One Man’s Nitrate Letdown

Entertainment journalist-critic Chris Willman caught three of the four highly ballyhooed nitrate screenings shown during last week’s TCM Classic Film Festival. These films were Otto Preminger‘s Laura, Alfred Hitchcock‘s The Man Who Knew Too Much and Mitchell Leisen‘s Lady in the Dark. (Willman missed Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger‘s Black Narcissus.)

Willman went each time with genuine eagerness, but he couldn’t quite see what the big deal was. Here’s his report:

“I saw three of the four nitrate screenings at the TCM Fest. I’ve been hesitant to publicly riff on them because I’m one of those non-audiophile people who would fail a vinyl/digital comparison test, so I may be equally blind when it comes to certain visual subtleties. That said, I was underwhelmed, at least after impossible expectations had been set up for how these prints would change our lives.

Martin Scorsese introduced the first night and spoke in predictably entertaining terms about his own religious experiences with nitrate, dating back to seeing something at the old Melrose Theatre in the ‘80s. He and other speakers left the impression that we were about to see something that would be more vivid and startling than 3D, high frame rate and an acid trip combined.

“And then we saw the original The Man Who Knew Too Much, and it looked to me like a really good, albeit normal, 35mm print. I figured that might just be the limitations of 1930s photography and that Laura the following night would be the conversion experience. Again: I would not have thought it anything but a really strong 35mm print if I didn’t know any better. I missed Black Narcissus, which I think would have been the ultimate knockout of the four, if anything was going to be.

“I returned the final night for Lady in the Dark, hoping color would make all the difference for me. And on this one, I finally felt satisfied I was seeing something outside my norm, but I think that may have been more a reaction to the otherworldliness of well-preserved Technicolor than nitrate per se. (This one also seemed not very sharp to me, though I imagine that’s a quality of the original early ‘40s cinematography.) I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe the nitrate cult is a case of the emperor’s new clothes, or the emperor’s old clothes.

However, I saw at least one vintage film buff on Twitter writing that Laura was the most visually spectacular thing she’d ever seen on the big screen. So it’s entirely possible that these people who were knocked out were in the right and I am nitrate-blind, just like I’m vinyl-deaf. I’m really curious to see some more expert opinions than mine. And I wish I’d seen Narcissus — that might have been the one that would make me get it.

“Assuming the Egyptian will be showing more nitrates before the year is up, I’ll be back, for sure, trying to see what the buffs see. Maybe I was just too primed for some kind of transformative godhead to tune in to the subtler magic of the prints. Like I said, at least with Lady in the Dark, I felt satisfied that I was seeing some colors not found in nature, or on DCP or Blu-Ray.

“By the way, I really recommend Dawson City, the documentary that screened Friday about hundreds of reels of lost nitrate silents that were found buried in the Canadian permafrost. I think I saw on a postcard that it’s booked for the Nuart in May. A really transfixing film that doesn’t have any talking heads at all on screen to break the spell until the last 10 minutes or so. This film about nitrates was as magical as I wanted the actual nitrates to be.

“I’m sure some brief footage of a nitrate-based European cinema fire that killed scores of people back in the day gave a few people pause about going over to the Egyptian without a fire truck outside.”

  • Matt of Sleaford

    Too bad he missed Narcissus. That’s the one I’d move Heaven and Earth to see. The Powell and Pressburger Technicolor films are otherworldly.

  • JoeS

    As Chris writes, everybody’s sensitivity is different. I haven’t seen a Nitrate print in a while, but they can be quite spectacular with Technicolor in particular.

    But, the biggest issues with Any screening (including Digital) remain the same no matter the medium:

    1. The quality of the transfer
    2. The quality of the Film Print or DCP mastering
    3. The quality of the Projector
    4. Does the theater keep their bulbs at spec brightness levels (often the most important and most noticeable)

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  • Edward

    I would have been there for “Black Narcissus,” They don’t make them like this anymore. Powell/Pressburger are beyond compare.

    • Mr Bohemian

      I wish the bfi would put out

      Oh… Rosalinda!! (1955) and The Fighting Pimpernel (1950) I about heard about both these films and would like to own them as I own all the others

  • The Filmatelist

    Film archivist and historian Paolo Cherchi Ursai discusses the “nitrate epiphany” in his book BURNING PASSIONS–that moment when a film fan is watching a nitrate print and the full aesthetic impact of the stock hits you like a ton of bricks. It’s rarely the first nitrate film you see (and for some, it never occurs), and there is much to relish with every nitrate experience you have. But for some, there’s that one film that completely changes your worldview on exhibition quality and your own place in history and spectatorship. The beautiful thing about hearing of the nitrate screenings at TCMFF is wondering how many of those epiphanies happened to those least expecting it. But clearly, it isn’t universal.

  • Patrick Juvet

    I saw the same three nitrate print screenings at TCM but passed on Narcissus as I saw it three years ago at George Eastman House’s
    first Nitrate Weekend celebrating all-nitrate titles. I was also underwhelmed in much the same way, and spoke with more than a few people who also strained to see what the fuss was about. I’m convinced that the experience was compromised by the fact that these prints were timed for carbon-arc projection, a light source vastly different than the Xenon lamps used in almost all projectors today. I’ve had it confirmed that neither George Eastman House or the Egyptian project using carbon arcs as their light source. I know one of the two light sources projects a much warmer light than the other, but I’m not tech enough to know which is the warmer vs the cooler. (I think the cooler one is the Xenon.) But I bet it would make a noticeable difference seeing the same print on one vs the other. Is there anybody tech-savvy enough reading this who can confirm or deny my theory ?