Ah, Preminger. The obstreperous Otto. Is that an apt description of the man? Probably not entirely, but some sort of alliterative description sometimes seems de rigueur when contemplating such figures. Almost a quarter-century after his death, and thirty years after he made his final film (and almost eighty years since he made his first!) he's still a hugely contentious figure among cinephiles. As a recent sort-of-contra-Otto piece by the divine Siren attests.
I come here this morning not to praise Otto nor to bury him but merely to comment on a film reproduction matter of some concern, concerning a film bearing the man's name. That film is 1957's Saint Joan, adapted from the Shaw play of the same name, and long unavailable on domestic DVD, let alone any home video format. I wrote about a rather atrocious Spanish-edition disc of the film at my old blog back in 2008, saying the transfer rendered Georges Perinal's "silkily gorgeous" cinematography with "all the detail and contrast of a 16mm print that's been gnawed on by beavers after being washed through a mud bath." Hyperbolic, I know, but why should that surprise anyone.
That being the case, I expected great, or at least good, things from the recently released Warner Archive version of the disc. And I largely got them. Got something else, too.
Here's a screen cap, featuring the beguiling Seberg and the entirely impeccable Richard Widmark (in one of his most unusual portrayals), from the Spanish version:
and here, the same shot from the new Warner Archive disc:
Inceed, the Warner version has better contrast and detail and all that good stuff...and is also wider, out to a near 1.85 aspect ratio. And that widescreen wasn't achieved by cropping an "academy ratio" image—as you'll note, there's more picture detail in the wider version, e.g., the rest of Seberg's ear. All the sources I've seen say that this film is in fact a 1.33 one—Preminger is well known for his expertise with Cinemascope and other widescreen formats, but didn't hesitate to revert to a less rectangular picture shape when he so desired—so could the Spanish 1.33 image have derived from a further reduction of a wider 1.33 picture? Curiouser and curiouser.
Looking for answers, I contacted Chris Fujiwara, the esteemed critic and scholar and the author of a superb recent critical biography of Preminger, The World And Its Double: The Life And Work Of Otto Preminger. (My ability to reach Chris easily is one of the things I can recommend about Facebook.) What he had to say only deepened the mystery, as it were. Quoth Chris:
"Preminger's contract with United Artists for The Man with the Golden Arm specified that he would be deliver a film in the 1.85 aspect ratio. Saint Joan was also for United Artists, but the contracts and correspondence I saw didn't specify what ratio the film would be in. But if UA insisted on it in 1955, I would think that they also expected it for Joan in 1957...
The 35mm print at the Library of Congress is 1.33. However, I think it's probable that the film was intended to be shown matted at about 1.66. One reason I say this is that the film had a European camera crew, and I believe 1.66 was pretty much the norm for matted widescreen projection by 1957.
I haven't seen the Warner DVD yet so I don't have an opinion, but I suspect that 1.85 might look a little severe for Saint Joan (as with Anatomy of a Murder, to me).
...bottom line is that I have no hard and fast evidence what aspect ratio Preminger and Perinal really wanted/expected the film to be shown in."
Shortly after that, Chris discovered some shots he had taken, off a Steenback editing machine, of a hard-matted Joan. He kindly gave me permission to share them here:
And now, the same shot from the Warner Archive disc, in an image captured from my computer, uncropped from the capture for context's sake...
In certain shots in the 1.33 version, there appears, on the other hand, to be too much headroom for the human figures, as in this shot of Richard Todd:
Here's that shot in the wider Warner Archive version:
You also get more of a sense of the characters relating to one another. Still. In too many shots, the 1.85 ratio is simply too much, whereas it seems that 1.66 might be considered, as they say, just right:
Chris Fujiwara again: "It looks like the Spanish and the French DVDs were made from a print that had been made by cropping the sides off a hard-matted print. The Warner Archive DVD goes for a wider aspect ratio by cropping the top and the bottom (an ill-advised move, in my humble opinion)."
So the verdict on the new Joan: better, but still wrong. Which leads to the vexing question of how to most effectively petition for a correction to a manufactured-on-demand DVD...?