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In Part 1 of this article, I discussed the history of my own film viewing experiences of cellulose nitrate colour prints. We now move to black and white.

The true glory of silver nitrate is best appreciated in the shimmering play of light projected through black-and-white film stock. It was when I watched The Fallen Idol (London Film Productions, 1948), directed by Carol Reed, the 2nd of the nitrate prints programmed by Graham Petrie for the Toronto Film Society (TFS) at George Eastman House (GEH) on 31 July 2011, that I really appreciated the term “silver screen”. I had seen The Fallen Idol before (on television, I think), but I had certainly not thought of the cinematography here as being especially stunning, as I now appreciate it, having also seen the same nitrate print as the “blind date” screening of the 1st Nitrate Picture Show. (The print, another of Selznick’s own copies, donated by his son Daniel Selznick to the GEH in 1999 had shrunk by only 0.75%.) Being familiar with the plot, I didn’t need to concentrate on it; and so I became absolutely fixated on looking at lights, and the reflections of light: on glass, and shiny metal and wooden surfaces, even the bannisters of staircases. I realized that one’s appreciation of nitrate was dependent mostly on the skill of the cinematographer – in this case the French master, Georges Périnal. In 2012, Petrie and the TFS showed another Selznick nitrate print of the John Barrymore-starring vehicle, Topaze (RKO Radio Pictures, 1933), directed by Harry d’Abadie d’Arrast (with cinematography by Lucien Andriot), and yet another in 2014, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (Selznick/UA, 1940), photographed by George Barnes, and with art direction credited to Lyle Wheeler (although, the great William Cameron Menzies may also have contributed.) This was to be the last of the TFS nitrate screenings, but after The Fallen Idol, the most impressive of the films was the black-and-white Tension (MGM, 1949), directed by John Berry, shot by Harry Stradling, and starring Audrey Totter as a femme fatale, which showed on 6 August 2013. After this experience of glimpsing faint light in overwhelming darkness, I was ready to enjoy films noirs at the Nitrate Picture Show, and the second edition (2016) delivered two examples, Laura (Twentieth Century-Fox, 1944), directed by Otto Preminger, and Road House (Twentieth Century-Fox, 1948), directed by Jean Negulesco, with both films having been photographed by Joseph LaShelle.

Laura (Otto Preminger, 1944)

LaShelle had won the Oscar for Best Black-and-White Cinematography in 1945, and I have always been aware of how handsome-looking Laura is. Yet the Academy Film Archive print, which had been donated by the studio in 1948, is truly extraordinary. From the very first scene in Waldo Lydecker’s (Clifton Webb) apartment, where the camera tracks past a glass cabinet, one can appreciate the light shining on it and the variety of objects contained in it. I had seen Road House on DVD not long before the Dryden Theatre screening of the UCLA Archive print, but in so many ways the viewing experience was enhanced through the medium of nitrate. The film’s action climaxes with a nighttime, exterior swamp sequence that had seemed obviously shot in the studio when I was watching it on television, because the image had been brightened through digital transfer. But on the original print, the majority of the frame was left in darkness with very discreet low-key lit glimpses of the characters, just enough to make out their actions. And, as much as I had admired Ida Lupino’s performance as Lily Stevens, a piano-playing, cigarette-smoking torch singer; on nitrate, she positively glows. On the last day of the 3rd Show (2017), we were treated to another two nitrate films noirs, Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (Selznick/UA, 1945), from the Library of Congress, and a film that, somehow I had never seen, Night and the City (UK/US, 1950), directed by Jules Dassin, in a perhaps unique 111 minute pre-release cut from UCLA. The U.S. release was 97 minutes long and the British release 101 minutes, but after the screening nobody seemed capable of clearly identifying the additional material. In any event, the on-location cinematography of London, England, by Max Greene, was very evocative of a post-WWII, still bomb-damaged city. As with all of these black-and-white nitrate prints, one is impressed by the effects of light reflecting on all kinds of surfaces, and in Night and the City, I was even drawn to admire the sweat on the bodies of male wrestlers!

For the first Sunday morning screening of the 4th Nitrate Picture Show, on 6 May 2018, we were graced with MoMA’s excellent condition print of Robert Siodmak’s Cry of the City (Twentieth Century-Fox, 1948). I had seen this film numerous times, through television broadcast, on DVD and 16mm print, but I was struck by subtle details that have always been there, but which didn’t really stand out until now. For example, at the end of the opening scene, Martin Rome (Richard Conte), who is near-death in a hospital bed, is visited by his girlfriend, Teena Riconti (Debra Paget). Her shadow appears on a wall, but in the nitrate print she is barely visible, enhancing the impression that nobody is aware of her presence. Much later, Rome, who has escaped, visits Madame Rose (Hope Emerson), a masseuse, whose large form is gradually revealed in a single long take. Emerging from the deep background, she walks towards the front door, and hence, towards the camera, switching on a light in each of the three rooms of the corridor that she traverses. These actions can be seen in any version of Cry of the City, but in the nitrate print the suspense clearly intensifies with each successive light turning on, and with a different glow illuminating each successive deep space, differently. My dream scenario would be for the George Eastman Museum and the Film Noir Foundation to get together and mount a weekend of all noir on nitrate. I can only imagine what a good nitrate print of a film shot by the greatest of film noir cinematographers, John Alton would look like: e.g., Raw Deal (Anthony Mann, 1948), He Walked By Night (Alfred L. Werker, 1948) or Reign of Terror (Anthony Mann, 1949)!

Summer Interlude (Ingmar Bergman, 1951)

What I have learned the most from watching cellulose nitrate film prints is that anything caught in the light, especially jewelry, absolutely “pops” like in no other medium. In 2018 there were two films that contained many scenes on or near large bodies of water, Ingmar Bergman’s unusually upbeat, Sommarlek (Summer Interlude, 1951), shot by Gunnar Fischer, and the final day’s “blind date,” director and cinematographer Robert J. Flaherty’s Man of Aran (1934). The print of Sommarlek came from KAVI (National Audiovisual Institute), Helsinki, Finland, while the print of Man of Aran was given to GEH by the Flaherty estate in 1964. In both films, the sun’s light shining on wave tops is spectacular, with the effect being exaggerated in Aran through a storm causing huge banks of Irish Sea surf to crash against the island’s rocks and cliffs. I was seeing Aran for the first time in its original “Movietone” aspect ratio of 1.19:1, and so I must assume that all of the versions I had seen before on TV and 16mm had been cropped, top and bottom. Thus, I have now seen Flaherty’s consistently beautiful images for the first time in their entirety. Hearing the full extent of the sound of the raging sea on that nitrate, optical soundtrack was extremely moving, at times even horrifying. At the 3rd Show in 2017 we saw the Österreichisches Filmmuseum print of Aleksandr Nevskij (Alexander Nevsky, USSR, 1938), a film which almost everyone had seen before and the screening of which led to a lot of discussion on the brilliance of the sun shining on metallic armor, helmets and shields, white-painted buildings and the battle on the ice. This was followed by a screening of the Georges Franju short, Le sang des bêtes (Blood of the Beasts, 1949), on a print from the Cinémathèque Française, which although essentially a work of ugliness rather than beauty, benefitted from being viewed on nitrate to show the extreme contrast between a romantic Parisian skyline at sunset and the brutality of animal slaughter.

There were two huge highlights for me in the first Nitrate Picture Show: Casablanca (Warner Bros., 1942), directed by Michael Curtiz, and Portrait of Jennie (Selznick, 1948), directed by William Dieterle, which I had never seen before. We all regard Casablanca as being a terrific “movie”, the Hollywood “happy accident” where everything – direction, script, ensemble acting – seemed to come together and “work”. But I had never really thought that Casablanca was a particularly great “looking” film – until then, that is. I had seen it on screen in New York City, when I lived there in the late 1970s, and I’ve seen it many times on television, but I can’t believe that it has ever looked better than on May 1st, 2015, starting at 8pm in the Dryden Theatre on the MoMA print (shrinkage, 0.7%). Sam (Dooley Wilson), the piano man’s velvet or silk jacket had never looked so luminous before. Seeing it and other glistening clothes and jewelry – especially the sequin studded dresses of two “oriental” women at a table in Rick’s American Café – absolutely “popping” in cinematographer Arthur Edeson’s lights, was astonishing. The rain falling into puddles on the street, at night, seen under the lamplight is also remarkable in this nitrate print, and its appreciation led me to look for similar effects in films noirs in the next three Shows. And to be able to see a tear developing in Ingrid Bergman’s eyes so clearly, also encouraged me to look for moisture in the eyes of other characters in other nitrate prints. There were so many interesting examples to be found at the most recent, 4th Show including in The Razor’s Edge (Twentieth Century-Fox, 1946), where I was surprised at seeing tears (in at least one scene) in Tyrone Powers’ eyes, while a key to the character of the woman he loves, can be discovered in the lack of apparent emotion (and tears) in Gene Tierney’s eyes.

Portrait of Jennie (William Dieterle, 1948)

The screening of the GEH print of Portrait of Jennie the next day proved to be even more spectacular than that of Casablanca. We were informed in the program notes that “A rare occurrence in the sound era, this release print utilises tinting, toning, and a single shot of three-strip Technicolor to round out its narrative.”1 But we were not prepared exactly for what happens in the changeover to the last reel. It begins with a flash of lighting accompanied by a gradual opening of the proscenium curtains. The screen gets bigger and bigger until we are watching a green-tinted and sepia-toned storm at sea. The projectionists must have had instructions to either put a wider-angled lens on the projector for the last reel or zoom-in the lens they had to give a Magnascope effect. They must have also put a 1.85:1 plate on, and done a lot of rehearsal. It is hard to believe that in 1948 they were able to take on such tasks… We clapped, and clapped. When I had realized in advance that Joseph August was the cinematographer, I was really looking forward to the screening. I wrote about his working with John Ford for my PhD thesis, and I have always considered him to be the greatest “day for night” cinematographer, who can make the sun actually look like the moon. The misty, dusky, snow-bound scenes shot in New York’s Central Park have to be seen (on nitrate) to be believed and as the notes recognise, “Clarence Slifer for his splendid special effects, and Paul Eagler for his process and miniature photography which emerges in the impressive storm sequence at the end, for which a wide screen and added sound equipment were employed at the Hollywood preview,” have to be applauded.2

Not everyone believes that nitrate is any better than acetate, and, surely a good acetate print will be better than a bad nitrate print. At the “Last Nitrate Picture Show” in June 2000, Dominique Päini, who was the Directeur du Développement Culturel at the Centre Georges Pompidou at the time, claimed to be “very perplexed by this sudden fetishisation of nitrate by certain historians and archivists, such as my friend Cherchi Usai. Because nothing allows us to think that we will not recover nitrate’s lost qualities in the same manner in which video projection today is reducing the gaps in quality compared with the projected film image.”3 In order to prove his point, he projected two images, side-by-side from Paris-Londres (France, 1927), directed by Jean Arroy, with one projector screening “the rediscovered vintage nitrate positive, while the other will show the newly preserved nitrate copy,” after which he defied “anyone to distinguish these two materials from this one screening, including those who are lovers of nitrate.”4

I had always admired the work of the great Mexican cinematographer, Gabriel Figueroa, especially in the series of films he shot for director Emilio Fernandez. I was privileged to see beautiful cellulose acetate 35mm, French subtitled prints of eight films that they worked on together at the Cinémathèque Québécoise in May 1994, as part of a major travelling retrospective of Mexican cinema organised by the Centre Pompidou. One of these was Enamorada (1946), and a print from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México was shown during the 2nd Nitrate Picture Show (2016). I sat in the front row to get the best advantage of seeing this print (and reading the electronically-generated subtitles), and it was indeed beautiful, but obviously, at a distance of 12 years, I could not say for sure which print is better. On the other hand, the 35mm acetate print from UNAM of arguably the most visually stunning of all the Figueroa/Fernandez collaborations, Maclovia (1948), which showed at the 31st edition of Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna, 2017, was decidedly inferior to the Pompidou print. (The UNAM print appeared to have been printed on colour stock.) Additionally, I can say for a film that had shown the day after Enamorada in Rochester on nitrate, Vittorio de Sica’s Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves, 1948): I have seen it to better advantage on other occasions. The nitrate print belongs to the George Eastman Museum, and it is an American release print, donated by the film distributor Joseph Burstyn in 1953. There was absolutely no glow to any images in this print, which is perhaps befitting its working class settings and its “neorealist” genre. In fact, in its murkiness, it looked to be a dupe print, not one taken from a negative, which could explain the nature of the sub-titles on the print. On the other hand, during the 3rd Show, we were very fortunate to see a rare screening of a Japanese film on nitrate, Yasujirō Ozu’s Bakushū (Early Summer, 1951), courtesy of the National Film Center (NFC) and the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo. It also did not display eye-popping highlights, but I was impressed at being able to see so much detail in the depth of the frame that I had not noticed on previous viewings. In his introduction to the screening, Okajima Hisashi, the chief curator of the NFC, spoke about how all prints of Bakusshū (in both 35mm and 16mm formats) made since the film was released have been cropped top and bottom. He remarked that the female star of Bakushū, Hara Setsuko, had the most beautiful knees that we have not previously been able to see when she is seated at a table close to the ground, because of this cropping. Naturally, I always paid attention to this during the appropriate scenes, only to notice that Hara Setsuko’s dress would always cover her knees. After the screening, Okajima said that they were still beautiful, even when covered. As with so many of the films that I had seen before, the nitrate screenings gave me greater respect for them and their makers. Bakushū is now my very favourite film of my favourite director, Ozu.

This Film is Dangerous

I will conclude by quoting passages from a few of the tributes that were paid to nitrate in the book This Film is Dangerous.

Eileen Bowser:

At the Musuem of Modern Art, we are very glad that we kept our nitrate. … It seemed the realization of an impossible dream that we were able to copy them at all. Instead we were motivated by aesthetic concerns. We were aware that a certain warm quality could probably never be fully captured on acetate, which seems to be a colder medium. The higher amount of silver in the nitrate stock made possible a richer range of blacks and grays. The various tones and the tints of the old nitrate prints may be copied, but they cannot be precisely recaptured on the film stocks now in production, whether we copy on colour stock or resort to attempts to utilize the original processes. I recently heard a young archivist speak rather poetically of the ‘living qualities’ of a nitrate print that trembles its way along the projection path, with occasional jumps and scratches, as opposed to the steady new acetate print. Some will consider this attitude toward the nitrate originals to be romantic. There are times when I might not recognize a nitrate print when it is projected: the differences I see might be due to the various factors of printing quality and projection conditions. But if we compare the nitrate original with the new acetate print using side-by-side well-matched projection equipment, the differences are clearly visible.5

Ib Monty, on an original Danish print of Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc found in a hospital outside Oslo, Norway:

When we received the original print we put it on a Steenbeck (it was too shrunken to be projected), and we could immediately ascertain that the visual quality was better than in any other print we had seen. You could now see the drawings on the white walls in the building where Jeanne was incarcerated. Whether it was more complete, or the camera angles were different from other prints, required a close reading and analysis by Dreyer specialists. The print was almost the same length as the known prints. But the revealing experience was to sit and realize that one was watching, with a 50% probability, the very same print that the audience saw at the world première at the Palads Teatret more than half a century earlier.6

Endorsement by Leonard Maltin:

But I also remember the first time I saw a 35mm nitrate film projected. It was Henri Langlois’ print of the Raoul Walsh early talkie The Big Trail. I’d never seen an image quite like it: the sharpness was incredible, the range of gray tones incomparable. The picture glistened on the screen. […] I realized that many of the vintage films I’d seen until then could not be properly judged by existing safety prints, that this quality I so admired in the print of The Big Trail was commonplace decades ago. (With the added enhancement of silver in many movie-palace screens, the effect must have been truly dazzling.)7

Kevin Brownlow:

Nitrate has unique qualities which the modern black-and-white safety stock cannot duplicate. I saw a few reels of a rare French silent recently, and was very excited by the quality of the production. Apart from its setting – a film studio – the film was photographed so beautifully that the film was a pleasure to watch. The nitrate was then copied and I subsequently viewed the black-and-white dupe. I stopped after a couple of hundred feet. It had lost all interest for me. The information was there – we used some of the footage in Cinema Europe – but the aesthetic pleasure had gone.8

Endnotes:

  1. In the program booklet of The Nitrate Picture Show, George Eastman House, Dryden Theatre, May1-3, 2015, p.12. https://www.eastman.org/sites/default/files/NPS-2015.pdf
  2. Ibid. As a footnote: David Bordwell told me after the screening that Joe August had died during the filming of Portrait of Jennie and that his role was filled by Stanley Cortez, the cinematographer for Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (RKO, 1942). This makes sense. I have long thought that the subtle beauty of Ambersons makes it a strong candidate for the “most beautiful” of Hollywood films. We now have another: Portrait of Jennie. As another footnote: IMDb states that Lee Garmes was an “uncredited cinematographer” on Portrait of Jennie. Could it be that both Garmes and Cortez worked on the film?
  3. Dominique Païni, “Reproduction… Disappearance,” in Roger Smither (ed.) and Catherine A. Surowiecz (assoc. ed.), This Film is Dangerous: A Celebration of Nitrate Film, (Brussels: Fédération Internationale des Archives du Film, 2002), p. 173.
  4. Ibid., p. 171. There is no indication of audience responses to this exercise in the book.
  5. Eileen Bowser, “Nitrate Lives,” in Ibid., p. 5.
  6. Ib Monty, “Life with Nitrate,” in Ibid., pp. 9-10.
  7. “Endorsement by Leonard Maltin,” in Ibid., p. 21.
  8. Kevin Brownlow, “Dangerous Stuff,” in Ibid., p. 178.

About The Author

Peter Rist teaches film studies at Concordia University in Montreal, Québec, and writes regularly for www.offscreen.com.

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