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review added: 3/7/01



Vertigo
Collector's Edition - 1958 (1998) - Universal

review by Brad Pilcher of The Digital Bits

The Films of Alfred Hitchcock on DVD

Vertigo Film Rating: A-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/B/B+

Specs and Features

129 mins, PG, letterboxed widescreen (1.85:1), single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at 1:28:56 in chapter 24), Amaray keep case packaging, audio commentary (with restoration team members Robert A. Harris, James C. Katz, associate producer Herbert Coleman and other Vertigo participants), original theatrical trailer and restoration theatrical trailer, Obsessed with Vertigo: New Life for Alfred Hitchcock's Masterpiece documentary, foreign censorship ending, storyboards, production drawings, story sketches, film-themed menu screens, scene access (35 chapters - movie, 15 chapters - documentary), languages: English (DD 5.1) subtitles: English, Spanish and French


"Here I was born, and there I died. It was only a moment for you... you took no notice."

Vertigo is a film classic that stands slightly above most other films of its kind. It is, after all, the most acclaimed film from the cannon of one of the most acclaimed film directors... Mr. Alfred Hitchcock. As such, it deserved a little special edition DVD treatment, and it certainly got it. The disc features the 1996 restored version, which ran for a limited theatrical release, along with a bevy of extras. Sounds good, right? Well, it's all fine and dandy... but the disc does has its pitfalls. I'll get back to that in a minute.

First... the movie itself. Originally released in 1958, Vertigo tells the story of Scottie (James Stewart), a police detective who slips during a rooftop chase. As Scottie hangs from a ledge, another officer tries to rescue him, but only ends up plummeting to his death. This event gives our protagonist acute acrophobia and vertigo. He retires from the force, but is soon called to assist an old college buddy. It would seem this buddy's wife is acting a little weird, and he thinks she's possessed by a dead person. Eerie enough for you? Well, that's only the first twenty minutes, and it just wouldn't be kosher to tell you any more about the film's plot. Suffice it to say, the film winds through a few twists, tugging you further into a psychological maelstrom each step of the way.

Vertigo is truly a meticulously crafted film. This is in keeping with Hitchcock's style of directing, which was exact and painstaking. Still, the film received only lukewarm praise at best upon its initial release. Only later did it gain the mystique it carries today, which I think makes sense. This is a terribly rich film, layered in a variety of ways, and it meanders along at a lackadaisical rate. Sometimes, it's as if you're watching an old silent film. At others, the tempo is intense and punchy. It's all very beautiful, but only after watching this film three or four times did I fully begin to grasp and appreciate it. Vertigo is a film that was very much ahead of its time.

So it was with notable anticipation that I popped this disc into my DVD player. I had not had the chance to view the restored print myself, and I was eager to see what Bob Harris and James Katz had accomplished. I was very pleased. But before we get into the details, it's important to give you a little background on just how important this restoration was. Vertigo was, like most of Hitchcock's films, stored privately and outside of the studio archives. Unfortunately, that storage vault was not state-of-the-art and the negatives were ravaged over the decades they sat unused. When Harris and Katz showed up (with $1 million in hand to do the work), they found that the print was faded and actually shrinking! Ouch.

All the luscious details about the restoration itself are included in the booklet that comes with the DVD, and in the rock-solid documentary on the disc itself. The long and short of it is that this restoration is visually awesome. Using original color queues, like paint chips from the cars in the film, they've managed to restore the original colors in this transfer. The video image on DVD is crisp, bright and simply great. Now... everything I just wrote is relative. This is not a video transfer you'll want to use for reference material. There's some apparent grain, but Vertigo has always been a grainy film. There's some remaining source defects, but when you physically restore a film (instead of just doing digital restoration for DVD) there are some things you just can't erase. There are also some muddy-looking scenes and even some lightly muted frames. Also, because Vertigo was an early Universal DVD, it's not in anamorphic widescreen. With an all-new hi-def transfer and additional digital restoration, we'd loose a lot of those complaints. Still, I have to cut this DVD some major slack, considering that this is a 40-year-old print that we nearly lost (but for the grace of God, $1 million from Universal and some of the best film restorers in the business). So I'm moving on.

The audio is also solidly restored. Harris and Katz managed to get roughly 90% of the original score from Paramount's archives, but they had to do some re-recording. They've done a great job overall, but I do have a bit of a complaint. The music levels are a tinge too high - I found myself often turning the volume down during the music and then back up again to catch the dialogue. I understand this is a restored audio track, but the mixers could've aligned this just a bit better.

Finally... the stuff I was really salivating for - the extras. These are some great supplements, but they've all been ported over from the 1997 laserdisc version of the film. That's not necessarily a bad thing, because there's plenty there. But again, since this was an early DVD, we get a sub par menuing system that just wasn't redesigned for DVD. An example? There's a foreign censorship ending and a slew of production sketches and storyboards here, which is great. But they're all tucked at the end of the documentary, Obsessed with Vertigo: New Life for Alfred Hitchcock's Masterpiece, and you wouldn't know they're there unless you watched the whole thing (or thumbed through the 15 chapter stops in that section). That's not so great. Aside from that substantial annoyance, however, the extras are both entertaining and informative. There's a commentary track on the film, which is mainly Bob Harris and Jim Katz talking with associate producer Herb Coleman about the making of the film. It's a bit disjointed, as the three weren't always communicating on the same wavelength, but all the same it's still quite informative because it sheds light on a classic film we wouldn't get any other way. On the other hand, the documentary included in the supplement section is excellent, and deals with both the making of the film and the restoration effort. It's incredibly insightful and is a DVD extra that you'll really appreciate. There's also two trailers - the original and the one for the limited theatrical release of the restored version. The aforementioned foreign censorship ending, production sketches and storyboards close out the mix. Super stuff.

In the end, it's easy to call this a good disc. It's definitely got its flaws, and I've mentioned them. But c'mon! It's Vertigo and it's 40-years-old. The fact that it's even presented in such good quality, and with such good extras, should have every Hitchcock fan singing for joy. For what it is, this disc rocks.

Brad Pilcher
bradpilcher@thedigitalbits.com


The Films of Alfred Hitchcock on DVD




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