David Bordwell's website on cinema   click for CV




Film Art: An Introduction

Christopher Nolan: A Labyrinth of Linkages pdf online

Pandora’s Digital Box: Films, Files, and the Future of Movies pdf online

Planet Hong Kong, second edition pdf online

The Way Hollywood Tells It pdf online

Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Chapter 3 | Three Dimensions of Film Narrative new pdf!

Figures Traced In Light

Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Exporting Entertainment: America in the World Film Market 1907–1934 pdf online


CinemaScope: The Modern Miracle You See Without Glasses

How Motion Pictures Became the Movies

Constructive editing in Pickpocket: A video essay


Shklovsky and His “Monument to a Scientific Error” new!

Murder Culture: Adventures in 1940s Suspense

The Viewer’s Share: Models of Mind in Explaining Film

Common Sense + Film Theory = Common-Sense Film Theory?

Mad Detective: Doubling Down

The Classical Hollywood Cinema Twenty-Five Years Along

Nordisk and the Tableau Aesthetic

William Cameron Menzies: One Forceful, Impressive Idea

Another Shaw Production: Anamorphic Adventures in Hong Kong

Paolo Gioli’s Vertical Cinema

(Re)Discovering Charles Dekeukeleire

Doing Film History

The Hook: Scene Transitions in Classical Cinema

Anatomy of the Action Picture

Hearing Voices

Preface, Croatian edition, On the History of Film Style

Slavoj Žižek: Say Anything

Film and the Historical Return

Studying Cinema


Book Reports

Observations on film art

Archive for the 'Film technique: Widescreen' Category

A matter of ‘Scope

Killer Constable.

DB here:

Like most cinephiles of my vintage, I love anamorphic widescreen, especially in its early years. Even though CinemaScope as a trademarked format is long gone, its aspect ratio of 2.35 or 2.40 to 1 became the standard, and we tend to call any widescreen film of those proportions a “‘Scope” production.

Nowadays many films are in ‘Scope; it’s sensed as a cool ratio. Too cool, actually: I’m not sure that Cop Out and The Hangover needed to be in ‘Scope. Things were quite different in Asian cinema during the 1960s and 1970s, where directors had to learn how to master and exploit the new acreage available to them. I was reminded of their problems, and some of their dazzling solutions, when I visited films that were part of two big retrospectives at the Hong Kong Film Festival this year.

The Shochiku touch

Festival goers tend to ignore their cities’ round-the-year programming. We’ve shown films at our Cinematheque that would have drawn more strongly if they had been presented under the umbrella of a festival. A festival is a big, ballyhooed event, and people set aside time to plunge into it. They take it as an occasion to explore cinema. But that impulse isn’t as strong, I think, in other seasons.

Accordingly, the HKIFF has developed a smart strategy. It often launches a retrospective during the festival period but then continues it after the festival is finished. This enables the festival to spotlight the series more vividly and to engage viewers to return in the weeks to come. The drawback is that the strategy tantalizes us visitors, who wish we could stay on to get a full dose of Shimizu Hiroshi (subject of a 2004 roundup) or Kinoshita Keisuke (2005) or Nakagawa Nobuo (2006). This year’s hors d’oeuvres were even more scanty: only two of the films of Shibuya Minoru played during the festival, which ended Tuesday. The rest come later in April.

At the venerable Shochiku studio, after assisting Naruse Mikio and Gosho Heinosuke, Shibuya worked with Ozu on What Did the Lady Forget? (1937) before launching his own directing career. He made over forty films, the last one released in 1966. My own awareness of Shibuya before my visit was limited to the family dramas A New Family (Atarashiki Kazoku, 1939) and Cherry Country (Sakura no kuni, 1941), both in a mildly, though not rigorously, Ozuian vein.

The earlier film in the partial Shibuya retrospective was Righteousness (1957), an ensemble piece about a neighborhood still laboring under postwar hardships. The young Seitaro is in love with Michiko, but her mother offers her in marriage to her more prosperous roomer. Seitaro works as a mechanic for a bus company, where Fujita is a driver. Fujita has just married a young woman against his father’s wishes. The characters are introduced through the peripatetic Okyo, Seitaro’s mother, who peddles black-market goods to her neighbors. Fujita’s troubles mount up when his bus hits a child, and Seitaro must decide whether to reveal what he knows about the accident. The film builds well to two climaxes, the consequences suffered by Seitaro after he makes his painful decision and then Okyo’s denunciation of her neighbors. On the other side of the ledger, Fujita’s domestic troubles are resolved rather abruptly and implausibly. Still, Righteousness exemplifies the classic Shochiku formula of smiles mixed with tears, capped by a more-or-less upbeat resolution.

Shibuya was shadowed by Ozu even after the master’s death, for he was assigned to make a memorial film based on the last project planned by Ozu and screenwriter Noda Kogo. This was the film now circulating as Mr. Radish and Mr. Carrot (1965).

Chris Fujiwara has provided us an enlightening account of how Shibuya turned what would probably have been another subtle Ozu meditation on generational strife, in the manner of An Autumn Afternoon, into a more raucous comic melodrama. Yamaki is an executive who lives by strict routine, but he’s also pestered by his four daughters and his lothario brother. When a friend comes down with cancer and the brother reveals himself as an embezzler, Yamaki flees without warning. As his family fret about him, and quarrel among themselves, he settles in among working people, notably some prostitutes and a swindler selling Chinese medicine.

No one in the family displays much virtue, and even Yamaki is seen as cranky and oblivious to the needs of his wife and children. Radish and Carrot’s cynicism seemed to me too easy, and the physical comedy, such as Ryu Chishu’s bodily contortions, struck me as forced and overplayed. Stylistically, the film is eclectic and almost casual. It begins with a zoom and a whip pan. Thereafter, we get flash cuts, canted setups, and a fashion show. Unlike Righteousness, this film justifies Fujiwara’s claim, in a HKIFF catalogue essay not available online, that Shibuya sometimes embraced “visual excess.”

Ozu refused widescreen filming; he compared the ‘Scope frame to a roll of toilet paper. He may have realized that it would pose problems for his graphically matched cuts, deep and subtly imbalanced compositions, and other techniques he had refined over decades. Similarly, Radish and Carrot made me wonder if Shibuya was comfortable working in ‘Scope. He drops in some Ozuian corridor images, but at other times he mounts the sort of packed wide-angle shots common in 1960s Japanese anamorphic films.

When Ozu fills up his 4×3 frames, he gives us more to look at, along with more daring placement of figures. This is not your typical establishing shot.

Ozu’s signature shot is at a low height but seldom at a low angle. Shibuya’s compositions remind you what a real low-angle image looks like, with the camera tipped up considerably.

I know, it’s unfair to judge Shibuya’s film by the exalted standards of Late Autumn (1960), and we risk saddling him with purposes he didn’t have. He probably didn’t set out to make an Ozu pastiche. Yet we can, I think, fault Radish and Carrot sheerly on craft grounds. Two party scenes, one gathering men and one among wives, seemed to me almost haphazard in their spatial development. This cut, for instance, is more careless than anything I noticed in Righteousness.

In the second shot, on the far right side, a waitress is now in the frame next to the old man, and he has already turned and is talking to her instead of his classmates at the other table. When this film was made, younger directors, like Suzuki Seijun and Oshima Nagisa, were already handling ‘Scope with much more assurance. I look forward to seeing more Shibuya widescreen entries to learn if they made more polished use of the format.

Elegance and vulgarity

The other retrospective in question was devoted to Kuei Chih-hung (in Cantonese, Gwei Chi-hung), a Shaws director who has been overshadowed by the more famous Chang Cheh and Li Han-hsiang (here and here on this site). Kuei worked in several genres, including the sex movie and the horror film, and he was able to supply cheap items in quantity. But he stands out partly because he moved outside the opulent Shaw studio to shoot on locations. Working with an efficient crew and a lightweight camera, Kuei produced some films, like The Delinquent (1973) and The Teahouse (1974), that look forward to the social realism of the New Wave that followed. Like some New Wavers as well, Kuei highlighted the cruelty of class warfare in Hong Kong both past and present. Ironically, he ceased directing when he felt that the young generation had pushed things further than he could go.

The crime-centered plots of The Delinquent, The Teahouse, and Big Brother Cheng (1975) manage a fair amount of outrage at policing and justice in Hong Kong, as do Kuei’s contributions to a series of omnibus films called The Criminals. His excursions into exploitation fare with Bamboo House of Dolls (1973), Killer Snakes (1974), and the Hex cycle (1980 and after) show, if nothing else, how anxious Shaws was to retain market share in the face of the thrusting popularity of Golden Harvest releases. Obliged to go gross, the man didn’t flinch. The Boxer’s Omen (1983), a supernatural kickboxing yarn, features one rite that demands that celebrants chew food, spit it out, and pass it along to be eaten by others. (No fakery, everything done in one shot.) My tastes run more to something like Killer Constable (1980).

It’s a shooting-gallery plot. Constable Leng and his team are sent to recover gold stolen from the Empress’s palace, and one by one the fighters are eliminated in skirmishes with the thieves. Kuei pointed proudly to the social criticism in the film: “I simply wanted to depict how insignificant commoners are and how, under totalitarian rule, they turn out to be the victims.” Leng, preferring to kill lawbreakers rather than bring them to trial, pursues the bandits with unblinking ferocity. When he finds a miller who helped the gang, he decapitates the man in front of his wife and squalling baby. But Leng’s brutality meets its match in the bandits, who devise comparably sadistic ways to decimate his posse.

Killer Constable comes near the tail end of the Shaws output, just a few years before the company largely abandoned  theatrical film production in favor of television. Kuei is thus able to absorb and advance some of the studio’s signature techniques. His film starts out in the splendor of high-key lighting and saturated color typical of Shaws court epics, but soon enough, sword battles play out by torchlight or in semidarkness.

As for ‘Scope, Kuei had the benefit of a strong tradition. In action films, both Japanese and Hong Kong directors cultivated a “precisionist” use of the ratio that made parts of the composition–sometimes widely distant parts–click into place one by one, at a staccato pace. Here are phases of an early fight in Killer Constable.

The rhythm builds, from the cut to the new angle, then the peekaboo flip of the window, then the spotlighting of Leng in the lower right, and finally the thrusting hand of his victim in the extreme left, at which point the shot comes to rest.

‘Scope felicities like this may stem as much from the power of the tradition as from Kuei’s individual talent. In any case, his retrospective, like the Shibuya one, shows that we haven’t fully charted the range of expressive possibilities opened by popular Asian cinema in their early encounters with widescreen.

Chris Fujiwara’s survey essay, “Irony, Disenchantment, and Visual Excess: The Style of Shibuya Minoru,” appears in the HKIFF catalogue, available here. In Chapter 12 of Poetics of Cinema, I illustrate Japanese filmmakers’ relative laxity about the 180-degree matching system with a couple of shots from Shibuya’s A New Family. The passage in question may be one-off borrowing from Ozu.

The Hong Kong Film Archive book devoted to Kuei Chih-hung provides precious information not only on the director but also on the Shaws studio system. For more on widescreen style at Shaws see my online essay, “Another Shaw Production: Anamorphic Adventures in Hong Kong.” I discuss the rhythmic resources of Hong Kong combat in Chapter 8 of Planet Hong Kong.

Other continuing retrospectives at this year’s HKIFF are devoted to Abbas Kiarostami and Vietnamese cinema from 1962-1989. If you’re passing through town, you could do worse than check them out.

Thanks to Li Cheuk-to for correcting some information.

Opening title for Mr. Radish and Mr. Carrot.


Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (Frank Tashlin, CinemaScope).

DB here:

Are blog readers book readers, let alone book buyers? I asked once before, but in a different tone of voice. Books are still being published, thick and fast, and everybody who cares about cinema should take a look at these.

In the frame

Ballet mécanique.

When the talk turns to the great film theorists of the heroic era, you hear a lot about Bazin and Eisenstein, less about Rudolf Arnheim. But the prodigiously learned Arnheim pioneered the study of art from the perspective of Gestalt psychology. Although he’s probably best known for his studies of painting in Art and Visual Perception, as a young man he was a film critic and in 1930 published a major theoretical book on cinema. First known in English as Film, then in its 1957 revision as Film as Art, this has long been considered a milestone. But Arnheim was famously skeptical of color and sound movies, and he had comparatively little to say about the many cinematic trends after 1930. (He died in 2007, aged 102.) While psychologists grew wary of Gestalt ideas, cinephiles embraced Bazin and academics moved toward semiotics and other large-scale theories. For some time Arnheim has seemed a graceful, erudite relic.

A new anthology seems likely to change that view. Arnheim for Film and Media Studies, edited by Scott Higgins, reveals one of the earliest and most energetic and pluralistic thinkers about modern media. The fourteen authors probe Arnheim’s ideas about film, of course–showing unexpected connections to the Frankfurt School and to avant-gardists like Maya Deren. But there are as well essays on Arnheim’s thinking on photography, television, and radio, along with studies that examine how his ideas would apply to comic books and digital media. Other contributors provide conceptual reconstructions, analyzing his ideas on composition and stylistic history.

This is no esoteric exercise. The essays present probing arguments with patient lucidity. Encouragingly, most of the contributors are early in their careers. (I have a piece in the collection as well, an expanded version of a blog entry.) The anthology proves that a seminal thinker can always be reappraised. There’s always more to be understood.

In the Higgins collection Malcolm Turvey furnishes an essay on Arnheim’s relation to various strands of modernism. That vast movement is treated at greater length in Turvey’s new book, The Filming of Modern Life: European Avant-Garde Film of the 1920s. At the book’s core are close analyses of five exemplary films encapsulating various trends. Turvey studies Richter’s Rhythm 21 and abstract film, Léger and Murphy’s Ballet mécanique and cinéma pur, Clair’s Paris Qui Dort and Dada, Dalí and Buñuel’s Chien Andalou and Surrealism, and Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera and the “city symphony” format. For each film Turvey provides informative historical background and, often, some controversial arguments. For example, he finds Léger to be surprisingly concerned with preserving classical standards of beauty. Indeed, one overall thrust of the book is to suggest that modernism was less a rejection of all that went before than a selective assimilation of valuable bits of tradition. (This applies as well to Eisenstein, I think, as I try to show in my book on his work.)

No less controversial is Turvey’s careful dissection of what has come to be known as “the modernity thesis.” This is the idea that urbanization, technological change, and other forces have fundamentally changed the way we perceive the world, perhaps even altered our basic sensory processes. Specifically, some argue, because the modern environment triggers a fragmentary, distracted experience, that experience is mimicked by certain types of film, or indeed by all films. Step by step Turvey argues that this is an implausible conclusion. This last chapter is sure to stir debate among the many scholars who argue for film’s essential tie to a modern mode of perception.

Harper Cosssar’s Letterboxed: The Evolution of Widescreen Cinema begins in the heyday of Arnheim and the silent avant-garde. Indeed, some of the early uses of widescreen, as in Gance’s Napoleon, are indebted to experimental film. But Cossar’s genealogy of widescreen also mentions horizontal masking in Griffith films like Broken Blossoms and lateral or stacked sets in Keaton comedies like The High Sign. More fundamentally, Cossar develops Charles Barr’s suggestion that the sort of viewing skills demanded by widescreen (at least in its most ambitious forms) were anticipated by directors who coaxed viewers to scan the 4:3 frame for a variety of information. The “widescreen aesthetic” was implicit in the old format, and technology eventually caught up to allow it full expression.

Cossar advances to more familiar ground, studying early widescreen practice in The Big Trail and moving to analyses of films by masters like Preminger, Ray, Sirk, and Tashlin. Although most chroniclers of the tradition stop in the early 1960s, Cossar presses on to consider the changes wrought by split-screen films like The Boston Strangler and The Thomas Crown Affair. The survey concludes with discussions of cropping techniques in digital animation (e.g., Pixar) and web videos, which often employ letterboxing as a compositional device. In all, Letterbox traces recurring technological problems and aesthetic solutions across a wide swath of film history.

Critics’ corner

Two of America’s senior film writers have revisited their earlier writings, with lively results. Dave Kehr’s collection When Movies Mattered samples his Chicago Reader period, from 1974 to 1986. Disguised as weekly reviews, Kehr’s pieces were nuanced essays on films both contemporary and classic.

Turn to any of them and you will find a relaxed intelligence and a deep familiarity with film history. By chance I open to his essay on Billy Wilder’s Fedora:

It resurrects the flashback structure of his 1950 Sunset Boulevard, but it goes further, placing flashbacks with flashbacks and complicating the time scheme in a manner reminiscent of such demented 40s films noirs as Michael Curtiz’s Passage to Marseille and John Brahm’s The Locket. . . But the jumble of tenses also clarifies the film’s design as a subjective stream of consciousness. The images come floating up, appearing in the order of memory.

How many of those reviewers whose flash-fried opinions count for so much on Rotten Tomatoes can summon up information about the construction of Passage to Marseille or The Locket? And how many could make the case that Wilder, in returning to the forms fashionable in his early career, would repurpose them for the sake of a reflection on death, resulting in “a film as deeply flawed as it is deeply felt”? Kehr’s work from this period is appreciative criticism at its best, and he never lets his knowledge block his immediate response. “I admire Fedora, but it also frightens me.” It’s time we admitted that Dave Kehr, working far from both LA and Manhattan, was writing some of the most intellectually substantial film criticism we have ever had.

Also hailing from the Midwest is Joseph McBride, a professor, critic, and biographer. Apart from his rumination on Welles, his books have focused on popular, even populist, directors like Capra (The Catastrophe of Success), Ford (Searching for John Ford), and Spielberg (Steven Spielberg: A Biography). The University Press of Mississippi and bringing first two volumes of this trilogy back into print, and it has just reissued the third in an updated edition.

Here Spielberg emerges as far more than a purveyor of popcorn movies. McBride sees him as a restless, wide-ranging artist, and the additions to the original book have enhanced his case. McBride offers persuasive accounts of Amistad and A.I., which he regards as major achievements. He goes on to argue that Spielberg’s unique power in the industry allowed him to face up to central political issues of the 2000s.

He made a series of films in various genres reflecting and examining the traumatic effects of the September 11, 2001, attacks and the repression of civil liberties in the United States during the George W. Bush/ Dick Cheney regime. . . . No other major American artist confronted the key events of the first decade of the century with such sustained and ambitious treatment (450).

McBride is no cheerleader. He can be as severe on Spielberg’s conduct as on his films, criticizing much of the DreamWorks product as dross and suggesting that Spielberg sometimes trims his sails in interviews. I’d contend that McBride underrates some of Spielberg’s work, notably Catch Me If You Can and The War of the Worlds. But McBride has perfected his own brand of critical biography, blending personal information (he reads the films as autobiographical), tendencies within the film industry and the broader culture, and critical assessment. All studies of Spielberg’s work must start with McBride’s monumental book. Ten years from now we can look forward to another update; surely his subject will have made a few more movies by then.

Foreign accents

8 1/2.

Today we regard Citizen Kane as a classic, if not the classic. But for several years after its 1941 release it wasn’t considered that great. It missed a place on the Sight and Sound ten-best critics’ polls for 1952; not until 1962 did it earn a spot (though at the top). Its rise in esteem was due to changes in film culture and, some have speculated, the fact that Kane was a regular on TV during the 1960s. Something similar happened with His Girl Friday, another stealth classic. I’ve traced what I know about its entry into the canon in an earlier blog entry.

What about the postwar classics like Open City and Bicycle Thieves and the works of Bergman and Fellini and Antonioni and Kurosawa and the New Wave? Surely some of the films’ fame comes from their intrinsic quality—many are remarkable movies—but would we regard them the same way if their reputation hadn’t spread so widely abroad, especially in America? Questions like this lead us to what film scholars have come to call canon formation: the ways artworks come to wide notice, receive critical acclaim, and eventually become taken for granted as classics.

Consider this. The Toronto International Film Festival’s recent list of 100 essential films includes thirty non-Hollywood titles from the 1946-1973 period, more than from any comparable span. Of the TIFF top twenty-five, twelve are from that era. You can argue that these years, during which several generations of viewers overlapped, set in place a system of taste that persists to this day.

Tino Balio’s Foreign Film Renaissance on American Screens, 1946-1973 reveals a side of canon formation that’s too often overlooked. Balio is less concerned with analyzing films than Turvey, Cossar, Kehr, and McBride are. He is asking a business question: What led the U. S. film industry to accept and eventually embrace films so fundamentally different from the Hollywood product?

Several researchers have pointed to the roles played by influential critics, film festivals, and new periodicals like Film Comment and Film Culture. Intellectual and middlebrow magazines promoted the cosmopolitan appeal of the foreign imports. By 1963 Time could run a feverish cover story on “The Religion of Film” to coincide with the first New York Film Festival.

Balio duly notes the importance of such gatekeepers and agenda setters. But he goes back to the beginnings, with the small import market of the 1930s. Turning to the prime postwar phase, he broadens the cast of players to include the business people who risked buying, distributing, and publicizing movies that might seem hopelessly out of step with US audiences. He shows how small importers brought in Italian films at the end of the 1940s, and these attracted New York tastemakers, notably Times critic Bosley Crowther, who were keen on social realism. Within a few years ambitious entrepreneurs were marketing British comedies, Swedish psychodramas, Brigitte Bardot vehicles, and eventually the New Waves and Young Cinemas of the 1960s. As distributors fought censors and slipped films into East Side Manhattan venues, an audience came forward. The “foreign films”—often  recut, sometimes dubbed, usually promoted for shock, sentiment, and sex—were positioned for the emerging tastes of young people in cities and college towns.

Balio offers fascinating case studies of how the films were handled well or badly. Kurosawa, he notes, had no consistent distributor in the US, and so his films gained comparatively little traction. By contrast there was what one chapter calls “Ingmar Bergman: The Brand.”

Bryant Haliday and Cy Harvey of Janus Films. . . devised a successful campaign to craft an image of Bergman as auteur and to carefully control the timing of each release. . . . Janus released the films in an orderly fashion to prevent a glut on the market and to milk every last dollar out of the box office. No other auteur received such treatment.

The work paid off: Bergman made the cover of Time in 1960, and soon The Virgin Spring and Through a Glass Darkly won back-to-back Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film. Eventually, Bergman and other foreign auteurs attracted the big studios. Now that small distributors had shown that there was money in coterie movies, the major companies (having problems of their own) embraced imported cinema—first through distribution and eventually through financing. If you admire Godard’s The Married Woman, Band of Outsiders, and Masculine Feminine you owe a debt to Columbia Pictures, which underwrote them.

Work like Balio’s does more than bring the name Cy Harvey into film history. It reminds us to follow the money. If we do, we’ll see that not every “foreign film” stands radically apart from big bad Hollywood. More generally, The Foreign Film Renaissance on American Screens reminds us that even high-art cinema is produced, packaged, and circulated in an economic system. The distinction between commercial films and personal films, business versus art, is a wobbly one. Rembrandt painted on commission and Mozart was hired to write The Magic Flute. Sometimes good art is good business.

I couldn’t work this in anywhere else: The bulk of the essays in Arnheim for Film and Media Studies are by people associated with our department at Wisconsin. They do us proud, naturally. Incidentally, Joe McBride went to school at UW too, and Tino and I taught together here for over thirty years.

Dave Kehr maintains a blog and teeming forum here.

Hart Perez has made a documentary, Behind the Curtain: Joseph McBride on Writing Film History. An excerpt is here. McBride’s website has information about his many projects.

James E. Cutting provides an unusually precise account of canon creation in his 2006 book Impressionism and Its Canon, available for free download here. I’ve written an earlier blog entry discussing Jim’s research into film.

My mention of American generations is based on Elwood Carlson’s study The Lucky Few: Between the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boom. Carlson examines the varying experiences and life chances of people who fought in World War II; people who came of age during the 1960s; and the less populated cohort that fell in between. Doing some pop sociology, I’d hypothesize that the art-film market’s growth relied on a convergence of all three, which were more disposed to art film than cohorts in earlier periods. For example, veterans who had served overseas and gone to college on the GI Bill were more familiar with non-US cultures than their parents and, I surmise, weren’t entirely put off by foreign films. When I first met Kristin’s mother, Jean Thompson, she already knew the work of Carl Dreyer, having seen Day of Wrath at an art cinema in Iowa City. She was in graduate school after World War II, on the G.I. Bill, as was her new husband, Roger, also in school on the G.I. Bill and managing that art cinema. They saw Children of Paradise and other wartime foreign films just getting their releases in the U.S., as well as post-war films like Bicycle Thieves.

The Lucky Few, also known as the Good Times generation, were born between the late twenties and the early 1940s. They were well placed to enjoy postwar prosperity and the period’s explosion of artistic expression. The Lucky Few cohort includes powerful film critics like John Simon (born 1925), Andrew Sarris (1928), Richard Roud (1929), Eugene Archer (1931), Susan Sontag and Richard Schickel (1933), and Molly Haskell (1939). Aged between twenty and thirty when the foreign-film wave struck, they were mighty susceptible to it. (Pauline Kael, though born in 1919, had a delayed career start, entering film journalism in the 1950s along with Sarris et al.) You might slip in David Thomson (born 1941), Jonathan Rosenbaum (1943), and Richard Corliss (1944).

The Baby Boomers jumped on the carousel in the 1960s, with results that are all too apparent. Dave Kehr and Joe McBride are Boomers, as are Kristin and I. Tino, for the record, is ageless.

Minority Report.


Beyond a Reasonable Doubt.

DB here:

Good timing. Just as I was about to enable more aspect-ratio fetishism, I got news of the publication of Widescreen Worldwide, from John Libbey. Edited by John Belton, Sheldon Hall, and Steve Neale, it has its distant origins in a 2003 conference at the National Media Museum in Bradford, England. Widescreen Worldwide will be a very useful volume, with material on little-studied U. S. systems and a lot of information on formats in Japan, France, Italy, and Russia, even Norway. Most studies of widescreen technology seldom discuss the creative uses to which it was put. But this collection features several essays focusing on the artistry of the wide formats, emphasizing the work of Preminger, Peckinpah, Okamoto, Suzuki, et al. As the publisher’s blurb puts it:

The book documents how the aesthetic strategies explored during the first wave of American widescreen films underwent revision in Europe and Asia as filmmakers brought their own idiolect to the language of widescreen mise-en-scène, editing, and sound practices. As a global phenomenon, widescreen cinema thus presents the opportunity to examine how different cultures appropriate the technology to advance extremely different cultural and aesthetic agendas.

I have an essay included on the Shaw Brothers directors, and I’m happy to be in such distinguished company in this major publication. My essay is available on this site. The paper I gave at the conference, on Hou Hsiao-hsien’s early anamorphic films, is also posted here.

Speaking of widescreen: Today, we go back to While the City Sleeps and SuperScope, thanks to some correspondents and further fooling around on my part.

Ratio decidendi

The story so far: SuperScope was a widescreen system devised by Irving and Joseph Tushinsky for RKO . It extracted a wide image from the 1.37 standard frame and printed it as a squeezed anamorphic frame, to be unsqueezed at a ratio of 2.0 to 1. (A later version allowed for a 2.35 stretch.) In principle, it’s an early version of what Super 35 does now. Some RKO films, notably Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), were shot in knowledge that they would be given the SuperScope treatment; others were SuperScoped after the fact.

The question before the jury was: Do SuperScope prints of Lang’s While the City Sleep (1956) faithfully reflect his intentions? The answer I settled on was: Probably not. A Variety story indicated that the SuperScope prints were made for European distribution, though perhaps some sneaked into the US theatrical market or the 16mm aftermarket.

Now for a little more on Lang’s compositions. Several viewers have commented on all the headroom visible in the full frame. The ‘Scope print I examined displayed some as well, but not as much, as my illustrations for the earlier entry indicate. More likely the film was masked in the US to something like 1.66 or 1.75. I reproduced some frames from a 1.75 laserdisc version, and they look reasonably good. Overall, I suggested that City’s fairly open compositions suggest that Lang was expecting the film to be masked somewhat in projection, but not to the full 2.0:1 ratio we get with SuperScope.

Although for most of its length, While the City Sleeps seems quite okay at 2.0, I found one shot that would be quite awkward in full SuperScope. Alas, I didn’t photograph it from the 35mm European print I examined, but I’ve used my stills from the print to guide my cropping of the 1.37 frame in this instance. The results are, as the lawyers say, probative.

The scene is mundane: Walter Kyle gets a phone call from his errant wife Dorothy. She’s carrying on an affair with Harry, the art director of the newspaper Walter runs. Walter talks with her, and Lang cuts to her responding. I show you the 1.75 versions.

When Lang cuts back to Walter, he provides a new camera setup featuring the butler Steven. This is to prepare us for a joke: Walter says he’ll have Steven meet Dorothy at the front door in his underwear. Steven reacts with embarrassment. Given that a lot of the film plays on the sexual rapacity of men, the humor is a shade sick.

A narrative convention: The stuffy, puritanical butler. But notice that in the 1.75 frame, Steven’s full face is quite visible. Of course it’s even more visible in the full-frame version. (Fussy Lang, or fussy somebody, seems to have aligned the face with the swoop of the ceiling.)

But the composition would look more awkward if chopped in the SuperScope 2.0:1 version. Here’s one framing, using the cropping points typical of other anamorphic shots in the European 35mm print.

In addition, since the crop slices more off the bottom region than the top, Walter’s body is also lost in the anamorphic version. But this is still probably the best compromise. Some frames in the 35mm S’Scope version favor the lower region of the original shot. But in this shot that option would be disastrous.

It’s hard to imagine that the director of the painstakingly composed Moonfleet (1955) would have wanted to saw Steven’s skull in half.

Mors ultima ratio

So Lang didn’t shoot the film expecting it to be SuperScoped. Nevertheless, things that escape directors’ intentions can have their own impact on viewers. In the codicil to the earlier blog entry, I wondered if French critics’ admiration for While the City Sleeps might have been based on their seeing wider prints than Americans did—in effect, gathering Lang into the cohort of skilled anamorphic filmmakers that included Ray, Preminger, Minnelli, et al. Samuel Bréan wrote to tell me that one critic, Jacques Lourcelles, raised this issue explicitly. Lourcelles writes:

For both this film and Lang’s next film, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, the format poses a thorny problem that can be resolved only by considering aesthetic matters. The film, not shot in CinemaScope, was exhibited in Superscope (a wide format used at RKO and created through laboratory processes), and then in a normal format. Which is better? In my opinion, the wider one. Only there, for instance, do the camera movements and the newspaper-office set have their true impact. Even if the Superscope version was “manufactured” in the lab, Lang knew that the film would be seen on the wide screen and his direction was conceived as a function of that. The same goes for Beyond a Reasonable Doubt; to cite just one instance, the first sequence showing the condemned man walking toward the electric chair is obviously conceived for the wider format.

This does lead to some intriguing speculation on how “misreadings” of films can have positive consequences. The French celebration of Lang’s 1950s films led American and British critics to reevaluate them.

The case of Beyond a Reasonable Doubt is quite parallel to that of While the City Sleeps. Released in September 1956, it too was reviewed in Variety as a non-anamorphic picture. Its U. S. publicity makes no reference to a widescreen format. But its overseas posters claim that it is in “RKO-Scope.” Huh?

By the end of 1956, the Tushinskys had split from RKO and were selling SuperScope generally. So in November 1956 RKO simply announced that it had developed “a new widescreen, anamorphic process” that would carry a ratio of 2.0:1. Historians of widescreen have assumed that this is SuperScope by another name. The same publicity announced that soon all the studio’s films would be in RKO-Scope. But RKO ceased making movies on 1 January 1957. Universal took over distributing the remaining pictures.

Again, on the basis of the posters and Lourcelles’ comments we can be confident that Beyond a Reasonable Doubt was shown in a 2.0:1 aspect ratio in some overseas markets. As airless a movie as Lang ever made, with disconcertingly generic sets and severe framings and camera movements, it engendered a fascination in French critics. The story itself is a model of Langian guilty conscience. A reporter looking for a new book to write agrees to a hoax that will attack capital punishment. He’ll plant clues indicating that he’s a murderer in order to prove that an innocent man can be convicted. Lang’s narration offers his customary feints and ellipses. Smooth hooks, verbal and visual, carry us across scenes. Casual details are dropped in, or a sudden cutaway appears, and we’re misled into thinking we’re ahead of the plot. We are in fact behind it. Crucial story information is skipped over, but we’re not aware of what has been deleted until much later. We should have noticed.

Appearing in the same year as Around the World in 80 Days, The King and I, Lust for Life, Giant, Anastasia, War and Peace, and other sweeping spectacles, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt was a bare-bones programmer. Lang’s last American film doesn’t waste its energy on the pictorial flourishes of budget-strapped directors like Siegel or Fuller. Other B-films could whip up visual flair with chiaroscuro, close-ups, and fast cutting, but Lang’s images seem disconcertingly banal; yet their simplicity gives them an odd purity. In an influential review, Jacques Rivette declared that Lang was, in effect, filming concepts.

I don’t find any shots in Beyond with a vertical bias comparable to the shot featuring Steven the butler in City. The 1.37 frame shots are very empty up top. So here’s an experiment in reconstructing an approximation of what Europeans saw.

Dux vitae ratio

As I suggested in the earlier blog, for decades Lang composed his frames carefully, balancing figures in dynamic patterns and sometimes putting important elements along the sides or in a corner. Here are some examples from one of his most beautiful films, The Ministry of Fear. He likes triangular compositions that tuck heads into corners, as well as camera angles that let foreground items anchor the faces and bodies.

When the frame is unbalanced, it’s for a reason, such as purse-rifling.

A director so committed (like Ozu) to putting heads high in the shot must have felt annoyed when he had to hang inexpressive space over his players, as in the shot at the very top of today’s entry. When he left headroom in earlier films, it served an exacting compositional purpose, as you see below. Those wedge-formations of tapers, backing up threatening cobras, look back to the decor of his German films.

I suspect that it pained him to accept the more open framing demanded by non-anamorphic ratios. In CinemaScope you could count, more or less, on the proportions of your image being respected. But shooting flat, could you really be sure what would stay in the shot? Projectionists could mask it to 1.66, 1.75, 1.85, and even wider. These ratios were so imprecise, and this is one precise director. Lang “shot to protect,” as they say, but he couldn’t protect what was already gone: his compact, quietly masterful compositions.

John Belton wrote to me to echo the idea that Lang would probably have realized that While the City Sleeps would be cropped to as much as 1.75.

Certainly every director after 1954 composed for wide screen projection. As for SuperScope, why didn’t they just project it flat with a 2:1 matte in the aperture?  It certainly would have looked sharper.  Maybe the answer lies in the relative abundance of CinemaScope installations overseas?

Good question for further research. Another interesting sidelight: Who was the SuperScope representative for Europe? For a time, apparently none other than Edgar G. Ulmer! Ulmer is identified as a SuperScope representative in “Tushinsky’s Teuton Deal,” Variety, 7 September 1956, p. 5. Michael Campi wrote to inform me that in Australia he too saw a 2.0:1 print of While the City Sleeps.

RKO’s announcement of RKO-Scope can be found in “And Now–RKO-Scope,” Variety, 30 November 1956, p. 1. More background on the winding down of the studio is provided in Richard B. Jewell and Vernon Harbin, The RKO Story (London: Octopus, 1982), pp. 242-245.

The Jacques Lourcelles comment appears in his Dictionnaire du cinéma vol. 3 (Paris: Laffont, 1992), p. 294. I’m grateful to Samuel Bréan for calling my attention to it. Rivette’s 1957 essay on Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, “The Hand,” is available in Cahiers du cinéma: The 1950s: Neo-Realism, Hollywood, New Wave, ed. Jim Hillier (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985), pp. 140-144. It has been included in a site devoted to Jacques Rivette, Order of the Exile. (The hand Rivette refers to is that in the shot of the warrant above; had Rivette not seen the RKO-Scope print, he might have had to title the essay, “The Hands.”) The poster images for Beyond a Reasonable Doubt come from the ever-generous DVD Beaver, and its review of a Spanish disc.

The Ministry of Fear.

Trade secrets

DB here:

Over the last couple of months, some strange things have been happening to America’s most venerable show-business trade papers. In the case of Variety, the strange thing is very important and yields almost unalloyed good news. In the case of The Hollywood Reporter, the strange thing is, at least for the moment, a step backward.

Kristin and I have subscribed to weekly editions of both newspapers since the mid-1990s. With the advent of Web 2.0, each paper created an online archive, more or less searchable, stretching back into the 1990s. Not everything you would wish for, since Variety started publishing in 1905 and The Hollywood Reporter began in 1930. But film historians are grateful for anything. I found both papers’ archives very helpful in reworking Planet Hong Kong over the last year. Now, however, some of the recent happenings affect our ability to do research.

Issues about issues

First the bad strange new thing. In a collapsing advertising market, The Hollywood Reporter has done a makeover. From being a daily and weekly trade paper it turned into an upscale lifestyle weekly, sort of an industry-slanted version of Vanity Fair‘s movie issue, with a soupçon of airline magazine. Among the recycled press releases, superficial interviews, soft-focus profiles, and awards-season handicapping, you find fashion tips like “Into the Blue: Punch up your executive look—top to toe—with the season’s blockbuster hue.” There’s also the sort of feature that movers and shakers can use to promote themselves: “Hollywood’s Young Guns ….Where they work, why they matter, how they’re changing the game.”

True, Variety sometimes resorted to such frippery in these desperate years. V-Life was in some ways a forerunner of the new HR, but V-Life was a supplement. In the main paper you could still find reportage, analysis, overviews, and opinion. There’s relatively few of these ingredients in the new Hollywood Reporter.

If this is the strategy for fighting Movie City News and Deadline Hollywood and IFC, I’m betting on the webroots.

Anyhow, forget the daily THR ephemera. I want to go into the past, as I did until October, scrambling through elusive coverage of Hong Kong stuff. Problem is: I can’t do that any more.

THR not only remade its magazine; it remade its website, radically. So radically that when I go there via Safari or Chrome I get this welcome.

Well, you say, skip your bookmarks and go through Google. But then:

Only Firefox does the trick.

Anyhow, at last I’m on. Breaking News today starts with “Jennifer Grey Wins ‘Dancing with the Stars’; Bristol Palin Comes in Third.” Skip that. As a subscriber, I ought to be able to log in to the proprietary content, right?

Here is the routine. Using my old password, I have no luck. When I call the 800 number, an ominous recording tells me that they are aware of the “issues” (what we used to call “problems”) with the website and subscriber logins. After half an hour, a hard-working person answers and with a few magic passes of her mouse she gets me into the subscriber areas.

Yet the next time I try, I’m refused again. So I write to the email service they announce, and immediately get a form reply saying that my problem will be addressed in 1-2 business days. The next communiqué, from some days later, begins: “We apologize for the delayed response.” They give me a password which is suspiciously generic.

This has been going on for nearly three weeks. But I can live with it because I’m not so concerned with Jennifer Grey or Bristol Palin. I’m there for the archive.

Problem is, the Archive isn’t there for me. Once I’m inside as a subscriber, I find no way to get into the two decades of stories and stats I could reach under the earlier incarnation of the website.

Another call, another recording apologizing for the “issues,” another half-hour of wait, and now a very puzzled answerperson. Where’s the Archive? Nobody ever asked him that before. He’s no better than I am at finding a button for it. He consults his supervisor. The supervisor doesn’t know where the Archive went either.

You can search the site, he points out. True, but the search takes me only to items posted since the makeover began.

Hmmm. The best they can do is suggest I call the Editorial Offices. When I do, the recording instructs me to leave my story tip and someone will get back to me. I might say, “Psst, I have it on good authority that the next big color will be vermillion,” but instead I hang up.

Trying tonight, I find that the search function now turns up articles published throughout calendar 2010, but no earlier. So maybe THR will gradually expand its backfile. It would be too bad if the dolled-up version of the print mag drained resources from maintaining a stable and deep website. I worry that THR intends to dump the old (already very partial) online archive altogether, resetting the clock at the year of the makeover. If so, they send a signal that the past—theirs, that of the industry they cover—doesn’t matter. They wouldn’t even agree with Jack Valenti, who supposedly did say, “It’s only history,” and then opened the MPPDA papers for research.

Infinite Variety

13 September 2010 was the date of the good thing that happened to the trade papers. At that point, Variety went the opposite direction of The Hollywood ReporterIt opened up its vault completely.

For many years film historians have relied on Variety for detailed information about how Hollywood and other national industries have worked. Most of these historians have scanned the paper on microfilm, cranking through reel after reel, getting dizzy from the whizzing lines your eyes try to fasten on. But these scholars managed to do real research. You couldn’t believe everything you read in the paper, of course; you had to be skeptical. Still, getting something was always better than getting nothing.

More recently, Variety has kept an online archive of its materials since the early 1990s. These stories were in html-friendly format, not in the form of published pages, and some stories that appeared in the paper never made it online or were revised for the net. Older stories, mostly film reviews, were summarized and undated. So as records, they were only partly reliable. Still, even this iceberg-tip was well worth surveying.

In September, though, Variety put online its back file from 1906 to the present. Every page of the weekly and daily paper has been digitized. You can access it for a year for a $600 subscription fee, probably what many people pay for designer coffee over the same period. If you want shorter-term access, $60 gets you into up to 50 issues per month.

Reader, I signed up.

There were teething pains for a few weeks. Some pages failed to load, and often you had to scroll through an entire issue to find the page you wanted. But those “issues” are mostly in the past. Now you can plunge into an ocean of well-mapped movie coverage.

As usual with people of my generation, I’m shaken by the abrupt transition from a research economy of scarcity to one of overabundance. Had this bounty existed when Kristin and Janet Staiger and I wrote The Classical Hollywood Cinema, we might still be writing it. Type in “John Ford” or “Meet Me in St. Louis” and you’re led into the labyrinth, with one item teasing you to search others, forever.

Some things, for instance, seem never to change. “CINEMAS TO SURVIVE HI-TECH ERA,” wrote A. D. Murphy in the 4 August 1982 issue’s top story. People were claiming that the theatre experience would soon vanish (presumably because of home video, although that’s barely mentioned). No way, says Murphy, citing several reasons, including the plausible assumption that “Nothing yet has managed to keep young people confined to their homes.” He adds that going out to the movies is the most robust form of “pay per view….free of all that bother of billing, dunning, disconnects and such.”

Yet a stroll through the vault can also remind you of how strange things were back then. How’d you like to sit through a live opening act before Citizen KaneVariety tells us that in San Francisco’s Golden Gate theatre in early September 1941, Kane did brisk business at popular prices. It was accompanied by the vaudeville act of one Prof. Lamberti. The local Hearst newspapers, while refusing to advertise Kane for the unsurprising reason that Hearst thought the movie was about him, did advertise Prof. Lamberti’s act at the house. He was worth paying attention to. He never made snide fun of Marion Davies.

But who was Prof. Lamberti? A magician, a musician, a real prof? We check Variety for 22 March 1950 and learn from his obituary that “Professor” Lamberti was a comedian who played on stage and in nightclubs. According to the obit:

Lamberti’s best known act was playing the xylophone, while shapely gal did a striptease back of him and he was apparently unaware of the goings on. This provided the delusion that successive encores on the semi-classic tunes such as “Listen to the Mocking Bird” were prompted by the audience’s music appreciation, rather than the bumps and grinds of the peeler. Howl finish had the comic get hep and seltzer squirt the gal off stage.

I ask you: How could a red-blooded American male viewer concentrate on the ambiguities of Thompson’s quest after an opening act like that? And as a mood-setter for the opening sequence at Xanadu, the World’s Daffiest Xylophonist might not be ideal. Even more striking, we learn from the same obit that Prof. Lamberti did his signature bit in the film Tonight and Every Night (1945) with Rita Hayworth “as the strip-gal”—the same Rita Hayworth who was then married to Citizen Kane’s director.

Aha, you say, but Wikipedia has an article on Prof. Lamberti too, and with more details than the Variety obit. (Please visit this orphan entry; it needs hits.) I would never badmouth Wikipedia, that wonder of our young century, but it’s not yet the poor man’s Variety vault. For one thing, it doesn’t use the phrase “bumps and grinds of the peeler.” Further, I can find no help on Wikipedia on a looming question that has vexed some of our best minds: At what aspect ratio should Lang’s While the City Sleeps (1956) be shown?

A lack of ‘Scope

There is a full-frame version occasionally broadcast on Turner Classic Movies and now available on Region 2 DVD. There’s also a 1.66 crop that was released on laserdisc many years ago. Some older cinephiles recall seeing a widescreen anamorphic version circulating on 16mm. Yet Lang apparently claimed he did not shoot the film in anamorphic widescreen.

When While the City Sleeps was made, the releasing studio RKO was supporting a widescreen system called SuperScope. That’s what Variety called it, anyhow, though sometimes you’ll see the name with a small middle s, or with “Super” italicized.

Invented by the brothers Joseph and Irving Tushinsky, SuperScope was a progenitor of the Super-35mm system of today. A film shot in standard full-frame 35mm would be turned into an anamorphic one. A portion of the frame was extracted, optically squeezed, and printed as an anamorphic image, which would then be unsqueezed in projection. The aspect ratio was 2.0:1. The reasoning was that it was easier to shoot a movie in the standard way and then “SuperScope” it than it was to shoot a CinemaScope film. Some projectionists called this process BogusScope, not just because it was fake but because Benedict Bogeaus was then a producer feeding projects to RKO, and some of his titles used the format.

Slightly Scarlet and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, both released in 1956, were designed to be given the SuperScope treatment. The films carry the logo in their credits, and contemporary Variety reviews mention the process by name (15 February 1956 and 29 February 1956). The accompanying Italian poster for While the City Sleeps also makes reference to the SuperScope process. But there is no mention of SuperScope on the release print, or in the Variety review (2 May 1956), or in the US release poster, or in the pressbook kindly posted online by TCM.

Lang is on record, in Peter Bogdanovich’s Who the Devil Made It, as saying that he disliked CinemaScope. He told Bogdanovich that he agreed with his famous claim in Godard’s Contempt that “CinemaScope is only good for snakes and funerals” (p. 224). But SuperScope is not CinemaScope (which is 2.35:1 or sometimes even wider), and moreover Lang made one of the better CinemaScope films in Moonfleet (1955). So the question can’t immediately be resolved on auteur grounds.

Moreover, SuperScope prints of While the City Sleeps do exist. I found one in a European archive some years ago. It was pretty fuzzy (a chronic problem with SuperScope prints, because of the rephotography involved), but I took some frames from it. Here are some comparisons with the 1.37 DVD.

For my purposes here, I could have simply cropped and blown up the full-aperture frame grabs, but I’d rather preserve the slightly bulgier quality that seems to have come with the anamorphic optics. Also, because the wider versions are from 35mm frames, they include a little more area on the sides, which is lost in video versions like my DVD grabs on the left.

Actually, the widescreen version isn’t terribly offensive to me. For one thing, it slices off that slab running across the top of the bar set in the first image above. But in some cases the change in shot scale and internal relations make for mild differences in emphasis. The SuperScope version brings characters quite a bit nearer to us. Do they also seem seem closer together? There’s also the matter of taste. Some will dislike the headroom in the left shot below, while noting that the right one looks like a classic early ‘Scope composition.

So which one is the original? You can sample the online cinephile discussions from 2003 onward here and here and here. The ever-diligent folks at DVD Beaver have much to add as well.

Fortunately, about five minutes of snooping in the Variety vault reveals the answer.

Joseph and Irving Tushinsky yesterday concluded a contract with RKO for conversion of “While the City Sleeps” into the SuperScope process for foreign release (“SuperScoping ‘City,’” Variety, 12 April 1956, p. 3).

According to other stories in Variety, several films were given the SuperScope treatment ex post facto, including a re-release of Olivier’s Henry V (1945).

So we can confirm the hunch expressed by some of the cinephiles above that the SuperScoped copies were destined for overseas screenings. The Variety vault proves useful for things both great and small. Okay, mostly small, but you get my point.

Scoping things out: An epilogue for ratio fetishists

SuperScope logo for Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

There’s still all that headroom in the full-frame images. That roominess is fairly uncharacteristic of Lang. In his pre-widescreen films, he used the whole frame, even the corners. Try SuperScoping this tightly-packed shot from Kriemhilde’s Revenge.

In Cloak and Dagger, Cooper’s character uses the apple on the workbench to explain the power locked up in the atom, and apples will become thematically significant in a later Adam-and-Eve scene.

Moonfleet also takes advantage of the lower right corner (see the image at the very end of today’s entry). But Lang’s last two American films, While the City Sleeps and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956), seem to me to have more open and less compact compositions. There’s quite a bit of unused furniture in City‘s mise-en-scene, even though it adds a Vidor-Fountainhead air of vastness.

At this point we should recall that by 1956, most U. S. theatrical releases were shown in something wider than 1.33. There was a lot of variability, but films were commonly cropped in printing or projection to 1.66 or 1.75 or 1.85. Even if Lang did not shoot City with an anamorphic ratio in mind, he might well have assumed there would be cropping to some wide ratio. The approximately 1.75 ratio seen on the laserdisc version looks like a reasonable compromise between the extremes.

I’m inclined to say that Lang expected the film to be cropped somewhat in projection, but probably not to the full 2.0 proportions. He could no longer count on projectionists’ framing a single ratio, so he doesn’t tuck details along the edges or into the corners.

Unfortunately, I can’t find confirmation of Lang’s wide-frame choices in the fabled Variety vault. But I’m still looking, there and elsewhere. And maybe some researcher reading this entry can clarify things further. In any case, Variety has given a magnificent gift to those of us interested in film history–who ought to be everybody.

The standard source on widescreen systems of the postwar era is Robert E. Carr and R. M. Hayes, Wide Screen Movies: A History and Filmography of Wide Gauge Filmmaking (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1988). Carr and Hayes discuss SuperScope, or as they call it SuperScope (the credit logo is actually in caps, as in SUPERSCOPE) on pp. 67-72 and list the films in that format on p. 104. They don’t include While the City Sleeps. See also Daniel Sherlock’s comments on the book at Film-Tech.

Writing this has led me to wonder whether the admiration of European, especially French, critics for While the City Sleeps is based on their seeing the anamorphic version. In their writings I haven’t found specific reference to SuperScope. Raymond Bellour’s probing 1966 essay “On Fritz Lang” is one of the few I know from that period to scrutinize the patterns of composition and framing in While the City Sleeps, but I can’t tell whether he’s referring to the widescreen version. An English translation is in Fritz Lang: The Image and the Look, ed. Stephen Jenkins; see pp. 31-35.

Although Turner Classic Movies has run While the City Sleeps in 1.37, the TCM website recommends that it play at 1.66. Interestingly, the illustrations in Tom Gunning’s  Films of Fritz Lang are in about 1.75:1 ratio. Another SuperScope production, Jacques Tourneur’s Great Day in the Morning (1956), runs on TCM in this ratio. Since projectionists of the period, and still today, are fairly flexible about ratios, it’s possible that even anamorphic 2.0 SuperScope was projected with a little trimmed from the sides.

DVD release of Invasion of the Body Snatchers includes both a SuperScope 2.0 version and a 1.37 one. But the 1.37 one is a pan-and-scan version of the SuperScope one, not the integral frame that SuperScope worked from. The DVD version of Slightly Scarlet from VCI International is framed at 1.78, and the transfer (of poor optical quality) has been bungled so that everything is slightly stretched left to right. Both Arlene Dahl and Rhonda Fleming are more zaftig than they should be.

For more on aspect ratios, you can go here and here on this site. I experiment with extracting ‘Scope proportions from a 1930s movie in a general essay on widescreen aesthetics, “CinemaScope: The Modern Miracle You See without Glasses,” in Poetics of Cinema, p. 323.

Correction (28 November 2010): The original version of the piece claimed that the Search function of the Hollywood Reporter website found only pieces published since the recent makeover. That was the case when I used it two weeks ago. A more recent search I conducted this evening turned up articles from throughout 2010. I have recast the entry to reflect this change.

PS (17 December 2010): More developments on the Hollywood Reporter backfile, and more on the uses of the Variety Vault are discussed in this later entry.


David Bordwell
top of page

comments about the state of this website go to Meg Hamel.