6 Mar 2011


Vertigo - A Smash-Hit Down Under!

Was it worth the more than one million dollars that it cost to restore Alfred Hitchcock's classic film, Vertigo.

The answer has to be an unqualified yes if the crowds that turned up to see the 70mm release at The Astor Theatre in Melbourne, Australia, are any guide.

More than 2,000 people were there for the first three screenings on a Sunday in late September - there were close to 1,000 in the audience at the late show alone!

By the end of the three-week run the results were the best The Astor had achieved for any re-release. In fact, they were nearly as good as those for the 70mm version of Hamlet. And that screening at The Astor broke all national, season-average records for a first-run release.

Vertigo also played in Sydney. It did well there although the figures were not as good as those for Melbourne which did 50% better in half the time.

The audiences were almost as fascinating as the film. Some were Hitchcock aficionados while others were simply intrigued by the Hitchcock legend. Many had seen the film some 30 years ago and wanted to see it presented in 70mm - a close as possible to how Hitchcock had meant it to be seen.

The Astor is superbly equipped for doing just that (see the August, 1997, issue of Wide Gauge). And it is the only cinema in Melbourne capable of screening the Vertigo restoration with 70mm DTS sound.

There was an almost-palpable sense of expectation as the film started. The screen masks, fully-open at 2:1 for the Universal logo, closed to about 1.8:1 when the old VistaVision logo appeared. It was faded and washed-out with a slight colour-cast. It looked as though it might have been the original logo left unrestored as a contrast to what was to follow.

And the first scenes, with James Stewart running across the roof-tops, had many people catching their breath.

It was clear that it was a restoration, that it was not an original, Technicolor print. There was a certain softness and, sometimes, the colours seemed somewhat pastel in nature. But the superb quality of the restoration became blindingly obvious during those few sequences for which the colour separations had deteriorated too much - the restorers had been forced to resort to the camera negative. The sheer detail and apparent accuracy of the colour must leave one in awe of the work done by Robert Harris and James Katz.

The full, 70mm frame was being projected so nothing of the image on the film was lost. It was most-interesting to see the VistaVision framing marks.

The 70mm DTS sound was stunning and, clearly, vastly superior to the original. The use of the surround and screen-effects channels was particularly effective during the driving sequences when vehicles in the background crossed from one side of the screen to the other.

There was a sync problem during the first reel with the sound leading the picture but it corrected itself after a while. It happened at every screening and appears to have been caused by errors in the time-code on the print.

One particular thing about the sound that caught the attention was the fact that music sometimes continued uninterrupted as the reel-change cue-marks appeared.

At The Astor, film from the shipping reels is combined to make-up 4,000-foot reels so not every set of cue-marks is at the physical end of a projection reel. But there were some continuing effects and music at actual change-overs.

The owner, manager and chief-projectionist of The Astor, George Florence, had noted them while previewing the print. He found that it was possible to change projectors with no discernible jump in the sound if the film was cued-up accurately and the change-overs made exactly on cue.

It is possible that Universal expected Vertigo to be shown using platters instead of reels - a view supported by the fact that some of the shipping reels had some very-odd film lengths. One, for example, had just eight minutes worth.

One thing that did give Florence some concern was the lack of audio back-up - there was only one set of discs and, of course, no fall-back sound-track on the film. However, he is certainly well aware of the huge financial and logistic benefits to be gained by producing in 70mm DTS instead of mag-stripe.

Leaving the technical aspects aside for a moment, how did the audiences react to the film?

Many people seeing Vertigo for the first time were expecting nail-biting suspense. But that's not what Vertigo is all about. It is a disturbing rather than a suspenseful movie - a story of obsession. Hitchcock meant to leave audiences with a feeling of disquiet. It certainly achieved that although there were several instances where the "dated" nature of some of the scenes gave rise to gentle, but not unkind, laughter.

Those who had seen Vertigo before were stunned - they felt that the 70mm restoration was much better than the 35mm screenings they had seen. Memories were sometimes a little hazy but everybody commented on the bigger screen-image and on the superb sound. As one member of the first-night audience put it, "I now feel that I had never really seen Vertigo until tonight."

It is noteworthy that most of the audience stayed to watch the closing credits which gave some insight into the work and the people involved in the restoration.

George Florence is obviously excited about the success of the Vertigo restoration. He hopes it will spur film-company executives to put up the money for the preservation or restoration of other wide-format films - there are undoubtedly enough of them in need of it!

He is certainly looking forward to the 1999 release in 70mm DTS of the Harris/Katz restoration of Rear Window. And he is looking at the possibility of getting new prints of some of the classics in 70mm DTS.

He also hopes that the digital system will encourage film makers to use the wide format. "The major cost with 70mm," Florence says, "has been adding the mag-striping and then recording the sound reel by reel. With DTS the cost of a 70mm print could be brought down to about three times that of a 35mm print instead of something like twelve times the cost."

As Scott Marshall, the Editor of Wide Gauge, put it, "That would be a nice side effect. I think that digital sound these days is so fine that it's starting to make the picture look bad in comparison. That's a surprise reason why digital sound may encourage large formats. It was previously thought to discourage them because it was assumed that mag tracks were 70mm's only advantage."

The Vertigo print went from The Astor to a, possibly-ambitious, five-week run in Adelaide, the capital city of the state of South Australia. It will then be screened in three other capital cities before returning to Melbourne and The Astor in February.

George Florence says he expects to get good houses at the second run of Vertigo as well. "Melbourne people seem to like nostalgia and classic films," he says. "And they are becoming increasingly aware of the advantages of wide-format presentations."

Apart from the return of Vertigo, The Astor's audiences can look forward to more screenings of the 70mm version of Hamlet, a new 70mm print of 2001 in December, the Harris/Katz 70mm restoration of Lawrence of Arabia at Christmas and a new 70mm mag-stripe print of Ben Hur next Easter.

"But," says Florence, "if I had known six months ago, when I was doing the deal, how successful 70mm DTS would be I would have ordered Ben Hur in that format instead of in mag-stripe and saved a bundle!"

© Copyright 1997 Ralphe Neill
Melbourne, Australia


(This article was first published in the October, 1997, issue of Wide Gauge Film and Video Monthly in the US)

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