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Festivale online magazine
A Reel Life film section
November, 1999
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If it ain't broke, don't fix it

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I was watching a bit of television the other night and saw an advert for an upcoming screening of Casablanca. If you appreciate good cinema it's a must-see. Well scripted, well acted and beautifully shot. And that's the tragic part 'cause the one they were showing on telly had been colourised.

You see Casablanca was shot in black and white, which the studio execs think makes it virtually unwatchable by a modern audience. Eight nominations for Academy Awards® (it ended up winning Best Picture, Direction and Writing) and actors like Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains, Sydney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre just aren't good enough. So to "improve" the film they took the beautiful and atmospheric black and white Oscar nominated cinematography of Arthur Edeson and coloured it in.

This is the major problem I have with colourisation. Good black and white films use their lack of colour to add atmosphere. The use of subtle shading or stark contrast in a well-made movie can be unbelievably effective. Colourisation forces a range of tones into the film that weren't originally there and changing the effectiveness of the way the scene was originally constructed. And the old arguments that you can "just turn the colour down" don't wash, guys. The process that the film's been subjected to means that when you do this you find that the contrast is all but gone. The images look… bland.

It's all just part of the Hollywood system. They take their own petty distinctions and impose them on us. "I don't want to watch a black and white film, therefore you don't want to watch a black and white film." Codswallop! And it gets worse. Recently we've seen the release of the "director's cut" of The Big Sleep.

In this case it's not even as if it's a true director's cut, a term which implies that the film was originally released in a form the director was unhappy with, but a work print. It's a version of the film thrown together to see what might need to be changed. Most films go through this. There were all sorts of changes made to The Big Sleep and the version we've been seeing all these years is the result of those changes. The thing is, the changes are an improvement and the "director's cut", while being a nice curiosity for those that know and love the original, is just not as good.

It's currently unbelievably hard to purchase a copy of The Big Sleep that's not a "director's cut". Your only hope is to find one ex-rental.

"Improving" a film that has been around for years and has a good track record should be limited to cleaning up the sound and prints or allowing the director to oversee the restoration of his original work. I would once have said that if the original makers got together and wanted to make some changes, do a few things that they wanted to originally but couldn't, that'd be okay. Then George Lucas took his little baby, tarted it up a bit and sent it out to whore for him. He needed to make more money from Star Wars so he could finance Phantom Menace. Adding in extra fighters for the battle scenes was fair enough (except for the nineties style direction in the additional shots) but things like Greedo firing at Han Solo (and missing at point blank range!) were ridiculous. Lucas claimed he wanted to fix things but all the original errors are still there. Ben's lightsabre going out, gaps in the matte paintings where you can see the studio floor, etc. Of course at this point I have to say that not all changes are for the worst. Spartacus with the extra bits chucked in is just as good as ever, done as it was, by Kubrick and Douglas. Evil Dead 3 has two different endings that are both fun in different ways. I believe all the director's cuts of James Cameron's films to date have been improvements. Aliens has a better feel to it. Terminator 2 has some nice character pieces and Cameron wisely chose not to use the original ending. The Abyss is half an hour longer and makes a lot more sense. And I have to admit that I'm genuinely looking forward to the proposed director's cut of Gary L. Keady's Sons of Steel. Changing something for the sake of changing it is never a good idea. The above films all had solid reasons for the way they were originally released and solid reasons for all the changes since. And these are just the tip of the iceberg. Blade, Brazil, Back to the Future, Little Shop of Horrors, Blade Runner… the list just goes on and on. Sometimes the interference is for the best, most often it's not. In finishing this little rant, I leave you with this little tidbit of information.

Just after the all singing, all dancing Star Wars was released, Stanley Kubrick was approached by the studios to rework 2001. They wanted to "improve" it. So Mr. Kubrick asked them to point out one shot that was sub-standard, that needed to be fixed. They couldn't, and then admitted that they just thought it could be 'jazzed up' a bit.

I like to think that Kubrick's reply caused grown men to weep.

Danny Heap

(Danny can be found occasionally watching the "re-mastered" edition of Doctor Who - The Five Doctors and commenting loudly on how much he loves the jazzy new version of the chessboard scene.)

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