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The "Bad Boy of Film Stocks": Nitrate Makes Its TCMFF Debut

April 28, 2017 

If I were to host a programming popularity contest at TCMFF, I'd imagine the special guests in attendance would triumph, edging out the pre-Codes comfortably sitting in the #2 spot. But this year, that changed. Aside from the fact that TCM spread the pre-Code selections out among larger venues, freeing them from the 177 seat confine of theater 4, there was a new - well, old - kid in town: nitrate. TCM programmed one nitrate selection at the Egyptian Theater each evening of the festival, two in black and white and two in color: The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), Laura (1944), Black Narcissus (1947) and Lady in the Dark (1944). Of the four titles, I caught all but Laura - not too shabby, if I do say so myself. 

The Egyptian Theater's recent retrofit in 2016, supported by The Film Foundation, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, and TCM, in conjunction with the American Cinematheque and the Academy Film Archive, boldly brought back to life a format studios ceased using well over six decades ago, for good reason: it's flammable. Renovating the Egyptian for nitrate projection was no easy or economical task: the work included emptying the booth, rebuilding walls to comply with fire resistant codes, installing a new exhaust and ventilation system, rigging a fire curtain to drop in the event of fire or smoke...and then putting each piece of equipment back in its place.

Nitrate running through the Egyptian's projector. (Picture by Leo Enticknap from the American Cinematheque's blog) 

Though nitrate projection is quite the rarity now, two other facilities in Los Angeles are also capable: the Billy Wilder Theater at the UCLA Film and Television Archive and the James Bridges Theater on the UCLA campus. Pre-TCMFF, between the Egyptian and Billy Wilder I'd seen a total of four nitrate pictures within the last year, my earliest encounter being a double feature of Leave Her to Heaven (1945) and Nightmare Alley (1947), a bill I appreciated because I got to experience both black and white and color nitrate for the first time in the same evening. The other nitrate prints I've had the pleasure of viewing were Road House (1948) and Casablanca (1942), the latter of which debuted the Egyptian's retrofit in November 2016.  


Prior to the TCMFF screening of Black Narcissus, Academy Film Archive Director Mike Pogorzelski delivered a commanding introduction on the authenticity and power of nitrate, the "substance on which cinema began," which he aptly dubbed the "bad boy of film stocks." In a commendable move, Pogorzelski also reigned in the "fetishized" attention nitrate has received recently, affirming that while there's a "seductiveness in nitrate's danger," its hazardous nature is somewhat inflated, as most fires in the past were the result of human error; indeed, as used by the industry, the stock is flammable but not explosive.

Footage of a nitrate film strip ablaze. As you can see, it burns well! (Video by Kim Luperi) 

But what about nitrate's aesthetic qualities? In his introduction to The Man Who Knew Too Much, Martin Scorsese touched upon a few ways nitrate’s high silver content manifests on screen, including shading (rich, deep blacks and a wide spectrum of grays) and a lifelike quality (a 3D/convex look, to some). The latter is a description I’ve heard many writers aggrandize, but how well can one truly perceive these effects? While the screening format is now as authentic as we can get (stock wise), there’s also the added component of the silver screen itself - aptly named due to the inclusion of actual silver, or reflective aluminum, in early projection screens. While these materials are making a comeback for 3D projection, apparently they are no longer incorporated in the production of your average screen. Given the silver elements both the stock and select screens boast, I'm assuming nitrate would appear even more luminous shown this way, though I'm not sure if any of the screens I've seen nitrate pictures projected on were manufactured with these components.  


Confession time: I’m not the most discerning when it comes to film formats. This, coupled with the fact that eyes vary from human to human, makes the aforementioned nitrate 3D assessment one I perceive rather sparingly. Rather, the chief detector of the format for me is something else Scorsese also cited: luminosity. To me, nitrate manifests through glistening, radiant images - whether they highlight items that shimmer, stark close-ups or the like. At least, I think so. While sometimes I believe the glow may have more to do with the actual production of the film (for example, a metallic beading on a dress), I do recall this experience: the first time I saw Nightmare Alley was on 35mm safety stock at TCMFF in 2015. I didn't notice anything pop out at me during that screening, but when I watched the movie about a year later on nitrate, the below image really struck me - in an almost uncomfortable, blinding way.

I know that sparkle on Joan Blondell's blouse is clearly evident in this photo, but it bounced off the screen during the nitrate show.

Below I'm presenting you with the top nitrate knockout moments that bowled me over in each of the nitrate selections I took in at TCMFF 2017. (Or three moments in one case, because: Black Narcissus.)


The Man Who Knew Too Much

The Man Who Knew Too Much was the first nitrate screening of the festival. Following Martin Scorsese's impassioned introduction, I found it rather apt that this particular nitrate flash hit me like a ton of bricks, partly because it occurred instantaneously. Directly after the credits, the picture opens with an establishing shot of a mountain with a tiny black dot of a man skiing down the slope. The blunt contrast between the snow-capped trees dotting the landscape on either side, the pure white blinding snow and the dark outfitted spectators milling about in the bottom of the picture overwhelmed my visual perception. This is one of the only instances in the movie where I was totally and completely aware of the film stock and also one of the rare occasions where the nitrate did not reveal itself through sparkles or glimmers; rather, the composition appeared so stark and blazing that it gave the whole image a deeper focus and a realist appearance of outward movement, as if the frame bulged from the screen. I guess this is the sensation I would identify as 3D - or at least close to it. 

Who else finds the composition in this opening sequence from The Man Who Knew Too Much - nitrate or not - a bit trippy? Those trees bounded out during the screening, to me.

Black Narcissus

I hadn't watched Black Narcissus in ages, but after hearing from multiple people how outrageously stunning this print was, I made the call, and it did not disappoint. Without detailed knowledge of this picture's production history, I'd assume most of the visual credit has to go to cinematographer Jack Cardiff. Pogorzelski said Cardiff extolled the methods of Expressionist painters like Rembrandt in his Technicolor training interview; given his limited equipment tech knowledge, he figured he'd lose the job anyway so he rambled on about a subject he was comfortable with. (Perhaps that landed him the job?) Cardiff's artistic influences are clearly enunciated in this movie, and Pogorzelski lauded his ability to infuse the proceedings with as much color as he required or dial back the tones to a monochrome scale when necessary; the result is a color palette that is simply sumptuous to observe on the big screen, one that permeates the story with a certain warmth, glow and passion. On the surface, this contrasts with the proceedings but in fact the colors epitomize the emotional drama bubbling just underneath.


But back to the nitrate, which I noticed a few times. The strongest example I perceived has to do with the sparkling component I mentioned earlier. Though I haven't seen this picture on the big screen before, I can't imagine the water dazzling more brilliantly than it did in the below scene. EVER.

Does this scintillating image not blind you, even in photo form?

Despite the fact that this Himalayan-set picture was filmed mainly in the UK and matte paintings were utilized for some establishing/long shots of the monastery, my eyes actually registered a type of 3D effect from these scenes. Though I can understand how this appearance could manifest in nitrate with a composition like the below, I still find the 'lifelike' look ironic because half the image isn't even 'real.'

You can clearly tell the mountains, especially the snow-topped ones, are a matte painting, and I think that actually contributed to the visual pop I noticed when this image was on screen.

I could google exquisite screenshots from this movie for days and post about 50 of them, but I've restrained myself. Aside from the two images above, I'm including two more examples, the first one more so for its nitrate gleam and the second one for its color and composition. Just for fun. 

I mean, those eyes! 

I know I'm supposed to be highlighting one nitrate moment, but this scene took my breath away. The production design, the composition, the color, the shot, everything about it is utterly enthralling.

Lady in the Dark

Lady in the Dark was the final nitrate selection - and film, for me - of the festival. It's also the rarest title of the bunch, which is why I couldn't locate a screenshot of the sequence I had in mind. Luckily, the item responsible for this particular nitrate moment is a piece so famous that it is currently housed in the Smithsonian. Thus, there were ample photos of it available online, seen below as a museum piece and also adorning star Ginger Rogers in a black and white publicity still. As you can imagine from both images, the jewel-studded dress twinkled when Rogers first unfurled the bottom half to reveal a sea of sparkles which luminously bathed the ensemble. As Rose McGowan noted in her intro, the costume was designed with glass, fake rubies and genuine mink (on the bottom outer half) at a cost of approximately $35,000. But...the outfit turned out way too heavy for Rogers to move about in - or even stand, apparently - so a second, lighter copy was engineered with sequins. Both versions were supposedly worn in the film, though I couldn't spot the difference due to the overwhelming glitz. 

I'm assuming this is the real dress, fake rubies and all. 

Even in black and white you can tell how radiant this getup was. 

If you attended any nitrate screenings at TCMFF, feel free to share your thoughts below! I'd especially like to hear from those who caught Laura, the only nitrate print I missed.

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I See a Dark Theater is a website dedicated to classic movie-going—and loving—in the City of Angels. Whether it's coverage on screenings, special presentations, or Q&As around Los Angeles that you're looking for, or commentary on the wonderful and sometimes wacky world of classic cinema, you've come to the right place for a variety of pieces written with zeal, awe, and (occasionally) wit. Enjoy.

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