Six Damn Fine Degrees #115: Chronicle of a death foretold

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!

“Somewhere in here I was born… and here I died. It was only a moment for you… You took no notice.”

Even just reading those words gives me goose bumps. In Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, a film that’s not light on ominous, eerie moments, it is probably the one scene that most gets under my skin, even after I’ve seen the film a half-dozen times. It is strange and uncanny (even if it is actually part of an extended con), but also, and perhaps most of all, it is sad, as many of my favourite ghost stories are. The woman in front of you pointing at the tree rings, pointing out where she was born, first, and then where she died.

Died. Past tense.

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I’ll be in my trailer… watching trailers: No country for cold men

Join us every week for a trip into the weird and wonderful world of trailers. Whether it’s the first teaser for the latest instalment in your favourite franchise, an obscure preview for a strange indie darling, whether it’s good, bad, ugly or just plain weird – your favourite pop culture baristas are there to tell you what they think.

Matt finally caught up (at least somewhat) with Alan and Julie, watching the Criterion release of Ernst Lubitsch’s comedy Design for Living almost two years after their podcast on the complicated women of pre-Code cinema. Even for someone not much versed in the films of the era preceding the Hays Code, Design for Living more than delivers with its wit and its wonderful trio of protagonists.

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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!

Footnotes: The Music Makers

We thought long and hard about whether we wanted to put musical excerpts in our podcast episode on movie soundtracks, but in the end we decided against it – not least because these pieces should be heard in their entirety, and they tend to work best when you listen to them along to the respective scenes from the films they’re from. So, below you’ll find our picks and some more of our thoughts about these wonderful tunes and composers.

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The Rear-View Mirror: Bernard Herrmann (1911)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

You don’t have to be into movies all that much to have been scared by Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975). He started composing when still a teenager and also worked as an orchestrator and conductor later on. One of his first notable contributions was for Orson Welles’ original 1938 broadcast of War of the Worlds. Hermann’s music must have had a hand in the fact that so many listeners thought that the Martians were really coming.

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The Rear-View Mirror: It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

Bear with me, even though it’s still a few weeks before Christmas, but there’s no way we can’t talk about Frank Capra’s eternal holiday classic now that the Rear-View Mirror is reflecting the year 1946 back at us. When Frank Capra is mentioned, it’s easy to think of a certain kind of corny sentimentality, doubly so when the film in question is It’s a Wonderful Life. The fairy-tale ending, the song about lassoing the moon, the twee story about how an angel gets his wings whenever a bell rings, and Zuzu’s damn petals: it’s easy to be dismissive of the film. Easy and wrong.

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A moving moment

You’ve probably all noticed that my blog updates have become somewhat infrequent, at least compared to the beginning, where I’d hammer out an entry a day. Don’t worry, this is just a momentary slump (I hope); things are somewhat stressful at the moment, and I don’t get to watch or read as much as I’d like. Even when I do find the time, I’m usually somewhat too tired to appreciate films, series and books as much as I’d want to.

That’s where gaming comes in. I can be as tired as I want, yet I can still get some enjoyment out of Guitar Hero (where I’ve graduated to Hard mode, meaning that I’ve now got five fretting buttons to contend with!) or Splinter Cell. Or I could be “enjoying” Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth.

CoC: DCotE (doncha love acronyms?) is one of the creepiest games I’ve played since… well, since Thief 3 and that Holy Grail of computer game horror, the Cradle. I’m not particularly informed when it comes to H.P. Lovecraft and the Cthulhu mythos, but for those of you who know even less, Cthulhu is this cheerful fellow:

Yo, C-man!

(Any similarities to a certain crustacean Doctor are purely coincidental.)

The game has a couple of easy scares (boo! decomposing corpse!), but by and large it works with more subtle techniques: half-glimpsed horrors and whispers in the dark. Slowly going insane is as much of a threat in this game as things that go bump in the night. The game starts with the protagonist cuts his stay at an insane asylum short by hanging himself – what follows essentially is a long, drawn-out flashback – an odd way to motivate players to progress: “Just one more level and I can hang myself! Yay!” For the first two, three hours of gameplay you don’t even have any weapons, which makes for an original twist on the genre: for once, the solution to all your problems isn’t unloading a gun in some gilled horror’s face.

And the game has what is possibly the best chase sequence I’ve ever seen or played. You’re woken up in the middle of the night as a couple of shady guys (with serious throat problems, from the sound of it) try to break into your room to turn you into chowder. Your only option is to run, bolting doors behind you or blocking them with wardrobes and the like. Then, a bracing escape via the rooftops while you’re being shot at… and don’t even look down, because otherwise you’ll find out just how Jimmy Stewart felt in that classic Hitchcock movie about a guy with vertigo. I think it was called… “The Man Who Was Afraid of Heights”.