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Yellow Layer Failure, Vinegar Syndrome and Miscellaneous Musings by Robert A. Harris

Robert A. Harris - Main Page

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold...

... in glorious black & white

Unlike the American film industry, which in comparison is huge, the industry in the UK is almost like a club in which one must work their way through the ranks.

This came to mind after viewing Paramount's new release of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold* starring Richard Burton, an elegant little film photographed in black & white in 1965 by one of a pantheon of British directors of photography, Oswald Morris.

When one takes a look at the inter-relationships between those who are members of this distinguished group, things become very interesting and worthy of further research.

Mr. Morris, who is now 88, worked during five decades, from the 1940s into the 80s. His work is well represented on DVD with titles such as The Man Who Would be King*, The Man with the Golden Gun*, Sleuth, Fiddler on the Roof*, Oliver!*, Lolita*, The Guns of Navarone*, The Entertainer*, Look Back in Anger, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, Moby Dick*, The Taming of the Shrew*, Oliver Twist (as camera operator for Guy Green) and the just released Moulin Rouge* (1952).

That his work on The Spy Who Came in from the Cold* won him two Best Cinematography Awards is merely a tiny example of the nominations and awards which he received for his work, inclusive of an Academy Award for Fiddler on the Roof*, a nomination for Oliver! and additional British awards for cinematography.

Take a look at the glistening streets in the opening of Spy, and the film that may come to mind is The Third Man*, photographed by Robert Krasker for Carol Reed. Mr. Krasker worked as a camera operator on films like Things to Come, Rembrandt, The Man Who Could Work Miracles, the aborted I, Claudius and three Technicolor productions - Drums, The Four Feathers and The Thief of Bagdad. He served as cinematographer on David Lean's Brief Encounter* and Carol Reed's Odd Man Out*, as well as El Cid, Billy Budd, The Collector* and Fall of the Roman Empire.

As mentioned, Mr. Morris was camera operator for Guy Green (who later went on to direct some superb films) on Oliver Twist as well as the Technicolor Blanche Fury. Mr. Green's meticulous work can also be seen in Great Expectations*, Captain Horatio Hornblower and Madeleine.

The inter-relationships continue.

Ronald Neame, now 93, was a producer on Brief Encounter*, Great Expectations*, Oliver Twist* and The Magic Box. Earlier in his long career, he was cinematographer on productions such as Blithe Spirit, This Happy Breed, In Which We Serve, One of Our Aircraft is Missing and Major Barbara. Mr. Neame has directed The Man Who Never Was, The Horse's Mouth*, Tunes of Glory*, Scrooge, The Poseidon Adventure, The Odessa File, Hopscotch* and two films new to DVD - First Monday in October and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie*, which holds a very firm place on my favorites list.

Jean Brodie* is one of the films where the pieces all came together. The performance by Maggie Smith is alone worth the price of admission. Robert Stephens (then married to Smith) was considered to be the actor most likely to fill the shoes of Laurence Olivier. Pamela Franklin, a superb actress, who began as the young girl in The Innocents (photographed by Freddie Francis, who was camera operator on Moulin Rouge* and Moby Dick*) and hasn't been seen on film since 1976 plays the good / bad girl in Miss Brodie's charge to the hilt. The Prime of Jean Brodie*, the newest in Fox's Studio Classics series comes very highly recommended.

As an aside, Mr. Neame's mother was Ivy Close, who starred in Abel Gance's La Roue.

Geoffrey Unsworth also comes with a curriculum vitae which places him firmly in this rarified group. Mr. Unsworth served as camera operator to Jack Cardiff on The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp* RAH and A Matter of Life and Death. He went on as cinematographer to photograph Scott of the Antarctic, The Blue Lagoon (1949), The Clouded Yellow, Ivory Hunter, A Night to Remember*, The World of Suzie Wong, Becket (recently restored by AMPAS), Half a Sixpence, Cromwell, Murder on the Orient Express, Superman*, Tess, Cabaret* and a little film entitled 2001: A Space Odyssey*.

Freddie Young is probably best known as the Academy Award winning cinematographer of Lawrence of Arabia*. After working as a teenager during The Great War in a hand grenade factory, he made the move (apparently his family thought it safer) to work in a nitrate film laboratory. Beginning as an Assistant Cameraman in 1922, he worked his way up to cinematographer by 1928.

With over 125 films to his credit, he remains not only one of the finest of the British cinematographers, but one of the great names (along with Jack Cardiff) in the history of the cinema. A check on IMDB will give those interested the long list of these gentlemen's work. Mr. Young passed away in December of 1998 at the age of 96.

Mr. Cardiff, also with over 100 films to his credit, goes on strong at a very young 89.

Mr. Cardiff has some of the finest Powell / Pressburger films to his credit, inclusive of The Red Shoes*, Black Narcissus* and A Matter of Life and Death, all of which have come to DVD in quality representations of his work, and in some cases with his support and approval.

More Beautifully Shot Black & White

Eugen(e) Schufftan isn't a name that comes up frequently in conversation, but it is a name that you should know.

He was a cinematographer and special effects supervisor who shot his final film (Chappaqua) in 1966.

I wanted to make brief note of his career because Sony is about to release two films directed by Robert Rossen. The first, They Came to Cordura is a 1959 CinemaScope production photographed by Burnett Guffey and starring Gary Cooper and Rita Hayworth.

The other Rossen film is the 1964 Lilith* with Warren Beatty, Jean Seberg and Peter Fonda. It is in this film that you'll find Mr. Schufftan's beautiful black & white images.

Lilith* comes highly recommended. Be sure to make note of the dissolves.

I should note that both of these films have been released in their proper aspect ratios.

If you explore Mr. Schufftan's curriculum vitae you'll find that many of you may have examples of his work in your DVD collections and not be aware of it. Born in Poland in 1893, he photographed a number of interesting projects inclusive of The Hustler*, Les Yeux sans Visage, Port of Shadows and Bizarre, Bizarre for Marcel Carne, Yoshiwara and La Tendre Ennemie for Ophuls, and L'Atlantide for Pabst.

Before taking over the camera, he served as Visual Effects Supervisor for Fritz Lang on Metropolis* and for Abel Gance on Napoleon.

More Three-strip Technicolor

Two more Technicolor productions have made their debut on DVD.

John Huston's Moulin Rouge* (1952), photographed by by Oswald Morris (see above) is a gorgeous translation from film to DVD and comes highly recommended, while Fox's Crash Dive (1943), photographed by Leon Shamroy, arrives in a less perfect form. Apparently from either an older intermediate or from damaged black and white elements, the color does not hold a correct path. Some shots look very much as they should, while others lack the three-strip look.

Professor Scorsese

For a number of years Martin Scorsese has been the unofficial patron saint of film students, many of whom would like to be...

Martin Scorsese.

Beginning with his dual commentaries with director Michael Powell on Criterion laserdiscs, his queries and discussions have served as both entertainment and education.

Now, with the release of My Voyage to Italy* RAH, the student of film, matriculating or not, has the capability of taking a master's quality course in the Italian cinema with one of the most knowledgeable and passionate purveyors of the cinema as their private professor.

As he moves though the past fifty or so years of Italian filmmaking, Scorsese orients his course of study toward the work of a handful of directors, their work, and the affect that their films had upon him personally and on his films.

From the beginning, the student knows that this is a professor with no need of index cards or notes. He knows his subject.

Covering selected works of Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica, Luchino Visconti, Federico Fellini and Michaelangelo Antonioni, the film uses clips in depth, allowing the viewer to get a real grasp of the film, rather than jumping from one film to the next.

My Voyage* has been called Scorsese's "love letter" to the Italian cinema. Frank Scheck, writing in the Hollywood Reporter said, "There is no denying the passion or intelligence of this work, which is meant to be an encouragement to explore the films for ourselves rather than a dry history lesson. On that level "Viaggio" fully succeeds."

There will be many films this year which will end up on the "Best" lists. Some for the quality of their transfers, some for their simple popularity. Writing in July, I cannot imagine that any other DVD release in 2004 will be more important as a document of film history or as an educational tool for lovers of the cinema than My Voyage to Italy*. This DVD is a no-holds barred must have.

A Miramax Mystery

Something strange has been occurring over the past year.

Miramax has generally been known for quality product and has created some superb entertainments. Yet some of their more recent DVD releases have ranged from average to poor to impermissible. Some should be re-called, re-compressed and re-authored.

Problematic DVDs have been Gangs of New York, Cold Mountain, the new SE of The English Patient, The Human Stain, and to a lesser extent Kill Bill.

Gangs, one of my favorite films of 2002, has an overall soft look to which it appears electronic enhancement (EE) has been added.

Cold Mountain went through digital post-production and was recorded out as a digital intermediate (DI). With the exception of a few effects shots, there are no known digital problems in the film. This means that Cold Mountain is not a transfer, per se, but based upon actual digital files, having only gone through balancing and color correction.

Finding out precisely where the problems are coming from is not a simply defined situation. In tracing back, it is sometimes difficult to tell if the actual transfers may be less than perfect or if problems arose at a later stage. It must be acknowledged that the films have been transferred under the control of some of the best people in the business.

And yet, in looking at Cold Mountain, there is no longer fine detail left in this film on DVD. One can readily see steps on what should be straight lines and the images in long shots are steaming blurs of what appears to be enhancement mixed with a total loss of high frequency information.

Kill Bill, at least to my eye, is a much less problematic disc, but still imperfect.

It has already been mentioned by others on Home Theater Forum that the newly released Human Stain is yet another problem disc from Miramax -- another soft image heightened to artificial sharpness electronically.

How do we figure out what's going on?

I don't have the answers. I can only submit questions.

What do these films have in common?

Gangs was a transfer from film. English Patient was a transfer from film. Cold Mountain came from corrected digital files. Human Stain and Kill Bill: Vol. 1 were transfers from interpositives derived from digital files created by Technique a division of Technicolor. Cold Mountain went through digital grading at Britain's Framestore.

What do we know?

English Patient is apparently a new transfer, and should not have been problematic. We don't know the quality of that transfer. Why does English Patient look as bad as it does?

Cold Mountain should have been a veritable slam-dunk to DVD.

But it wasn't.

I saw Cold Mountain at the Directors Guild in LA on a huge screen. The quality was impeccable.

I'm led to believe that all of these titles with the exception of English Patient were handled by the same post facility for compression. Is there a problem at this facility?

Is too much material being put on these DVDs?

Are multiple foreign language tracks, DTS and moving menus at fault? Is the bit rate shared with too many elements? There should be enough room on a two layer DVD for a 152 minute film. If there isn't, a decision should have been made to start throwing tracks or extras overboard to save quality.

If the distributor makes that decision, do people start complaining about a lack of DTS tracks or foreign functions?

If one goes back to the very outset of DVD, the most basic concept of compression and authoring seems flawed in its attempt at functionality.

Create your high quality digital film to tape transfer.

Soften the image via noise reduction and grain reduction. Grain takes up space and causes compression problems. Get rid of the grain and you have a cleaner image. The problem is that you also have a softer image.

Take the resultant softer image and sharpen it via electronic enhancement.

And what do you have?

Apparently if you do all of this correctly, you can get a decent final image. Don't hit the high quality marks and you end up with a soft, edge-enhanced image that falls short of creating a DVD which accurately represents the film as it was projected in theatres.

My questions are these.

Where is the quality control on the newest Miramax titles?

Is anyone at all looking at these final compressed elements before they go into production?

Has the post house overseeing the production of these DVD ever seen a high quality DVD?

Is the post facility using at least one larger monitor on which to check their work?

Do the professionals selecting and working with the compression algorithms for these films know what can be done within the post-production parameters that turn a filmed image into a DVD?

Have they ever seen Fox's DVD of Hello, Dolly!?

In all fairness, it would be improper of me to complain about the quality of these Miramax titles without offering at least one example of a transfer done correctly with a superb final product released to DVD.

I would point anyone interested to a 1971 production, shot on archaic Eastman negative stock and transferred to video via a decades old intermediate.

Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs, a Criterion release should be a fair comparison to be used as a striking point for productions shot in the last three years.

Hopefully someone from Miramax or the post facilities they use will take a look.

The Cary Grant Collection

There are three small treasures to be found here.

The surprise is the quality of the RKO titles. The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer* (1947) is a delightful gem. Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House* (1948) is another winner which is heading toward a re-make. My Favorite Wife* (1940) re-teams Grant with Irene Dunne, with whom he shared the screwball comedy spotlight in The Awful Truth (1936), which is available from Columbia.

The Dreamers

From Fox comes the latest film by one of the true artists of modern cinema - Bernardo Bertolucci.

Any time a film by Bertolucci is released, theatrically or on DVD, there is cause for celebration. Beginning in 1974 with Before the Revolution, Mr. Bertolucci has offered his cinematic vision as true art.

From the brilliance of The Conformist in which the work of Vittorio Storaro bounced as light from the screen in dye transfer Technicolor to The Last Tango in Paris, 1900, The Last Emperor which won 9 Academy Awards including Best Picture, The Sheltering Sky to Stealing Beauty, he has always made our trip to the cinema not only worthwhile, but generally a thought-provoking event.

So it is with The Dreamers*, a tale of the interrelationships between an American tourist and a pair of French twins during the hectic days in 1968 as the French government attempted to oust Henri Langlois from his post at the Cinematheque, leading to riots in the streets of Paris.

You'll find echoes here of both Jean-Pierre Melville's 1950 Les Enfants Terribles as well as the later and slightly less classic Cruel Intentions.

Rated NC-17 and not for those shy of nudity in film, The Dreamers* follows the relationship of the three leads as the American, played by Michael Pitt, tries to come to terms with the relationship between the twins, and having fallen in love with one, attempts to separate them.

This is a wonderful character study with myriads of visual and verbal connections to the cinema, a place where the three spend most of their lives.

The Dreamers* is highly recommended, both as a film and as a representation of that film on video. These comments refer to the NC-17 version.

Notes on TV

My viewing habits tend much more toward feature films on DVD than television. I attempted not to miss the first seasons of The West Wing* as it aired. The first two are now available on DVD in beautiful sets from Warner. You'll find some fine writing and performances in West Wing* I had caught bits of CSI* and CSI: Miami, but never had a chance to spend any time with an entire episode.

Along with virtually every other studio, Paramount has done their best to bring hit television to home video, and with this move came the first two seasons of CSI* and the initial season of CSI: Miami.

From the pilot onward, as characters are given their lives and idiosyncrasies, the series quickly pulls together. While CSI* still seems the superior show, both are thought provoking entertainment and worth a bit of your time. This fall we'll be welcoming a New York CSI into our homes, followed (most likely as ratings continue) by a CSI for most of the top hundred or so markets. CSI: Champaign - Urbana has a nice ring to it.

From M-G-M came a series that I had never caught, but at least had heard of. When I popped the pilot episode of Dead Like Me into my player I realized that I had happened upon the epitome of "high concept." In this case, well-written and performed by newcomer Ellen Muth (who to me looks like a cross between a teenaged Hayley Mills and either Mary-Kate or Ashley - I'm not certain which) and Mandy Patinkin, one of the most talented entertainers in our midst, who like a Spencer Tracy or Claude Rains, seems to have entered the skin of his character. He's one of those folks who make acting look easy. Muth seems to forever chew on her words, not terribly pleased to be where she is.

And it's the "where she is" that makes this series interesting.

We're all familiar with the legends and backgrounds set up for us by any number of Universal horror films as well as others.

We know that vampires don't cast reflections; that they have a dislike for garlic, crucifixes and sunlight; and "don't drink wine."

Mummies need just that little bit of tana leaf extract to bring them back and put some flesh on their bones, enabling them to carry another damsel in distress into a swamp.

We're familiar with lycanthropy and its problems of hair growth and a need to return to quadrupedism. We know that when bitten by one of these creatures, we, in turn, become one.

But poor Ms. Muth plays young George Lass. Not interested in doing much of anything, she is forced to make her way into the adult world and a boring lowest level new job, when the Mir spacecraft breaks up somewhere in the upper atmosphere and a flaming toilet seat hurtles down at her. She later ponders why she didn't step out of the way. But no matter. There'd be no series if she had.

Her soul is collected by a Grim Reaper - Mr. Patinkin plays a sort of middle management Reaper - and Ms. Muth joins their group, not terribly happily collecting the souls of others. The interesting thing is that Reapers can interact with the living. They look human, although not in the precise form of their original self. Can they change people's destiny? Should they get involved? This is all part of the fun of this dark comedic series, which could not run on network television in its current form. I recommend it.

After having lived with the American Revolution daily for the past two years, I made the time to watch a 200 minute PBS series - Rebels & Redcoats: How Britain Lost America.

Richard Holmes, a British military historian, hosts the series and brings history to life. Unlike some hired hands, occasionally brought in to "host" this type of series, Mr. Holmes really knows his facts, is passionate about his subject and literally hurls himself from location to location, sprinting up hills and through forests with the excitement of someone making an archaeological discovery.

You'll learn more from this single DVD than from a college level course in the American Revolution. Therefore it comes highly recommend.

Robert Harris


* Designates a film worthy of purchase on DVD. RAH Designates a film worth of "blind" purchase on DVD.

Don't forget - you can CLICK 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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