70mm

A big, bright, high-definition image projected onto a giant screen–”that’s what makes movies better than television! And no film format filled that screen better–”at least for narrative fiction films–”than 70mm, which dominated the biggest film presentations for nearly 40 years. Next week, the big picture returns in all of its glory as the Castro starts an 11-day 70mm festival.

The secret of 70mm is actually pretty simple: It’s twice as wide as standard, 35mm film, and each frame is 25-percent taller than a standard 35mm frame. The result is a brighter, clearer, more stable image, and terrific six-track, magnetic stereo sound. When 70mm prints are made from a larger-than-standard negative, the results can be spectacular.

Standard 70mm presentation started in 1955 with the release of Oklahoma, filmed in 65mm Todd-AO–”the extra 5mm on the release prints was for sound. For the next 15 years, the biggest Hollywood films were presented in special 70mm, reserved-seat runs, sometimes for as long as two years, before going to regular theaters. The first such films were shot in Todd-AO and other big negative formats, but by the late 1960’s, many were blown up from 35mm.

By the early 70’s, this sort of roadshow presentation was dying out, and 70mm with it. Then, in 1977, Star Wars brought 70mm back big time. The seats were no longer reserved, and the negatives were standard 35mm, but the 1980’s saw more 70mm prints in circulation than ever before.

The process died in the mid-1990’s. Digital sound offered a much cheaper way to get great audio. The picture, unfortunately, never recovered.

The Castro isn’t the perfect 70mm house. The screen, while large, isn’t actually huge, and it’s flat. If I had my choice, the 70mm festival would be at the Cinema 1 in Corte Madera. But the Castro is the only theater in the Bay Area that shows 70mm at all these days, and for that we should be grateful.

To read more on 70mm or other gone-and-missed formats, visit Martin Hart’s excellent American WideScreen Museum.

About my own web site: If you hover your mouse pointer over the clapboard icon () for each 70mm movie on my schedule, I’ll tell you how it was originally filmed.

Speaking of the icons I place in Bayflick.net’s calendar, here are this week’s recommended and noteworthy titles:

Recommended: Strangers on a Train, Castro, Friday night. One of Hitchcock’s scariest films, and therefore one of his best. A rich, spoiled psychotic killer (isn’t that the worst kind?) convinces himself that a moderately-famous athlete he met casually has agreed to trade murders. The athlete soon finds himself hounded by suspicious cops who think he’s killed his wife and a psycho who thinks the athlete owes him a murder. On a double-bill with Rope (see below).

Noteworthy: Rope, Castro, Friday night. Hitchcock’s most interesting failure. The great director ruined an excellent script about homosexual thrill murderers by trying to make a one-shot movie. That wasn’t technically possible back then (it is now; and was done in Russian Ark), so he made a movie where every reel (about 10 minutes) is a single shot. It’s an interesting experiment, but by denying himself the power of editing, Hitchcock made Rope with one hand tied behind his back. On a double-bill with Strangers on a Train (see above).

Noteworthy: Welcome Danger, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday afternoon. This 1929 comedy is best known as Harold Lloyd’s first talkie (well, part talkie, anyway), but a silent version was recently discovered in Lloyd’s vaults. Part of the Archive’s Welcome Danger: Harold Lloyd Silent Comedies series, but unlike the other films in that series, this one will have actual live accompaniment–”by Jon Mirsalis on piano.

Recommended: Gold Diggers of 1933, Pacific Film Archive, later Sunday afternoon. People who’ve never seen this pre-code musical think it helped people forget about the depression. After all, it opens with a chorus line of beautiful, scantily-dressed babes singing “We’re in the money.– But the depression permeates this backstage comedy. Everyone is desperate, the heroines steal milk, and that opening number is interrupted by cops closing a show that can’t cover its debts. Part of the archive’s Trouble In Paradise: Pre-Code Hollywood series.

Recommended: Psycho, Castro, Sunday. Sorry Birds fans, but this little black and white quickie was Hitchcock’s last masterpiece. If you haven’t seen Psycho–¦well, I knew too much about it before I ever saw it; I don’t want that to happen to you. On a double-bill with his first American film, Rebecca, a sudsy David O. Selznick melodrama with hardly a hint of the master.

Noteworthy: Vertigo, Castro, Monday. What? I’m not recommending Vertigo? Everyone else thinks it’s a masterpiece, but I find it extremely overrated–”slow, uninvolving, and self-consciously arty. And I’m a Hitchcock fan! On the other hand, this is a cool way for the Castro to transition from one series (Hitchcock) to another (70mm). Vertigo was filmed in VistaVision, which offered a large and detailed, but not particularly wide, image. The 70mm prints, which were made for the 1996 restoration, are pillarboxed (the opposite of letterboxed; with black bars on the side) to preserve the original aspect ratio.

Recommended: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Castro, Tuesday. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: 2001 hasn’t aged all that well. But it’s still worth seeing if you can see it in 70mm, which is how the Castro will be showing it. Part of the Castro’s 70mm Film Series, 2001 was shot in 65mm Super Panavision for Cinerama presentation.

Recommended: Lawrence of Arabia, Castro, Wednesday. To call Lawrence the best big historical epic of the 70mm roadshow era would be damning it with faint praise, so let me be more precise: It’s one of the greatest films ever made. Stunning to look at and entertaining as pure spectacle, it’s also intelligent, exploring the career of a fascinatingly complex and enigmatic war hero. T. E. Lawrence–”at least according to this film–”both loved and hated violence, and tried liberating Arabia by turning it over to the British Empire. This masterpiece isn’t worth seeing on DVD and barely worthwhile in 35mm. Shot in Super Panavision 70, Lawrence should be experienced in 70mm. Part of the Castro’s 70mm Film Series.

Recommended: The Bridge on the River Kwai, Castro, Thursday. Before Lawrence, David Lean made this intelligent wartime thriller set in a Japanese POW camp. Alec Guinness gives his greatest non-comic performance as a by-the-book officer who can resist torture, but not appeals to his ego. Shot in Cinemascope, it was never intended for 70mm presentation, although 70mm prints were struck for a mid-90’s restoration. One of those prints will be screened as part of the Castro’s 70mm Film Series.