Public domain movies come to Blu-ray
Public-domain movies are coming to Blu-ray. But is that where they belong?
THE STRANGER - 1946 LORETTA YOUNG, Photo by: Everett Collection
Beyond Casablanca and Hitchcock, the future of the past on Blu-ray looks cloudy. While the popularity of Blu-ray discs is skyrocketing, few older, more obscure titles are making the leap to the high-def format. Studios are understandably skittish about releasing titles without expensive restoration efforts: Blu-ray can display five times more detail than the now-ancient DVD technology, and it’s less forgiving of flaws in older materials. But a new public-domain label, HD Cinema Classics, aims to alter this trend.
On February 15, HD Cinema Classics released two noirs on Blu-ray: Orson Welles’s expressionist The Stranger (1946) and Phil Karlson’s starkly realist Kansas City Confidential (1952). These are two examples of the wildly divergent styles grouped under the noir designation: Welles was attempting to show the studios he could make a hit film, so he cranked out a boilerplate Nazi-in-a-small-town thriller that still manages to be irreducibly weird and dreamlike, reminiscent of Nosferatu (1922). Confidential is one of Karlson’s uncomfortably documentary-like procedurals, a finely detailed heist film of unsettling moral ambiguity. It’s a striking contrast, and HD Cinema Classics deserves credit for releasing them at all. The company has also announced new HD pressings of Francis Ford Coppola’s Dementia 13 (1963) and Roger Corman’s The Terror (1963) for March 29.
But it’s off to a mixed start, at least from a technical standpoint. Since The Stranger and Kansas City Confidential are public-domain titles, the 35mm prints the company is working with are inferior to the negatives sitting in studio vaults. The Stranger looks soft at times, with blown-out whites. Kansas City Confidential looks sharper, with deeper blacks and good contrast. But the company’s “digital restoration” has sandblasted the grain out of both films, giving them a smoothed-over, plastic look that robs them of the texture and depth of the original 35mm presentations. It looks as if Welles, who plays a Nazi hiding his past, has received a shiny face-lift in addition to his new identity.
HD Cinema Classics is a subdivision of Film Chest, a major public-domain licensor. FilmChest.com lists more than 90 films made prior to 1980 that it has transferred to high-def formats; these include Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), Howard Hawks’s His Girl Friday (1940) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn (1939). It’s unclear how many of these will ultimately be distributed by HD Cinema Classics, but it seems to be the only public-domain company aggressively promoting the format. VCI Entertainment, a public-domain stalwart, has released only one film, A Christmas Carol (1951), on Blu-ray.
Hopefully, Film Chest will take a lighter hand with digital spackle in the future, but the new discs represent an encouraging start, as the world needs as many watchable copies of these images as possible, whether in a beat-up 16mm print or a gauzy high-def transfer.