Dutch angles and The Third Man, plus film preservationist Grover Crisp

FILM, Film Festivals
img_thirdmanAt this year’s Autumn Events, a slanted look at Carol Reed’s archetypal film noir, plus a few questions for a world expert in film restoration.

Is the “Dutch angle” cinema’s lamest technique? According to a Guardian film blogger writing about its excessive use in Terry Gilliam movies, it is. Certainly in its textbook form—where the camera is tilted sideways to convey anything from an atmosphere of disquiet, to a moment of tension, to a character’s fragile psychosis—the Dutch angle is an artless maneuver, unsubtle and lacking in imagination. In grammatical terms, it’s the equivalent of a needless exclamation mark when inserted blatantly into a scene, and while part of the familiar visual language of cinema, it’s seldom warranted. Somehow as basic as an extreme high/low angle, yet rarely as functional as those shots, the great contradiction of this rudimentary storytelling device is that it never fails to draw attention to itself.

Stepping out as a new digital restoration under the Autumn Events banner, Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949) famously boasts an abundance of slanted shots. As the most quoted example of the technique in all of cinema, it’s also a standout exception in the annals of the Dutch angle. Although wrongly perceived to be set at a Dutch angle for the entirety of its duration (apart from the iconic final shot), the technique is very much sustained throughout the film’s labyrinthine tour of postwar Vienna: a maze of alleyways, stairwells, manholes, and tunnels that justifies the diagonal framing. Crucially, the Dutch angle never feels like a flourish in The Third Man, but instead, a state of mind: it aligns seamlessly with the hard shadows and narrow spaces of the surroundings, contributing to a film look that’s at once singular and quintessentially noir.

While you’ll find plenty of Dutch angles jutted throughout the history of film noir, including Reed’s previous feature, The Fallen Idol (1948, also a Graham Greene adaptation), it’s especially intrinsic to The Third Man and the rich iconography it is responsible for in terms of our understanding of the genre. Furthermore, our experience of The Third Man and its off-kilter compositions deepens when we consider it in relation to Orson Welles, who looms large over the film despite only a brief appearance as the spectral Harry Lime. As a maestro of cinematic space, Welles’s direction of the camera has given us countless memorable images steeped in sharp angles, dramatic shadowplay, and abstracted environments:

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‘Citizen Kane’ (1941)

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‘Touch of Evil’ (1958)

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‘The Trial’ (1962)

While the Dutch angle could be seen as a shortcut to Welles’s outstanding use of depth and perspective—particularly as a method of instantly bringing the background and perspective lines of a shot into relief through imbalance—in The Third Man at least, it complements an already striking photographic achievement. Whether made under the influence of the iconoclastic director or not, The Third Man is a visual masterclass on par with, if not indebted to the groundbreaking cinematographic craft that Welles was renowned for cultivating. In isolation, however, the Dutch angles can’t help but leave a lasting impression, even though they don’t begin to tell the whole story behind the film’s bracing black-and-white images:

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‘The Third Man’ (1949)

The Dutch angle suits classic film noir precisely because of the genre’s angular nature and roots in German Expressionism. Even in modern times, it can be pulled off, albeit with a wink, as Hal Hartley showed with his peculiar espionage thriller Fay Grim in 2006. What accounts for its incongruity elsewhere may have less to do with context, and more to do with the evolution of the medium itself. With the advent of CinemaScope in the 1950s, the Dutch angle suddenly became a whole lot more conspicuous. What was closer to a sidelong glance in the old academy aspect ratio now resembled a precarious slope in anamorphic, as evidenced in Elia Kazan’s East of Eden (1955), where the canted framing is even more pronounced in the wider format. How effective or distracting Kazen’s fondness for the Dutch angle is in this film really depends on the degree to which one feels it has dated as a melodrama: does the arresting use of CinemaScope hold up as an bold accompaniment to James Dean’s passionate performance, or is it a tilt too far on top of the intensely angst-ridden material?

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‘East of Eden’ (1955)

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I wrote about why retrospectives matter in 2013 following the announcement of the Autumn Events sidebar, a rebranded version of the defunct World Cinema Showcase. The boutique festival has since taken up some of the slack with repertory screenings that the mid-winter New Zealand International Film Festival traditionally hosts. Aside from special presentations of gleaming digital restorations, what the Autumn Events concept uniquely promised was the return of the sorely missed auteur retrospective, and to see four early Asghar Farhadi films consecutively last year was a real privilege in that respect. This year, we have no retrospective programme to look forward too—its absence due in part to celluloid’s demise, no doubt—but with new digital restoration work now matching the pace of the rapid changes that have occurred in theatrical exhibition over the past few years, a substantial digital retrospective of a filmmaker’s oeuvre can’t be too far away for festival audiences.

In regards to this year’s crop of digital restorations, specifically Lawrence of Arabia and On the Waterfront, Grover Crisp, Sony Pictures’ Senior Vice President of Asset Management, Film Restoration & Digital Mastering, offered to field a few questions on the process and state of film restoration and preservation:

For the uninitiated person watching a digital restoration you’ve overseen, what exactly is being done to a film in terms of the labour, technical process, and artistic decisions required to remaster it?

The restoration of Lawrence of Arabia was about a three-year process, beginning with the repair and scanning of the film, which took about six months just to do that work.  This was not a replication of the great restoration and reconstruction done in 1988. We built upon that work to attempt to repair and restore all the physical things that were wrong with the film, things that could not be done in 1988, things that only the evolution of digital technologies would allow us to do. Lawrence of Arabia had some very serious and unique damage to the emulsion of the negative that required much R&D just to get through it. I credit our partners on this, MTI Film and Prasad, where much of the digital image restoration was accomplished. But there was a lot of back and forth and testing to try to get things right, to try to avoid digital artifacts and so forth. On the Waterfront was a bit more straightforward in that it was black and white, which makes the colour grading go much smoother, when you don’t have to deal with colour faded negative, for example. Also, On the Waterfront exhibited the usual amount of torn sections you would expect from one of our films from the 1950s, but not the inordinate amount of incredible damage as with Lawrence of Arabia.

Even after a 35mm print has been scanned and restored, is the source material—the evidence, if you will—still considered important in terms of preservation? Digital storage has its drawbacks too, no?

We do not discard any film that is a source of restoration. One reason, of course, is that it represents the film in its original state and should be preserved that way, even if damaged. Another reason is that without the original sources you would not be able to go back and work on the film once again if technologies improve to where you can do things better.  That is the case now with digital restorations of films we restored photo-chemically many years earlier. Digital storage and archiving is something that is evolving, but it is not something that is to be feared or ignored, most definitely not ignored. If we follow common sense approaches and standard accepted conservation practices, and stay up to date with the technology, I think it will work out.

You’ve worked on restoring perennials such as Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Strangelove, and On the Waterfront, but is there a danger of other lesser known masterworks falling by the wayside, especially when prints are becoming increasingly hard to source?

We all know that the studios were lax about preserving their libraries in any precise and dedicated way in the early decades of the last century.  However, since at least the early 1990s the studios have all taken a proactive approach to preserving their film libraries. This is due in part to private and public pressure during that period (when everyone was discovering the value once again of the libraries), with important developments like Martin Scorsese’s The Film Foundation. Additionally, the studios either had or hired people who were genuinely interested in preservation.  So, quite frankly, my colleagues and I have been instrumental in getting preservation accepted as a natural part of the flow of work in creating, distributing, and archiving the films that we produce.

As a cinephile who has consumed a lot of classic cinema on home video by necessity, I get a real kick out of reliving a film in the context of a cinema. For you as a filmgoer, is there still a romance to the big screen, or has the advent of Blu-ray leveled the playing field as far as optimising the home viewing experience?

Blu-ray is a wonderful way to see films in the home, as is the newer 4K format that is beginning to take hold.  There is still nothing like seeing a film on a big screen, however, for the sheer power that is there in the experience. I think Blu-ray and 4K are great leaps forward in the home theatre viewing capabilities, however.

The Third Man’ screens as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival’s Autumn Events programme in six cities throughout April and May. Also screening: ‘Aguirre, the Wrath of God’, ‘Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb’, ‘Funny Face’, ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, ‘On the Waterfront’, and ‘The Wind Rises’.