Over at his Hollywood Elsewhere website, the feisty Jeffrey Wells (pictured above—no, just kidding, we all know that J.W. doesn't wear that much makeup...) put up what I consider an eminently reasonable request to Universal—that, when the studio issues its Blu-ray edition of the Hitchcock classic, it include the film in both its 1.85:1 screening aspect ratio, and in what's sometimes referred to as the Academy ratio, which is a less pronounced rectangle of 1.375:1. The reason being in this case his personal aesthetic preference combined, one would suppose, or maybe I should say influenced by, a certain nostalgia for the television screenings of the film, which back in the days on non-widescreen television sets, were in fact...well, you know.
As is not unexpected in his vociferous realm, the specific tone of his comments drew some fire, with some very knowledgable folks citing various historical precedents to demonstrate that the film was, is, and has always been meant to be theatrically presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio but was also "protected" for 1.375 for the purposes of television screenings...which is to say that Hitchcock, a master of technical stuff who by the time he had made Psycho had racked up a good bit of experience and expertise in the television realm, composed his frames so that they would say what they needed to say in both aspect ratios. Except for that bit in the shower scene where, were it not for a hard matte covering up the naughty bits, one could actually see the breasts of Janet Leigh, or rather, those of her body double. In any event, the whole thing devolved into one of those skirmishes wherein Godwin's Law was repeatedly flouted, and Jeffrey even "front-paged" one of his extra-feisty comment replies, so as to continue the fight. And there was great disharmony and misunderstanding in the land.
The fantastic, or maybe awful thing about this particular topic is that it can be argued about until the cows come home, leave home again, take a round-the-world voyage, and so on, and it'll still never be settled. Which is the reason that, as always, I am right. My position is: if you're doing a Blu-ray disc or pretty much any kind of home video presentation and there's any cinephile question concerning the actual or intended aspect ratio, it won't kill your bandwidth to present both versions if they are in fact available.
But of course this leads to the question of cinephile questions. Most folks with a good understanding of the history of theatrical film projection will tell you that 1.85 matting came in pretty much in the wake of the introduction of Cinemascope, the 2.35 aspect ratio, itself. This does not necessarily answer the question of which directors really applied themselves to actively composing their frames for 1.85 in the wake of that. The most controversial example pertaining to this question applies, of course, to Orson Welles' 1958 Touch of Evil. (And, yes, the above image, of Akim Tamiroff as poor Uncle Grandi, chilling out after a disagreement with Welles' Chief Hank Quinlan, is from that film.) Of all the things Welles said about that storied film, including interviews, and of course the lengthy memo he wrote to Universal which formed the basis of the 1998 restoration undertaken by Rick Schmidlin and Jonathan Rosenbaum, he never discussed the aspect ratio in which he intended it to be screened. And hence, that question has become quite the bone of contention among cinephiles, with quarrels about both intention and headroom becoming quite fervent whenever the issue comes up.
As far as the home video realm is concerned, Universal, the company responsible for releasing the various iterations of the film therein, could certainly tamp down such arguments merely be putting out an edition the presents the film in both aspect ratios. But the controversy does not sufficiently penetrate into the market as such to warrant the company's concern. That's one way of putting it, I presume. So it's left to collectors and concerned parties to address the issue. Let's look at two separate shots from one particularly fraught scene in the film: the one a little over a half hour in, in which honest Mexican cop Vargas (Charlton Heston) tries to conduct an intimate phone conversation with his lovely, and soon-to-be explicitly endangered, wife (Janet Leigh) under the watchful ears of a particularly Buñuelian blind shop owner. The 1.375 screen grabs are from a source prepared by one of the concerned parties alluded to above.
The resolution from this source is fuzzy, I know, but bear with me. Here's the same setup in 1.85:
Here's a followup shot, which shows the sign that is, in a sense, the scene's punchline:
And, again, in 1.85:
Now, as we can see, both compositions can be considered entirely correct in that they both contain the necessary information to put across what each shot seems to want to put across. The discomforting foregrounding of the blind shop-owner in the first shot, and the equally discomforting and somewhat heartbreaking words of the preemptively admonishing sign about stealing from the blind—a portent or a reminder that in the world of this film, guilt is the dominant condition—it's all there. Yes, the top of the sign is cut off in the wider version of the first shot, but as anyone can see, that's not the shot in which we're meant to be concentrating on the sign anyway.
The situation becomes even more complicated when we consider a film made for Universal a couple of years prior to Welles' Touch of Evil, that is, 1956's There's Always Tomorrow, directed by Douglas Sirk. Two recent home video editions—European issues from Carlotta in France and Eureka!/Masters of Cinema in Great Britain, respectively—have issued very handsome-looking versions of the film in a 1.85 framing that is so precise and elegant that it's pretty much taken for granted that the wider ratio is the one it was meant to be shown at. But should it be? Well, as it happens, domestic Universal, in its recently issued collection of Barbara Stanwyck films, included a pretty dingy transfer of Tomorrow...in 1.375 framing. And, yes, Virginia, there are some cinephiles who argue that this framing is good and true and correct and appropriate. I happen to vociferously disagree, and here's why. First, the 1.85 frame:
Now, the 1.375 frame:
To me it's just no contest. The tight precision of the wider frame is not only more pleasing to the eye, but it's more in keeping with one of the film's major themes, which is the Fred MacMurray character's imprisonment in a family life that is utterly indifferent if not actively hostile towards his needs and happiness. And for all that, when the Stanwyck collection was reviewed by Dave Kehr in his invaluable New York Times DVD column, much space in the comments threads of his website was devoted to an argument over which was the correct framing.
Of course, intention counts, and with Sirk, who went on to create some of the most distinctively gorgeous widescreen films of his time (see, for instance, the sublime A Time To Love And A Time To Die), the notion of widescreen consciousness was a given. Not so much, though, with the sublime Welles, who never even dabbled in Cinemascope and whose two subsequent completed features as a director, 1962's The Trial and 1973's F For Fake, [UPDATE: Aargh, my initial post neglected to cite 1965's also-completed—and masterful!—Chimes at Midnight, not that it would have disproved my point, as to the best of my knowledge it, too, is a 1.66 picture] were presented in the very European ratio of 1.66.
Adding to the excitement here is that fact that Welles' Evil and Sirk's Tomorrow have the cinematographer Russell Metty in common. Metty and Welles never worked together again, but Metty and Sirk were a pretty consistent team with a staggering visual output from 1953 on. Metty in fact shot most of the films that we (okay, some of us) consider Sirk's masterpieces, including A Time To Love... and All That Heaven Allows. Widescreen pictures, as we know. And away from Sirk, Metty continued with a run of films which some might argue are only watchable on account of their widescreen cinematography. I myself get an awful lot out of the hall-of-mirrors rendition of "I Enjoy Being A Girl" in Flower Drum Song, for instance. So I'd argue that the preponderance of circumstantial evidence weighs pretty heavily toward the notion that the 1.85 framing of Touch of Evil is the correct one.
However. There really is no definitive way to settle the argument. Which is why, to my mind, it makes sense for the issuing distributor to provide the consumer with an option. And I understand that there may be valid arguments against this idea. The Eureka!/Masters of Cinema producers, for instance, have a very strong perspective on issuing their films in the correct aspect ratio and reminding their consumers that their monitors need to be set properly so as to display the correct aspect ratio. Whether or not they believe that the 1.375 framing of There's Always Tomorrow constitutes a "travesty [of] the integrity of both the human form and cinematographic space" is something I'd love to hear from Nick Wrigley or Craig Keller (if Craig is in fact still speaking to me). But for me, the most practicable and desirable solution to this dilemma might just be more choice...when the choice is pertinent. Which is a whole other kettle of fish. We haven't even gotten into the Kubrick perplex here...