Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The Sound of MURDER!

Well, it seems that our Donna's ingenuity has successfully shepherded VW's cyberholdings to another server, which we hope will bring us a greater sense of security in the days, weeks, months and years ahead.

I received an interesting response to my earlier Hitchcock blog from musician/composer Neal Kurz:

"I'm still catching up with these Studio Canal sets, but I thought I would throw an observation out there, which affects the sound films included (the silents certainly seem absolutely top drawer quality-wise). I'm afraid a disturbing recent trend in French 'restoration' techniques has reared its ugly head once again. I don't know if the same folks are involved, but, as with the French-produced (and ported to Kino for US release) set of the Maurice Pagnol trilogy, someone has seen to "improve" the audio on these "creaky" early sound films (despite their including the clearest rendition of the best source material I've encountered on these titles) by adding all manner of overdubbed sound effects!

"I first noticed this problem in MURDER, which has many added sound effects, from pen scratchings to paper rustlings, and various footsteps. RICH AND STRANGE, likewise. At first, it may seem that the improvement in fidelity is what causes these sounds to stand out from the texture, but I assure you this is not the case. Once I became aware of what was going on, I became incredibly distracted, watching and waiting for the next infraction! At least they are left in the mono domain, unlike the 5.1 atrocities Ruscico has grafted on some films that really can't take this approach (Tarkovsky). I haven't gone back to NUMBER SEVENTEEN to verify this problem (since catching some of this when TCM ran this version a few months ago). I guess this is a bit ironic, seeing that VERTIGO and the Robert Harris restoration with its controversial multi-channel audio track has received much criticism, while these less seen films/discs have flown in under the radar. Also, quite frankly, I just don't see how these changes really 'improves' anything.... they still sound like 1930s audio tracks! I have not auditioned BLACKMAIL in this version, since I own the German set (with the fantastic "silent" cut of the film on Disc 2!), but if they have altered what is surely a seminal early sound film artifact with this sonic mayhem, I hope someone calls them on it!

"By the way, if you have Criterion's Eisenstein box, there's a similar problem with ALEXANDER NEVSKY, with all manner of junk added to the track..... which they seem unwilling to acknowledge, seeing that Peter Becker stopped writing back to me after I (nicely, I assure you!) called this to his attention. If I seem unusually persnickety about this, I guess it's because I'm a musician by profession, so my ears probably work better than my eyes."

I'm inclined to take Neal's eurekas on the subject seriously for this very reason. (Incidentally, if his name seems familiar, he has done a few piano scores for silent films on DVD, including David Shepard's discs of Carl Dreyer's THE PARSON'S WIDOW and MICHAEL, and the underrated CAPTAIN FRACASSE, among others.) I happened to watch Hitchcock's MURDER! a couple of nights ago, and none of the foley work Neal mentions stood out for me -- as he says, it still sounds like a 1930s track -- but I don't know the film by heart. The film's audio still has flaws, and one can see lip movements that were not given dialogue in the post-sync. But whatever work was done on the audio track was pleasingly organic, at least. Sometimes, as in Retromedia's sound effects additions to films like THE GHOST, I find these added-on sound effects fairly glaring, but if I don't notice them, it's hard to tell how seriously I should take these things as an artistic transgression. I'd need a side-by-side comparison, I suppose, which also might help to explain why such cosmetic work was deemed necessary.

Hark! I can hear the new issue of Video Watchdog being delivered downstairs! Excuse me while I go to get acquainted with the new addition to the family...

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