VistaVision Westerns reviews - Home Theater Forum and Systems -

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post #1 of 3 Old 08-24-08, 06:21 AM Thread Starter
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Richard W. Haines
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Location: Croton-on-Hudson, NY
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VistaVision Westerns reviews

I recently purchased three VistaVision psychological fifties' Westerns and
thought I'd post some quick reviews of them. You can find these films
in discount bins at Wal-mart or supermarkets. The double disc set of
"Last Train from Gun Hill" and "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral" only cost $7.50
which is certainly less than renting each one individually at Blockbuster.

Before getting into each film, here are some briefs notes on the advantages
of VistaVision...

It was Paramount's answer to Todd-AO and CinemaScope. This proprietary
system combined the fine grain sharpness of the former and corrected the
depth of field and distortion problem of the latter. Basically they developed
a camera that exposed an eight sprocket image in 1.66 by exposing the film
horizontally. Each frame resembled what you would get in a conventional
35mm still camera. From this large negative (the equivalent of two 35mm
frames), they would reduction print the image to either three matrices (for
Technicolor dye transfer prints) or to a B&W duplicate negative. This system
had a variable aspect ratio from 1.66 to 2.1. Theaters could crop the image
and enlarge it but still retain a fine grain sharpness. Most played them in 1.85.
For both color and B&W, the negative was A & B rolled which meant it was
exposed into the printer twice directly incorporating the fades and dissolves
from the camera negative. That meant that the entire film was the same
first generation quality which was optimum in the analog motion picture medium.
Rather than having those awful duplicate negative opticals common in the era
(i.e. the grainy dissolves in "Giant") they had the same quality as regular
shots. Of course by reduction printing a large image onto a conventional
sized frame, they made it much finer grain and sharper. It was a great
process but it only lasted from 1954 through 1963. However, it was revived
in the late seventies for special effects optical work for "Star Wars" and
"Close Encounters". In those cases, only the effects were shot in the large
format and then reduction printed to 35mm anamorphic to be intercut with
standard Panavision shots that didn't required opticals. It worked very
nicely in that case too.

The three VistaVision films I screened were "Gunfight at the OK Corral",
"Last Train from Gun Hill" and "The Tin Star". The first two films were
in Technicolor and starred Kirk Douglas. Both were directed by action
film veteran, John Sturges. They looked quite good although not up
to the 'ultra-resolution' transfer of "The Searchers". "The Tin Star"
starred Henry Fonda and was directed by Anthony Mann who also
made some very interesting James Stewart Westerns in that era.
It was in black and white and looked razor sharp with very good
contrast and a nice grayscale. All three are good flicks focussing
on characterizations in shades of gray rather than the simple good
guy/bad guy depictions of previous eras. The actors play head games with
each other which is always interesting to watch. They're violent and
ocassionally brutal but with limited blood. No squibs but you'll see some
wounds on the body after they fall.

"Gunfight at the OK Corral" co-stars Burt Lancaster as Wyatt Earp. Douglas
portrays Doc Holiday who was dying of TB. It's a mythical depiction of the
real life shootout with the Clanton gang. The pacing is a bit slow but it's
enjoyable. Dennis Hopper plays one of the gang in the pre-hippie phase of
his career.

"The Last Train from Gun Hill" was a bit better and similar to "3:10 from Yuma"
in it's plot. Douglas is a sheriff hunting down the murderer of his wife played
by Earl Holliman. The problem is, Holliman is the son of Anthony Quinn whom
Douglas used to ride with. He's holed up in a hotel room as Quinn's men
surround the place trying to prevent him from boarding the last train with
his prisoner. It was a fairly tense film although not as good as the other
Glenn Ford Western (or current remake). Still, worth a look for this price.

"The Tin Star" is the most interesting of the lot. Imagine twitchy, nervous
and neurotic Norman Bates as the Sheriff of a town? Well that's the plot
here with a pre-"Psycho" Anthony Perkins. He has to hunt down two outlaws
and bring them to trial but the town bullies want to lynch them. One of the
outlaws is played by Lee Van Cleef. Henry Fonda is a cynical, world weary
bounty hunter who helps him get through the ordeal. Despite the bizarre
casting, it actually works and was entertaining.

So there you have it. Three good VistaVision Westerns that aren't a bad
way of spending an afternoon They look good projected and while not worthy
of "classic" status (like "The Searchers"), they're certainly better than most of
the drek being shown at my local megaplex. These Westerns were made for
adults and have good dialogue, intelligent screenplays, fine acting and directing.
Good transfers although they could be better based on the quality of other
VistaVision DVDs I've screened. At least they have consistent contrast and
sharpness since they opticals are first generation. One criticism however is
the sound. The 2.0 mono track is fine except that most Paramount VistaVision
films were released in Perspecta sound. This consisted of three sub-audio
tones contained on the optical sound track that when de-coded would allow
the mono signal to be directed to three front speakers. Directional sound
based on the person's position on the screen. For example if someone was
on the extreme left, you'd hear their dialogue coming out of the left speaker.
The same applied to gunshots which would also be directional. It wasn't
really 'stereophonic' as advertised but could be used effectively. Dolby has
a Perspecta decoder which could be utilized on the three front channels in
any 5.1 set up. However, they didn't bother to decode the tracks here.
Let's hope they start releasing Perspecta encoded mono films on blu ray
in the future as one of the audio options since it was a popular format in
that era.

Last edited by Richard W. Haines; 08-24-08 at 06:37 AM.
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post #2 of 3 Old 08-24-08, 12:42 PM
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Re: VistaVision Westerns reviews

Richard, I always enjoy your reviews. The history and technical aspects you include makes them especially interesting....

Thanks for posting them.......

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post #3 of 3 Old 08-24-08, 05:10 PM Thread Starter
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Re: VistaVision Westerns reviews


Thank you for your kind words. Glad you like them. I think it makes
the movies more interesting if you know some background. Since DVDs
tend to show up the attributes and the flaws more than film prints it's
helpful to know why "The Searchers" is so sharp and has such good effects
and why "Giant" looks so awful with every other shot a grainy and murky
optical effect. In fact, since I screen movies with my entire family they
often shout out for me to 'focus' and then I have to explain it is in focus,
it's the opticals that look soft. After the screening they ask 'why' and
then I explain the technology involved so I thought I'd do the same here
in advance of your screenings both for the info and for an explanation
why some movies look much better than others within the same time
period. "Technicolor" wasn't only the greatest name in color but they
had the most advanced techniques to improve the overall imagery on
a release print including A & B rolling or auto select printing for first
generation opticals and wet gate printing to remove scratches on the
negative. Since the negatives were only used for making the printing
matrices rather than the actual release copies, they remained in far
better shape than those struck at the competing Eastmancolor facilities
like Pathe, De Luxe, Warnercolor or Metrocolor.

Last edited by Richard W. Haines; 08-26-08 at 05:47 AM.
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