Silver Age

Nick Pinkerton at the 2nd Nitrate Picture Show

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, The Tales of Hoffmann, 1951, 35 mm, color, sound, 113 minutes.

FOR THE SECOND TIME in as many years, cinephiles and archivists from the world over convened at the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York, for the Nitrate Picture Show, a weekend-long marathon of movies projected on silver nitrate film. Silver nitrate or just plain “nitrate” is film made of gelatin emulsion laid on a nitrocellulose backing. Until the middle of the last century there was nothing special about silver nitrate projection—nitrate was the only kind of motion-picture film that there was. Nitrocellulose, also known as guncotton, was cheap, durable, and flexible enough to serve as a film base, but it did have one distinct disadvantage: If it happened to catch fire, it burned with spectacular, unquenchable ferocity, and beginning in the early days of cinema, the white-hot flame and nitrogen oxide gasses of nitrate fires were responsible for more than a few fatalities.

Risking imminent immolation to watch a routine Ritz Brothers comedy, however slight that risk may have been, was considered desirous by neither audiences nor insurance agents, so when, in 1948, the Eastman Kodak company of Rochester introduced new “safety” film which used an inflammable cellulose triacetate base, nitrate’s days were numbered. Safety film quickly became the industry standard, and after 1951, no more nitrate prints were produced at all—meaning that any nitrate print that one sees will be not less than sixty-five years old.

Nitrate would only become more and more endangered from that point. Until recently, it was still standard practice for archives to destroy nitrate originals after transferring their contents to safety film, and many of the prints that come down to us today have survived only through the active disobedience of archivists, while shrinkage or other damage has rendered many of the extant prints unfit for projection, lending the playable nitrate print a sort of aristocracy of scarcity. Sometimes the provenance of a print is more interesting than the movie on it. Edwin Carewe’s 1928 Dolores del Rio vehicle Ramona, which closed out the festival, isn’t a patch on the 1910 version of the same source material by D. W. Griffith. You might make quite a movie about the life of the eighty-eight-year-old print, however—it came to Rochester from Gosfilmofond, the Russian archive, the German-language intertitles betraying the fact that it was part of a bounty looted from Nazi Berlin in 1945, which makes the movie’s romanticization of the American Indian (à la Karl May’s “Old Shatterhand”) and similarities to the “Mountain film” (à la Dr. Arnold Fanck and Leni Riefenstahl) of more than passing interest.

Rochester killed silver nitrate film, and it is in Rochester that silver nitrate lives on. The second Nitrate Picture Show was my second go-round seeing nitrocellulose projected, having been to the inaugural event. Because of the hazards and exhaustive precautions involved in projecting nitrate, only three venues in the United States are equipped to do so: the Stanford Theater, the Billy Wilder Theater in Los Angeles, and George Eastman’s Dryden Theater. As such, the experience is incredibly rare: A conservator up from Culpeper, Virginia, to present the Library of Congress’s print of Michael Powell and Emmerich Pressburger’s Tales of Hoffmann (1951) noted that, after thirty-two years of minding the library’s nitrate holdings, this was his first time actually seeing the stuff on a screen.

While the first year’s program at the Dryden was largely domestic, drawing heavily from the George Eastman Museum’s own holdings, this time around the lineup was more international. The English-subtitled release print of Vittorio di Sica’s The Bicycle Thieves (1948) came from Eastman’s own vaults, a gift from the film’s American distributor, Joseph Burstyn—it had apparently been in regular use as a classroom aide at the University of Rochester through the 1960s and ’70s, and still looks like a million lira. From Mexico’s Cineteca Nacional came historical melodrama Enamorada (1946), one of several supernally gorgeous collaborations between director Emilio Fernández and his genius DP Gabriel Figueroa. (The Cineteca Nacional suffered one of the most debilitating nitrate fires in modern times in March 1982, an inferno that consigned 6,506 prints to ashes.) 

Edwin Carewe, Ramona, 1928, black-and-white, silent, 100 minutes.

The centerpiece show was the Saturday night screening of Tales of Hoffmann, presented with two “visual music” shorts by the German-born animator Oskar Fischinger: Allegretto (1936) and An Optical Poem (1937), both instances of what a peerless craftsman with an avant-garde sensibility could do with the resources of Hollywood at his command. The delirious, parti-colored Hoffmann, whose only glaring fault is that it never outdoes its second act, anchored a fairly Brit-heavy lineup this year, including John Boulting’s 1947 seaside-resort noir Brighton Rock and David Lean’s 1945 film of Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit, which features Kay Hammond as a Technicolor-green ghost. The secret star of this Nitrate Picture Show, however, was cinematographer Joseph LaShelle, represented with two credits in the lineup and some exquisitely spare, crystalline black-and-white photography. The first LaShelle film, 1944’s Laura, which inaugurated an ongoing relationship with director Otto Preminger, was a known quantity for most—and a knockout from the opening trawl through the bric-a-brac-cluttered apartment of Clifton Webb’s waspish gossip columnist Waldo Lydecker—but I wasn’t the only attendee taken unawares by the LaShelle-shot Road House.

A 1948 noir set in a rustic bowling alley/honky-tonk somewhere in the piney wilds near the northwestern Canadian border, Road House builds up a tense ménage-à-quatre among a Chicago nightclub nightingale (Ida Lupino), the house manager (Cornel Wilde), his gum-snapping, wisecracking cashier girlfriend (Celeste Holm), and the rich blond snot who has all of them on payroll (Richard Widmark, reprising his psychopathic giggle from Kiss of Death [1947] and bearing one of the ickiest nicknames in cinema: “Jefty”). “She can do more without a voice than anyone I've heard,” Holm marvels at Lupino, here singing for herself for the first time on-screen, and contributing a hypnotic version of “Again” that sounds like it’s coming from a scuffed-up 45, which puts Wilde into a trance that has him giving culotte-clad Lupino sexual tension–fraught bowling lessons in no time flat. I’d never particularly rated director Jean Negulesco, familiar from Technicolor bloat-fests like The Rains of Ranchipur (1955), but Road House is a really first-rate work—if not a cause for total reevaluation, then an affirmation of Paul Schrader’s position that “film noir seemed to bring out the best in everyone [and often] will make the high point on an artist’s career graph.”

Maybe genre can elevate an artist, but I doubt that format can make or break a picture—Touch of Evil viewed on a smartphone screen is still, after all, Touch of Evil. It’s no exaggeration, however, to say that seeing familiar films in their presentation premium format is to see them as never before. I drove myself to distraction at my first Nitrate Picture Show outing trying to pinpoint what, if anything, defined the “nitrate difference.” Was it something about the particular shimmer in the high-contrast black-and-white, accountable to the high concentration of silver in the stock? The fine-filigreed detail? The illusion of depth in the image without benefit of 3-D technology—which, perhaps not coincidentally, appeared shortly after nitrate film had been phased out? Well, all of the above are present in a well-preserved nitrate print, but to solely credit these qualities to some magic alchemy in the nitrocellulose base is to ignore a number of other extenuating factors: These are relics from an era when film lab techs were highly skilled artisans with every resource at their command, struck from sources much closer to the original negative than we are used to seeing. (The less said the better of dead-tech bullshit DCP, beloved by viewers whose eyes have started to go and programmers on a budget.) It is perhaps impossible to pinpoint, then, the contribution of the nitrate film to the extraordinary beauty of the films shown at the Dryden, but the important point is that they are extraordinarily beautiful films—and the clock is ticking.

The second Nitrate Picture Show took place April 29 through May 1 at the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York.