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

Robert A. Harris - Main Page

Saving Sunset

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 secreted away.

Since you don't store nitrate on the lot, it must be at one of the obvious locations.

UCLA, The Academy, MOMA, George Eastman House, The Library of Congress.

Surely the original negative can't be missing, or worse, decomposed or destroyed.

But after a long, sickening search, there are no fine grains and no original negative.

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 merit.

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 for film.

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 cleanliness.

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 Boulevard*.

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.

Robert Harris


* Designates a film worthy of purchase on DVD.

Sunset Boulevard: Special Collector's Edition

See comments above.
Sunset Boulevard
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

Buy this DVD now at DVD Planet!

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.

Robert A. Harris - Main Page

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