The first film to be released in CinemaScope, Henry Koster’s 1953 “The Robe” forever altered the way movies looked. Henceforth, Hollywood either released its pictures in authentic anamorphic formats like CinemaScope, which effectively offered an image twice as wide as the old Academy ratio, or by finagling standard methods to produce “widescreen” images in 1.66 or 1.85.
For decades, it’s been hard to tell from the battered, fuzzy prints of “The Robe” available on television and home video just what it was that stunned audiences so much in 1953; the film had been overprinted to the point where the original color had effectively been lost, and the images softened into mush. But now a major new restoration under the hand of Fox’s chief archivist, Schawn Belston, has resulted in a cleaner, crisper “Robe,” which looks much better in standard definition but is truly impressive in Blu-ray.
“The Robe” remains a transitional film, in that Kostner and his cinematographer, Leon Shamroy, seem to have discovered what doesn’t work in ‘scope (big close-ups, over-the-shoulder cutting) without yet having found what does (such as the long takes and camera movements that Otto Preminger would soon import to ‘scope from his established Academy ratio style). “The Robe” may still far short as motion picture art, but now, at least, the viewer can get some sense of what all the fuss was about. Just keep trying to imagine that image on a 30 by 75 foot screen.
Also this week, our friends at the independent label VCI Entertainment have managed to bring a couple of important films photographed by the great, eccentric cinematographer John Alton back from the pale and fuzzy realms of public domain. Though neither would be mistaken for a first generation print, they look vastly better than they have in decades.
VCI’s new “Classic Film Noir Volume 3” offers the unbridled Alton stylishness of the Gothic thriller “The Amazing Mr. X” (aka “The Spiritualist,” 1948) directed by Bernard Vorhaus, as well as Anthony Mann’s droll “Reign of Terror” (aka, “The Black Book,” 1949, shown above), which finds three of the great visual stylists of classical Hollywood — Mann, Alton and the production designer William Cameron Menzies — collaborating on a noirish, labyrinthine vision of revolutionary Paris, all the more impressive for having been achieved on a Poverty Row budget.
More details in your Sunday New York Times.