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Just go with me on this and follow the action:
Home video or the classics division or possibly foreign or cable
has a need for one of the studio's film titles considered an all
time classic, and they need a new state of the art transfer.
No big deal really. Your vaults are packed twenty feet high on
moveable, earthquake resistant shelving - hundreds of thousands of
rolls of picture and audio elements.
Everything in order. Everything in its proper place.
The title has just reached its fiftieth birthday. Shot on nitrate
stock, fine grains and dupe negatives were produced routinely.
Prints have been made continuously for decades.
But twenty-five years ago the studio was printing off a dupe, which
is now well worn.
You have two options.
Either you pull one of the fine grain masters into service and
create a new dupe, or do it correctly and go back to the foundation
- the original negative - and give it the preservation that is
called for. And that past regimes overlooked.
And now its your problem.
The film in question happens to be one of the all time greats. A
motion picture that is known to have stood the test of time.
So you pull in the working dupe negative. Examination reveals
overprinting. Light to heavy scratches on both the base and
emulsion, plus additional scratches cutting through the emulsion,
leaving something in their wake which is impermissible.
That examination also reveals that some of those scratches and dirt
have been photographically built into the dupe negative from wear
and dirt in the fine grain.
The answer is obvious.
You call in the fine grain, or multiple fine grains.
But the inventory, newly created from a world-wide search, reveals
certain elements to be missing. And one of those elements is your
duplicating fine grain.
All is not lost, however, as the foundation must be carefully
Since you don't store nitrate on the lot, it must be at one of the
UCLA, The Academy, MOMA, George Eastman House, The Library of
Surely the original negative can't be missing, or worse, decomposed
But after a long, sickening search, there are no fine grains and no
And word makes its way up the chain of command that sometime during
the last forty years or so, through any number of owners and
executives, every single original film element on Billy Wilder's
brilliant Sunset Boulevard*
has gone missing.
Paramount has something extremely positive going for it when it
comes to their technical services organization. It seems that each
and every individual along the line of command has one thing in
common. They love film.
If you happen to be someone like Paramount's Phil Murphy you're
going to move heaven and earth to see that Sunset
Boulevard*, unbelievably on the brink of extinction, is
very firmly brought back into service, and you give the task to
Barry Allen and Steve Elkin to make it happen, and to Ron Smith to
create a beautiful DVD. I might also add that the green light for a
project of this type must come from upper management, in this case
approved by Jon Dolgen, who obviously understood its import and
If you recall my past commentaries, I've mentioned that one must
select their tools for use in film restoration, and there is no
absolute right way of finding a solution.
Further, there may be multiple routes, each of which will yield
different results. Some better for video as a final product, others
After months of searching and testing, a decision was made to make
a huge investment and allow Lowry Digital to try to resurrect Sunset
Boulevard*. Actually not just Sunset
Boulevard*, but also another film found to have precisely
the same set of problems - William Wyler's Roman
Holiday*, which had been shot on safety.
Both of which are just making their way to DVD.
Several months ago, Mr. Allen was kind enough to allow me to view
some test reels of both films, recorded back to film from a 2k video
source and projected in 35mm.
While what I viewed was a work in progress, what shocked me the
most was the abominable condition of the extant film elements.
They began this restoration with virtually nothing of quality.
At the screening, I was able to compare a new print derived from
the dupe negative with a print struck fifty years ago from the
original, and that to the new print produced by Lowry.
While I saw problems at that time with the new print and am
anxiously waiting to see a final rendition, I felt that the enormous
amount of work which had been done had a major chance of looking
superb on video.
After screening the new DVD of Sunset
Boulevard* this evening, I'm pleased to tell you that it
falls in line with North by Northwest*
and other titles which have used this process.
The scratches are gone. As is the dirt. The film grain has gone
with it, but the resultant image is totally pleasing in its
There are some problems which cannot be fixed.
As a film is duped, grain and contrast are built up. Eventually,
dependent upon the quality of the elements produced, blacks, which
are represented on the negative by shades of light grays, become
lighter and lighter, yielding an image on the print which is
virtually solid black.
With no shades of gray or nuance. And this does occur in some dark
scenes, but it is unavoidable. If there is no information on your
film, it isn't going to come out of thin air.
Especially knowing from whence it came, I'm thrilled with both this
new release, as well as its companion release Roman
Holiday*, a charming and classic film, quite different
from and not in the same league as Sunset
A few background notes of interest:
Miss Swanson and Mr. Von Stroheim worked together in 1929 on the
ill-fated Queen Kelly, which
is the film projected by Stroheim for Desmond and her guest.
Norma Desmond's card playing "waxworks" friends are all
silent film actors - Buster Keaton, H.B. Warner (who played Christ
in DeMille's King of Kings -
1927) and Anna Q. Nilsson who began her film career in 1911. Miss
Swanson began her career in 1915 working for Essanay and Keystone.
When Norma Desmond visits Mr. DeMille on the Paramount lot, he is
working on Samson and Delilah.
Included on the DVD are a number of extras, all top quality. If you
haven't seen this film, do not go to any of the extras in advance.
Go into the film cold. [Editor's note: a
complete list of the features and disc specs can be found below.]
The Pros: An exceptionally clean image, with a nicely rendered gray
scale for what survived on the dupe negative.
The Middle Ground: A virtual lack of grain which goes along with
the digital homogenization, creating a startlingly clean image which
never existed on film.
The Cons: A very slight softness in the image, most easily seen in
the main titles, but nothing that would get in the way of this
superbly fashioned entertainment.
The Bottom Line: One of the great films of all time, by one of the
greatest filmmakers, digitally brought back to life for a wonderful
home theatre experience. A terrific DVD.
And while I hate to spend your hard earned money, especially after
Colonel Blimp*, Paramount's
new DVD of Sunset Boulevard*.
is another one of those must buys.
* Designates a film worthy of
purchase on DVD.
Special Collector's Edition
- 1950 (2002) - Paramount
Specs and Features
110 mins, NR, full frame (1.33:1), single-sided, dual-layered
(no layer switch), keep case packaging, audio commentary by Ed
Sikov (author of On Sunset Boulevard:
The Life and Times of Billy Wilder), The
Making of Sunset Boulevard documentary, interactive
Hollywood location map with video clips, theatrical trailer, 3
photo galleries, "Morgue Prologue" script pages, Edith
Head: The Paramount Years featurette, The
Music of Sunset Boulevard featurette, animated
film-themed menu screens with music, scene access (19 chapters),
languages: English & French (DD 2.0 mono), subtitles:
English, Closed Captioned
Don't forget - you can
HERE to discuss this article with Robert and other home
theater enthusiasts online right now at The
Home Theater Forum. And speaking of that, thanks to the
HTF's Ron Epstein for the
picture of Robert seen in the column graphic above.
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