Let’s all go to the lobby

July 26th, 2003 § Comments off

Last night, I paid my first visit to the Pacific Film Archive, UC Berkeley’s motion picture collection. The archive screens classic films from around the world six nights a week. Many of them are too obscure for my taste—the archive devoted much of July to the work of Aki Kaurismäki, a Finnish director billed as the “dour master” of “the Helsinki-on-wheels road movie”—but Friday’s program of two restored American movies looked worthwhile.

Robert Gitt, the preservation officer at the UCLA Film and Television Archive, restored both films, and he was in Berkeley to introduce them. He was a bit apologetic about the first film, The Man on the Eiffel Tower, because the print was not up to his usual standards. It was hardly his fault. At the time it was made, most color films were shot on three-strip Technicolor—one strip for red, another for green, and another for blue—but The Man on the Eiffel Tower was shot on an experimental Ansco Color single-strip film stock. The results, apparently, were disappointing. The negatives were destroyed years ago, and only two color 35 mm prints survived, both of them heavily scratched and printed on deteriorating nitrate stock. With more time and money, he said, he and his team could clean up the film digitally. As it stands, it looks as though it were shot through a foot of mud.

Its technical heritage aside, The Man on the Eiffel Tower is a strange mess of a movie, rife with overacting and with plot twists that beggar belief. What kind of film finds it necessary to list “the city of Paris” as one of the actors but contains almost no written French, even less spoken French, and no actor who even tries to fake a French accent? And in what vanished Paris could one hail taxicabs—two of them—at five o’clock in the morning on a deserted street? Still, it’s almost worth seeing just for the chase scene on the Eiffel Tower, which really was shot on the tower and features the actors doing their own stunts, running across and dangling from the tower’s spans.

The second film, The Barefoot Contessa, was much better all around, especially the glorious Technicolor print. Humphrey Bogart looked especially cadaverous in this movie, which isn’t surprising when one considers that he died less than three years after it was released. My only complaint about The Barefoot Contessa is that it was 128 minutes long and had about 90 minutes worth of story to tell.

Robert Gitt answered questions from the audience after the first movie. I asked a dumb question about film restoration, which he answered very patiently. He is frightfully knowledgeable about film. After I walked away, I heard him mention to a friend of his that he wasn’t staying for The Barefoot Contessa, because although he loves it, he has seen it 40 times.

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