Going Psycho Over Aspect Ratios

Posted on 19 August 2010 by Rich Drees

The recent release of Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece Psycho on blu-ray disc in the UK and its impending blu-ray release in the US this fall have stirred up a bit of controversy in some quarters. It has nothing to do with the film’s content, which caused a bit of a stir when it was released, but in how you view that content.

Some folks feel that since Hitchcock shot the film using a 1.37:1 aspect ratio for composition that must have been the way that the director meant for it to be exhibited. And that the recent/upcoming blu-ray release of the film in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1, which would coincidentally fill up s standard high-definition widescreen television, is nothing less than a travesty and “visual vandalism.”

The lightening rod for this dustup is internet journalist Jeffrey Wells. No stranger to stirring the controversy cauldron, Welles wrote an impassioned article for his Hollywood-Elsewhere blog back in June decrying the blu-ray’s announced aspect ratio as nothing less than an insidious plot to rewrite the history of theatrical presentation of films of the late 50s/early 60s by proponents of the high-definition home video format.

OK, maybe he is being slightly hyperbolic when he stated that, but he does emphatically state –

The Psycho norm was never intended to be 1.78 to 1 (i.e., the widescreen aspect ratio for high-def video). For the most part Hitchcock expected his film to be shown within ratios of 1.66 to 1 (moderate rectangle) or 1.37 to 1 (next door to a perfect box).

Wednesday, Wells brought up the topic again, this time calling the release “rape” and “precisely the same thing as taking a razor blade and slicing off the tops and bottoms of Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’ in the Louvre.”

The thing is, though, is that Wells is absolutely and completely wrong on this.

True, no one so far has been able to produce a quote where the director gives his final say so on the matter. What we can do, is look to the film itself for vital clues as to Hitchcock’s mindset.

While Hitchcock obviously shot the film to protect the entire 1.37:1 image, – i.e., there are no lights or boom mics dropping into the picture from the top of the frame – there is more than enough evidence to support the fact that he intended the film to be seen at the wider ratio. The film’s opening credits were hard matted at 1.78:1 as were portions of the film’s infamous shower scene. That, to me, speaks volumes about Hitchcock’s intentions. There is the additional support of notation of the 1.78:1 aspect ratio on paperwork to the film developing lab at Pathe and the fact that storyboards for the shower sequence are also in the widescreen ratio.

But I think that through producing Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the director was probably far more cognizant of fact that any widescreen composed film of his would be subject to the indignities of pan and scan for the 1.33:1 television screen. Rather than let viewers loose picture information on either the right or the left of the television image, he chose to give them more by expanding the frame vertically. Filming in 1.37:1 allowed for that, with the option to have the film presented in theaters at a different aspect ratio remained through the ability of projectionists able to use plates to mask the image to the desired size.

In the days before letterboxing, this was probably the most elegant solution.

Wells argument sits predominantly on the crux of his aesthetic judgment of how the 1.37:1 version looks compared to the 1.78:1 version. He states in the comments of his June post that the “the somewhat higher, boxier framings are far more elegant, inclusive, well-balanced — they provide agreeable breathing space to the characters and compositions.”

That may be true, but the film isn’t about comfortable characters. It’s a Hitchcock film, and the means a continual ratcheting up of tension in both the film’s characters and its audience. Rewatching Psycho this morning, I was struck again how Hitchcock builds the tension through the first third of the picture as Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) first steals the $40,000 from her job and then goes on the run. As she drives, she imagines the voices of her boss and co-workers discovering her crime and their reaction. After she trades in her car for another vehicle, all the while being observed by a policeman, she imagines a conversation between the cop and the car lot salesman in which they find her actions suspicious. By the time she reaches the Bates Motel, Marion is a bundle of nerves, paranoia is starting to nibble away at her. Opening up the picture frame to all her “breathing space” will only dissipate the mood Hitchcock is trying to build.

(I have a similar critique about the Special Edition of Irvin Kershner’s The Empire Strikes Back. When George Lucas went back and digitally messed about with the movie in the late 90s, he added numerous windows to Bespin’s Cloud City. The end result dilutes much of the sense of claustrophobic urgency to the scenes of Lando, Leia, Chewbacca and C-3PO racing to save Han from Boba Fett.)

Welles is certainly welcome to his opinion. Aesthetics and beauty are in the eye of the beholder, after all. But that very subjective nature also means that it can’t be taken for fact. But arguing that something is correct simply because you like it that way will get you bounced off of a junior high school debate team. It’s certainly no way to prove your point in the grown up world.

And all of Welles’ verbal screaming and stamping of feet will not change that.

(Aspect ratio comparisons found at Hitchcock Wiki Forums.)

8 Comments For This Post

  1. numlok Says:

    The boards are actually less widescreen than even 1.66:1.
    http://i.imgur.com/XHEaZ.jpg

  2. fbfloydd Says:

    Leave the freakin’ aspect alone. Leave these movies alone!

    All you managed to do with this article is convince me that we can no longer determine what Alfred Hitchcock, or any other dead filmmaker that didn’t leave instructions, truly meant by filming in this aspect. So stop trying. You people simply do not have a very good track record with this.

    Twenty years ago we had to suffer through pan and scan VHS and ‘colorized’ bastardizations of black and white classics, all to appease those who suffer from letterbox-itis and monochromophobia.

    Ten years ago, the DVD distributors again provided what were then standard screen versions of their releases to satisfy those people who couldn’t cope with the little black bars at the top and bottom of their TV’s.

    Now, these oafs suddenly realize they have bars on either side, that they paid full price for the disc and have half the movie. Millions of copies of their previous bad decisions are rapidly filling up the used movie bins at flea markets.

    And like aspect ratios, and colorization, we also have to deal with the video game crowd who applaud when blu-ray distributors allow there techs to go berzerk with DNR.

    And from this past behavior it is safe to assume one thing. That it will never occur to them this is all going to change again in ten years. That those big expensive flat screen, 3D, 240hz, LED…you name it…monitors we have taking up wall space in our homes, will be replaced with something that probably will attach like wallpaper, will be capable of handling ALL aspect ratios, and of presenting pixel free, natural color of any original source, including sources in monochrome.

    Wouldn’t it be nice if the investment we made today in Blu-Ray was capable of adapting to that scenario, if a little fore-thought–today–would make it possible for US to adapt as the times change.

    Look, if you must fill the little black spaces on either side of your television, if you strain with discomfort at the sight of standard or or early motion picture formats. If it kills you that some of us like to see that little extra the filmmakers shot, even if it was supposed to be left off the final print, I have a happy solution for you. It doesn’t cost anything. Most all of you out there have a zoom button on your remotes. I use it all the time when watching movies on certain channels that my horrendous cable provider insists on offering in non-HD format.

    Just press that damned button. Look for it, it’s there! Press it!

    And leave the rest of us, and the content of these video releases, alone!

  3. IndianaByrd Says:

    1.85. 1.37. Is it hard to recognize that a film can, and often, exists in more than one aspect ratio? There are many examples of filmmakers whom knew this was something with which they had to contend, and planned for tv and theatrical presentations, John Landis, William Friedkin, Stanley Kubrick. And yes, ultimately the film should be recognized for its theatrical presentation as much as for a 1.33 NTSC standard screen, but then again we should leo recognize these filmmakers knew a thing or two about planning and contingencies. In any case, it shouldn’t also go overlooked that yes, perhaps Psycho will ultimately be released in 3-D as Hitchcock once imagined, and I’m sure there will be those whom will state he changed its release for one reason or another. Ultimately, the audience and contemporary screen circumstances also hold sway upon art, just as many of the art works in our museums were originally made for someone’s home, or some public space.

  4. kitakasuga Says:

    I prefer “Psycho” in conventional almost square screen size, rather than watching
    40,000 dollar bills on the cover of the bed which is somehow recognized.
    In adding I prefer “Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf?” in theatrical release screen size,too. I demand “Don’t crop 4 sides, please” If Hitchcock intended wide-screen presentation, he could have chosen VistaVision at that time.

  5. EPluribusUnum Says:

    Sorry guys, but there IS one document on the subject which should clear the air on this one.

    The ORIGINAL DEAL MEMO signed by Hitchcock with Paramount dated June 5, 1959. Item 5 of this one page memo states:

    5. The picture will be in black and white and may not be made in the so-called Cinemascope process.

    In other words, Paramount SPECIFICALLY EXCLUDED widescreen.

    Item 3 of the agreement states:

    3. Production cost of the picture (on which no limit is set in the agreement) will be financed from funds furnished by Producer. Paramount will pay Producer a sum equal to said production cost upon delivery of the picture to Paramount.

    So as Hitchcock would only get paid UPON DELIVERY of the film, do you thing he really would take a chance of violating the NO WIDESCREEN part of his deal? I think not!

  6. Doug Nix Says:

    I just bought the movie in standard dvd format. The cover said anamorphic 178:1 aspect, which I wrongly assumed was how the film was shot.
    Im very disappointed in this cropped version. It’s just nothing more than pan and scan only verically rather than horizontaly.
    Another stupid idea because people want their tv screen filled up even if it means ruining a classic film.

  7. Bruce Lawton Says:

    This issue recently came up with a film that my great-grandfather – ASC cinematographer, Don Malkames – photographed: THE BURGLAR.

    The son of the producer of THE BURGLAR noticed that MoMA in NYC was running a new print from Sony that was hard-matted for 1.85:1 and wanted my take – which follows:

    This aspect ratio issue you’ve brought up is a rather large pet peeve of mine. There appears to be a current movement by the studios to treat anything and everything shot in flat format from 1953 on as “widescreen” and thus – across the board – matte-crop ALL flat films from that point on – without exception. I firmly believe that it is a bit more complex and nuanced and needs to be addressed on a picture by picture basis. The studios at the time were in the business of pushing “widescreen” theatrical presentation at all costs and encouraged exhibitors – in print – to crop accordingly in projection. However so many flat films from this period look decidedly wrong when cropped in 1.85:1 (oft times the MOST they should be cropped is 1.66:1) and the picture compositions end up decidedly compromised with heads cut off at the top, etc. ON THE WATERFRONT (1954) is an excellent example of a film that was certainly originally projected cropped in many venues – but looks perfectly fine – actually correct – at 1.37:1 open-matte. THE BURGLAR (shot independently in mid-1955 and not released till 1957) is another prime example of a film that appears to be very much composed with 1.37:1 in mind (and the television aftermarket). It’s bad enough that Sony’s transfer shown on TCM is cropped, but such a shame that Sony insisted on striking an actual print in hard matte.

    I’ve just found a rather cool advertisement using THE BURGLAR and Don Malkames to advertise the film stock it was shot on – on-line – for which I include a link below (and which reveals the full frame!)

    http://lantern.mediahist.org/catalog/1958businessscreenmav19rich_0149

  8. Bruce Lawton Says:

    A knowledgeable colleague of mine (who wishes to remain nameless on this issue) also chimed in – prompted over the ratio issue over THE BURGLAR – as follows:

    In 50 years, we will all have research from trade magazines that says that all showings were digital by 2012. That isn’t true, because not everyone has and/or can switch over. The magazines tout it and with a strong cutoff date. Yet there are half a dozen theaters here in my area still running film, and I’m in a big city.

    SHANE was shown at 1.66 and was CLEARLY composed for 1.37.

    The question I have for people is this. Which history do you want?
    Do you want the history of how it was shown in big cities in 1957? Run it in 1.85.
    Do you want the history of how the DP composed it and how he intended it to be seen? Run it at 1.37.

    There was a movement in the mid-50s to get some films with limited theatrical release and then pop them straight off to television. I suspect that THE BURGLAR was one of these. MOST independents were. You couldn’t get a TV deal unless you’d had a theatrical release. These films were composed for 1.37 because the director and DP knew that they’d spend most of their lives on TV. They were composed to look OK at 1.85 but the real ratio is 1.37.

    We have a whole school of “film aficionados” who know that apparently and suddenly on Jan 1 of 1954, all films were at 1.85. The problem is conflicting documentation: you can either believe the published “for general use” history or the rubber-meets-the-road history of how the films would have been designed.

    Brian (son of the producer of THE BURGLAR) has made a STRONG case that the film looks better artistically at 1.37, which I believe absolutely. I’ve not seen THE BURGLAR, but I’ve seen some other cheapies shot by Don Malkames, and they were clearly shot with 1.37 in mind (ROCK AND ROLL REVUE pops to mind clearly.)

    I also point out that, having been present at showings in the Malkames’ house, Karl (Don’s son) preferred 1.37 for 1950s titles. He once ran my print of THUNDER ROAD at 1.37 and pointed out how it was composed to work on TV or in theaters. I listened him discuss the various shots and how they were done (Karl Malkames was an uncredited 2nd unit cameraman on THUNDER ROAD.)

    I strongly suspect that Don Malkames would have said the same thing about THE BURGLAR. Do I have proof? No. The proof is in the print.

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