He kept fiendish control of the movies he made, planning shots down to the tiniest details before he arrived on the set. But when it came to caring for the film negatives and soundtrack recordings — the proof of his genius — Alfred Hitchcock was the man who didn’t know too much.
”Hitch was ill-advised,” says producer James Katz, who has made a minicareer of salvaging great movies in partnership with restoration expert Robert Harris. They’ve already snatched such vintage mega-productions as My Fair Lady and Spartacus from the ravages of neglect, and two years ago Universal Pictures commissioned them to work their makeover magic on Vertigo, Hitchcock’s 1958 masterwork of sexual fetishism starring James Stewart in a series of cold sweats and Kim Novak in a series of hot outfits. What Katz and Harris uncovered was more shocking than the plot twists: Reel after reel of film materials was kinky, shrunken, torn, faded, mottled, or decomposing to vinegar. In a few more years, what remained might have been Vertigone.
Turning 1,300 separate pieces of original camera negative into a new negative and prints goes beyond complicated, but even the least techno-centric moviegoer will recognize the spellbinding quality of the results in the big-screen, major-city venues booked for Vertigo’s rerelease over the next two months: Have Jimmy Stewart’s eyes ever looked so blue, or San Francisco so dreamily gorgeous?
The restorers’ most impressive wizardry, though, is sonic. Because they found high-fidelity stereo tracks for Bernard Herrmann’s soaring score, they ”made the music another major star of the movie,” says Katz. And therein lay a major snag. Once remixed in thundering DTS digital stereo, the orchestrations all but drowned out the tinny sound effects in surviving prints. That meant they had to be researched and rerecorded from scratch — from the proper pitch of a Karmann Ghia engine (for the car Barbara Bel Geddes’ character drives) to the make of pistol a cop fires in the movie’s thrillingly noisy initial chase.
While mixing sound levels, Katz and Harris worked from Hitchcock’s own dubbing notes. And when that failed to settle judgment calls, they sought out a still-living master: Martin Scorsese pronounced the surf in one Golden Gate scene ”too loud.” The waters receded, but the restoration’s expanded sound field still makes Vertigo a more bracing plunge than it’s ever been.