An infrequently updated dumping ground for one culture junkie's thoughts on film and whatever else

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Adventures in aspect-ratio geekery, or, why I love the internet, or, leave it to Bogdanovich

So I saw a 35mm print of Orson Welles' The Lady From Shanghai tonight at the Music Box, and of course it was glorious. But I noticed something very strange. During the legendary climactic funhouse-mirror sequence, the aspect ratio appeared to change from the standard 1.37:1 Academy ratio (the square shape of all pre-1953 Hollywood films) to a rectangular ratio, with the screen letterboxed (black bars at the top and bottom), looking closer to 1.85 or 1.66:1. This was shocking because widescreen ratios weren't a thing in Hollywood until CinemaScope arrived in 1953. At first I thought it might just be a projection snafu of some kind, or a quirk of the print that wasn't supposed to be there. But that wasn't a satisfactory explanation; I wondered if Welles was up to something.

So I poked around on the internet.

What I found was a thread on addressing this exact topic, originated by a poster who had my exact experience: he saw a theatrically projected print of Lady From Shanghai, noticed some letterboxing funny business in the funhouse scene, and wondered what the hell was going on. Some speculation followed, and then another poster delivered the goods by transcribing a comment made by Peter Bogdanovich on a DVD commentary track:

"In some scenes - it's noticeable particularly in the funhouse scene, in the mirror scene at the end, but there are other places where you can see it - he actually changed the aperture in the camera when he shot, so that sometimes the image was narrower than normal, top and bottom. He did that on purpose in a way that in fact DW Griffith did, changing the shape of the image by masking the top and bottom or the sides or whatever, something that Griffith did. Orson brought that into sound pictures, something that very few people did. He was amused that he'd done it and nobody'd ever noticed it."

Well I noticed it, Orson.

It does make sense, really, because creating a wider image gave him more room to convey the scope of the funhouse and all the mirror doubling. He probably figured that you couldn't quite get a full sense of the visual distortion in the square ratio.

What I'm wondering now is if this has any implications for the ongoing, vociferous debate over the correct aspect ratio for Touch of Evil. It's all very involved and confusing, and there's no definitive proof either way, but a lot of people got upset when the recent DVD special edition of the film presented it in 1.85:1, even though by 1958 almost all theaters were projecting films in some kind of widescreen ratio. The argument, or one argument, goes that Welles hated the widescreen processes and composed his shots in 1.37:1 even knowing that they would eventually be masked for 1.85:1, or something like that. But to me his experiments in Lady From Shanghai indicate that he was interested in playing around with aspect ratios and widescreen effects. So it adds another layer to the debate. Or rather it would if any of those people read my blog.

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