible and enduring work of both art and entertainment might be lost forever to generations of movie-goers."
Yet that is exactly what almost happened.
Although there is a feeling that once something is filmed it remains forever, it is sadly not the case. Images are fragile, their colors and tones easily fade away, and acetate safety film grows brittle and old. In fact almost 50% of all films ever made have been lost to the ravages of time.
"It is an outrageous thing that an industry that is only 100 years old should have already lost so much," says Jim Katz. "Fortunately, things are better today. But the condition of film elements just 20 years old can be abysmal."
For decades, Hitchcock's work was privately stored outside of the studios. Unfortunately, hundreds upon hundreds of boxes filled with original Hitchcock film material were junked just to save storage expenses. Even worse, the material was stored in a vault that was not state-of -the-art and unable to protect the negatives and black and white separations from the ravages of climate and time. The loss was imminent.
To recover lost film, it takes individuals akin to both archaeologists and detectives, film preservation and restoration experts such as Harris and Katz, two producers who have taken special interest in preserving state-of-the-art films from Hollywood's lavish era of large-format features.
"It's a lot harder to fix a film than it is to make one," admits Katz, who has produced such contemporary features as the 1989 satire Scenes From the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills and the 1986 comedy Nobody's Fool . "You have to go into it not believing anything, because whatever you find is going to just be the beginning of your problems."
"What we do is part digging through history, part film production and part science mixed in with a whole lot of bulldoggedness," adds Bob Harris, who is one of a handful of people in the world with the skills to extract the buried treasure that can lie beneath decades of dirt smudges, tears and neglect. Together, the pair are the world's foremost experts on fully restoring large format films.
Martin Scorsese, a long-time supporter of their work, comments: "What Bob and Jim are doing isn't a normal restoration, which these days amounts to just cleaning up the negative. They actually enhance the picture further. They don't try to make what Hitchcock did better, but they try to give the audience today a sense of seeing the film for the first time the way it was originally presented. And this is really important."
When Harris and Katz cracked the remaining film cans containing Vertigo , they had a good idea what they would find. "We knew exactly what to expect, given the way the negative was stored and the peculiarities of the 1950's film emulsions. We found fading and shrinkage, as well as torn negative replaced with dupe, basically a film that looked and sounded nothing like what Hitchcock had created," says Katz. He adds: "We're not magicians of course and we can never restore the negative to mint condition. But we can say that Vertigo will now be seen as Hitchcock could only have dreamed it would look and sound."
To undertake this task, Harris and Katz were provided with over $1 million from Universal, Hitchcock's final studio home since the early 60's, which now owns the rights to 14 of the filmmaker's features, including Vertigo . Although the film was originally released in 1958 by Paramount, the rights eventually reverted back to the director, moving with him to Universal, along with other Hitchcock features from the late `40's to early `60's, including Rear Window , the 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much and Psycho .
Back in the early `40's, Hitchcock had made Shadow of A Doubt and Saboteur for Universal, which released all his films from 1963's The Birds through 1976's Family Plot , his final film. The studio currently has one of the largest film libraries in the world, with materials dating back to 1915, and annually spends more than two million dollars on preserving these precious films for the future.
"Universal has been really great. They truly believe in the project and they trusted us to do whatever was necessary. It means a great deal that studio executives are standing behind this vital preservation of our cultural heritage," says Harris.
Adds Katz: "It's imperative that we do everything to the best of current human and technical abilities -- because a film only gets restored once. The support was critical."
Dan Slusser, General Manager of Universal Studios, oversees much of the studio's restoration work. "There's a substantial commitment to preserving film here at Universal," says Slusser, who knew Hitchcock personally late in the director's life. "We've been at it a long time. In the case of Vertigo , when Universal came into it, the negative had been sitting on a shelf in a public storage warehouse for 18 years. When you put a film in an area where it isn't properly preserved under an ideal humidity and temperature, it deterorates very rapidly. That's exactly what happened with Vertigo . It had to be restored frame by frame, reel by reel. It's a very laborious, expensive process, but we felt that if we did not put in the effort, it would have been lost forever. That would be an unacceptable loss not only to Universal but to the world."
Casey Silver, Chairman of Universal Pictures, concurs: "At Universal, we are steadfastly committed to restoring and preserving great films, not only for today's audiences but for the new audiences of tomorrow. With the global demand for motion picture product ever increasing, film preservation is not only a moral imperative for us but a business imperative."
With the studio fully behind the project, Harris and Katz retired to the laboratory to do a transformation of their own. They divided the problems into two main areas: picture and sound. As Katz says: "Both were lousy."
On the picture side, the restorers had to contend with the difficulty that Vertigo was originally shot in VistaVision, created by Paramount in the early 50's as a non-anamorphic, wide-screen alternative to Twentieth Century Fox's CinemaScope. But VistaVision is no longer utilized and the team had to undertake a restoration which would ultimately turn a 1:85 VistaVision negative into a 70mm print.
Furthermore, Hitchcock's trademark use of rear-screen projection added another layer of complexity onto the restoration. Explains Harris: "With rear screen projection, you're already working with thinner, more faded negative and more problems present themselves."
Other visual problems included unacceptable fading of Hitchcock's carefully chosen pastiche of colors. Never before had Hitchcock been so obsessed with color in a film -- from the color of Madeleine/Judy's hair to the themes of red and green -- stop and go -- running throughout. The wrong colors could seriously detract from Hitchcock's original intent.
For example, during the inquest scene in which Scottie is questioned about Madeleine's apparent suicide, five men sit on the bench wearing the same blue suits --only by now their suits ranged from "marine to clown blue," says Harris.
To get the color right, Harris and Katz had to go back in time, way back, even getting chips of paint from a circa 1957 green Jaguar to make sure the shade was correct! They also borrowed from Paramount Pictures many of the original wardrobe pieces designed by Edith Head to capture her vivid color designs.
Explains Harris: "It was a very difficult process. Especially because the film was originally printed in the Technicolor process which hypes the color anyway. We had to do a lot of research with people who worked on the film and use any source material at hand to get close to the original."
One interesting discovery was made: "No one realized for years how much yellow Midge wears. Now we see that was a part of setting her character," says Katz.
In addition to fading, shrinkage was a serious problem in key scenes. Shrinkage refers to the shrinking of layers in the black & white separations, which can cause multi-colored rims to appear around the images. The only way to "fix" shrinkage is to mechanically, painstakingly, fit the separations back together layer by layer, as closely as possible.
Just as the images had been fading and rotting in vaults, the sound elements of Vertigo were in similarly poor shape, with sound effects and foley tracks completely lost. Fortunately, Harris and Katz made one major find: the original orchestral recording sessions under conductor Muir Mathieson, which had been recorded in Germany due to an American musicians' strike. These elements had just barely survived a 1967 junking order (not from Paramount) and sat undisturbed, but rotting, in Paramount's vaults.
The restorers took this remarkable recording and digitized it so that it would sing over today's speaker technology. Now, Vertigo becomes the first ever 70mm DTS release. Even those most familiar with the soundtrack were taken by surprise. "When we played it for some of Bernard Herrmann's people, they actually heard instruments and notes they'd never known were there," says Harris. "That's a wonderful feeling."
But the foley tracks had to be completely redone from scratch -- although not without some direction from Hitchcock. Harris and Katz also came across Hitchcock's extensive and detailed notes on sound., which they used to copy the many eerie, lonely and ghostly sounds that make Vertigo so chilling.
"Of course, we knew that Bernard Herrmann was notorious for hating sound effects over his score, so we wanted to be as careful as Hitchcock had been, using his pages and pages of notes on how to integrate the sounds from beginning to end," says Katz.
Of all the pressures Katz and Harris faced, the greatest one may have been the shadow of Hitchcock looming over their work. "Hitchcock's standards of perfection are legendary and nowhere more so than on Vertigo , admits Katz. "We were under extraordinary scrutiny from people who knew and loved Hitchcock. But even more importantly, we wanted to restore his film in a way that we were certain would make him proud."
Katz is careful to differentiate a true restoration such as Vertigo from the numerous "restored prints" and "video restorations" -- many of which are merely reprinted -- that seem to be proliferating. "True restoration brings the negative close to its original quality in a form that will last for generations to come," he says.
Adds Harris: "I feel confident that if Hitchcock were here today wanting to show this film to new audiences, he would take advantage of the technologies we used."
One thing Hitchcock may not have counted on was the uncovering of an alternate ending to Vertigo , which the director shot under pressure from foreign distributors who insisted on a more conventional final scene. This brief final scene ties up many of the loose ends that have given Vertigo its incredible power. Although the scene adds little to the film, it does incontrovertibly reveal how much more powerful the director's instincts were than any commercial suppositions.
Thanks to this unprecedented restoration, these instincts will once again be on vivid display.
For many filmgoers, it will be a welcome transformation of an old love.
For those seeing Vertigo for the first time, it could be the start of an obsession.