Barbara Stanwyck on Double Indemnity (1944; Billy Wilder\John Seitz, ASC):
“When I mention ‘atmosphere’ in Double Indemnity – that gloomy, horrible house the Dietrichsons lived in, the slit of sunlight slicing through those heavy drapes – you could smell that death was in the air, you understood why she had to get out of there, away, no matter how. Can you imagine that picture being ‘colorized’? My God! And for an actress, let me say that the way those sets were lit, the house, Walter’s apartment, those dark shadows, those slices of harsh light at strange angles – all that helped my performance. The way Billy staged it and John Seitz lit it, it was all one sensational mood. Color? How dare they?”
How dare they indeed, Miss Stanwyck… I pose that question with a special authority, having once had a discomfiting experience with the vicious atrocity she alludes to. If some ignorant SOB wanted to desecrate Billy Wilder’s movie in that fashion, what would they do to mine?
In the summer of 1993 I shot the feature Federal Hill for director Michael Corrente in Providence, RI. The budget was very small but we somehow managed to originate on 35mm film – Kodak’s 5222 black and white negative, to be precise. The decision to shoot this way was a distinctly creative one. It fit the story we were telling and engraved a unique texture upon the world the characters moved in. It also made the movie stand out from what was at the time a crowded field of independents. I remain proud of it to this day.
Federal Hill was released to generally positive reviews in December of 1994. With a VHS release on the horizon, Corrente and I were giddy at the movie’s prospects. Of course, we were told, it would reach a much wider audience in that form. But then the wolves started to gather. The distributor could ship 10,000 units of the black and white version versus 50,000 of the color.
Color? Ha! We chiseled it in stone! Thanks to Mr. Eastman, we gotcha there!
The cackling on the other end of the conference call eventually subsided. “Oh no, boys…haven’t you heard? There’s a firm down in Culver City and they have this great new technology that’ll put the color in.”
Naturally, a huge fight ensued between the artists and the barbarians. Both Corrente and I are nothing if not true capitalists though, and eventually the distributor was convinced to engineer a dual release. When someone rented or bought the color version, they got the black and white one, too. Not quite total victory…but not a loss, either.
I ended up supervising the colorization process – free of charge, of course – and it was a damn good thing I did. It was nothing like a DI session; rather, it was extremely slow and labor intensive. None of the technicians bothered to see the film in its original form – all they did was slather on the color. At every turn I was bombarded by first-pass images that looked like they had survived a paint factory explosion. And no matter what was done, the actors always looked embalmed. Instead of trying to deliver something tasteful, my job was walking it all back until the barest amount color was left that could legally be sold as such. The final result is as ugly as the original sin. I feel that revulsion more strongly now than I did then.
If you’d like to have a look, Federal Hill is available on various platforms and on DVD. But if you do, please make sure you choose the black and white version. And keep in mind that we got it in the can for $85,000.00 – cash that was incrementally delivered to the set in paper bags. But that’s another story for another time…