Armchair Cinephile 

Back when DVDs first started popping up in stores, film buffs were understandably perplexed by the rationale behind what got issued right away and what didn't. "Let's get this straight," we said. "There's this great new format that will last a billion years, and while they don't have The Godfather out yet, I can buy the James Garner vehicle Tank?"

Some movie studios have been better than others about getting their old classics out on shelves to compete with absolutely essential new product such as Van Wilder. One problem is that it takes a serious investment of money and time to restore many films to pristine archival conditions. Paramount Pictures' latest batch of releases shows how studios with big catalogs might be able to please everybody.

 
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First, they have taken two undeniable classics and given them the treatment they deserve. Paramount went whole hog, hiring a team of experts who wrote new software just for these two restorations, using 300 networked Mac G4s to scrub every frame of the freshly digitized film, removing five decades of dirt from negatives that, even under the best storage conditions, have gotten pretty grimy.

The studio picked two films, Sunset Boulevard and Roman Holiday, that merited this kind of attention both aesthetically and technically. Even those who have been lucky enough to catch Roman Holiday on the big screen (thank you, Texas Public Radio!) will have seen a fairly grainy print; those who have seen it on VHS or TV likely saw something downright ugly. But this image is astonishingly crisp and clear, with practically no grain at all. When Audrey Hepburn looks out the window of the hotel where she's confined, you can count the leaves on the trees that stand between her and the romantic nightlife of Rome.

 
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Paramount should get some credit for their other choice; Sunset Boulevard doesn't have the instant populist appeal of an Audrey Hepburn/Gregory Peck romantic comedy. It's a dark, cynical film with a female lead (Gloria Swanson) who is not much better known these days than the iconic silent film queen, Norma Desmond, she plays in the movie. (The male lead, William Holden, has been treated better by history - that's what happens when you make four or five movies with director Billy Wilder.)

Not only does Sunset Boulevard work as a film noir, with a desperate screenwriter ensnared in an ugly symbiotic relationship with a woman who is using him, it has another layer of meaning for lovers of Hollywood lore: Swanson really was a star in the silent era; her butler, played by Erich Von Stroheim, really had been her director; when Norma Desmond throws a sad little party, Buster Keaton and Hedda Hopper play themselves. It's an essential film any way you slice it, and DVD collectors should be dancing in the streets to get it in such a splendid edition.

As this new restoration process takes months, we would be waiting a long time if we insisted that each newly reissued movie underwent it. Fortunately, some films need it less desperately than others; of those, Paramount is smart to get the most popular titles out now, instead of waiting for the day when 30 personal computers can do the work of 300. Thus we see the arrival of a much-loved film, Alfred Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief.

 
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This is an atypical Hitchcock movie: Although the plot does involve jewel thieves and intrigue, it's not at all what you'd call a thriller. Characters pretend to be people they aren't, but the subterfuge is hardly as extensive as in, say, North by Northwest. The real point of the film is a romance between two of the most glamorous people in movie history, Cary Grant and Grace Kelly - a slow-burning flirtation that is consummated in a darkened hotel room, where big French doors open onto a fireworks display that can hardly compete with what's going on inside. Someday, Paramount will surely find the time to give Thief a big digital makeover, making those fireworks even sparklier - but who wants to wait for that, when Grace Kelly and all her diamonds are right there for the taking?


More by John DeFore

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