Six Damn Fine Degrees #114: Vertigo Restored (my first DVD)

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

Do you still remember the first DVD you ever purchased? I will certainly never forget mine: the restored version of Alfred Hitchcock’s ultimate classic, Vertigo. Not because of the 70+ Swiss francs I paid for it – a fortune for a 17-year old back then and yet a pittance for the movie-hungry teenager that I was – but how it increased my love affair with Hitchcock and this particular movie. And how it left me in awe at the restoration process that brought this masterpiece back to life on the then-state-of-the-art DVD format – a process that back then topped everything that had gone into salvaging film stock before (thanks to Julie’s post from last week for reminding me of it).

It had taken Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz, the two restorers in charge, over two years to complete the incredible feat of examining and saving the original camera negative of Hitchcock’s 1958 film and discover in horror the state it was in. After restoring stunning versions of Lawrence of Arabia, My Fair Lady and Spartacus before, however, the two remained undeterred by the insurmountable-seeming challenge of raising Vertigo from the dead.

Their problems were manifold and of dramatic proportions: The negative itself had enormously faded from lack of proper storage and the sound elements, they found, had been thrown out in the late 60s. After all, Vertigo had not been the intended hit and Hitchcock himself pulled it from release after some time, only for it to disappear in obscurity until re-released in 1984 after his passing. The version shown at cinemas then, however, was equally based on imperfect prints and contained the errors Harris and Katz needed to adress in their long restoration process.

I had loved Hitchcock and particularly Vertigo ever since watching it in German-dubbed 4:3 pan-and-scan versions taped off television broadcasts in the early 1990s, which says a lot about how good this film really is. Hearing of the restoration and spending all my money on that first DVD player, I was naturally extremely curious what the new version would look and sound like. Having added a then-illegal NTSC-switch to my PAL machine, I was finally ready to push play on this US release (at this point, most DVDs were still only released in the States but unplayable on European players) of restored Vertigo.

The result was stunning, to say the least: Harris and Katz had freshened up every single frame of the film, transferring it to its original VistaVision 70mm glory, which more than doubled the detail of information on the film strip. According to the original Universal press release and this insightful article in the Chicago Tribune at the time of the restoration release in 1996, everything was done without digital help and therefore by hand, sometimes comparing more than a handful of prints for reference for each bit of film.

Never had the colours come out as perfectly – the burnt orange of Golden Gate Bridge when Kim Novak’s Madeleine throws herself into the bay in front of Jimmy Stewart’s Scottie; the red tapestry at Ernie’s restaurant when Scottie is mesmerized by a ghost-like Madeleine in a stunningly green dress for the first time; the neon light in Kim Novak’s sordid hotel room (now as Judy), casting an eerie green on the big lie she’s been fooling Scottie with; and the horrifying purple of the nightmare that plunges Scottie into the abyss of depression under the presumption that Madeleine died at his hand. The difference to everything I had seen was mindblowing and my love for the film was deepening by the minute.

The Harris and Katz effort, however, didn’t just completely restore the visual but also the audio dimensions of Hitchcock’s masterpiece: Having found only copies of the film without separate dialogue, sound effect and music tracks, the two were forced to digitally remove the dialogue from one version and re-record the sound effects altogether (using in parts original motor or revolver sounds from the 1950s). Their work was greatly helped by the discovery of the original recordings of Bernard Herrmann’s seminal soundtrack, only to discover that half had been done in pristine stereo quality in London, whereas the rest of the sessions had been moved to Vienna for a sub-par mono recording due to a strike among studio musicians at the time.

The two restorers still managed the almost impossible and created a convincing new stereo surround 6-channel track to a film that had never sounded as good. Now, astonished audiences including myself, could not only see details they had never perceived but also hear and feel the full emotional and dramatic impact the filmmakers and composer had intended.

The 1996 Harris and Katz restoration, to me, is still the singlemost impressive example of its kind I have seen. Since then, I had the chance to attend several screenings of such pristine prints, including three accompanied by large film music orchestras, and I wouldn’t want to see Vertigo any other way anymore. Its impact on me is still the most significant cinematic experience I have had, and I will be forever grateful for still remembering almost every detail of what a quantum leap the new version really was.

My DVD was given away long ago and BluRays and digital platforms now partly offer probably even better resolutions and versions, but one never quite forgets that first purchase, the unpacking of the disc, the reading the liner notes and the deep-dive into Bonus Disc materials before pushing play on the actual movie: the unashamedly perfect version of Vertigo!

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