Under The Magnifying Glass

UCLA Film & Television Archive restores early Sherlock Holmes films.

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There's no mystery about it: Sherlock Holmes is not going anywhere.

When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle killed off his most famous creation, the pipe-smoking and intuitive Holmes, he was kidding himself if he thought that he would get away with the murder. The subsequent public outcry forced the English author to breathe new life into the beloved sleuth, and from 1891 to 1927 Doyle continued Holmes' escapades in four novels and 56 short stories.

Following the hundreds of television and film adaptations, plus the Boxing Day release of Guy Ritchie's reimagining, Sherlock Holmes, the evidence is indisputable - the people want Holmes. It's an ‘elementary' fact. But just to make sure, Robert Gitt, from the UCLA Film & Television Archive, has undertaken an eight-year project to preserve Holmes on screen, in particular the ones made in the 1930 and ‘40s starring the inimitable Basil Rathbone. The result is the recent DVD release Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Collection.

"Print and video copies [of Sherlock Holmes films] have been around for years, but most of them have been mediocre or worse," says Gitt, who is now semi-retired but continues his restoration work due to his passion for preserving the history of cinema.

"When the American distributor of the Sherlock Holmes films produced by Universal Pictures offered to deposit all of the original 35mm picture negatives, soundtracks and prints for the entire series at the UCLA Film & Television Archive, we were thrilled to say the least. Right away we began thinking about restoring these films and improving their picture and sound quality."

With over 220,000 motion pictures and television titles, and 27 million feet of newsreel footage, the UCLA Archive boasts the second largest media collection in the United States.

According to Gitt, the Archive was faced with an uphill task to restore the Sherlock Holmes films. "Our first challenge was to find the necessary funding. Even though the films are not very lengthy, when you add them up the financial costs become daunting."

In 1993, Playboy's Hugh Hefner, a fellow Sherlock Holmes fan, covered 50 percent of the restoration costs under the proviso that the funds would be matched by UCLA. From 1993 and 1997, Gitt and colleague, Eric Aijala, began concentrating on the overwhelming task of restoring the picture and soundtracks for the first six films.

"Though the original picture negative survived virtually intact for two or three of the Holmes films, most of them had to be pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle from multiple incomplete negative and positive copies. Most of the footage we worked with was printed on nitrate base back in the 1940s. This kind of stock is not only highly flammable, but is chemically unstable as well, and many of the reels were beginning to show signs of decomposition. In the case of the eight-reel film The House Of Fear (1945), reels one, five, and parts of seven had deteriorated and were junked years ago. We had to fill in the missing footage by copying a less than perfect fine grain master positive made by a French laboratory in the 1970s. This safety material was slightly fuzzy, dull-looking and had printed-in white dust specks. But at least we were able to save the complete film."

Gitt explains that the original 35mm camera negative is almost always the best element to have access to, followed by a fine grain master positive copy ("made at a lower contrast specifically for duplicating purposes"), with a projection print being the less desirable element, especially when it has been spliced, scratched and worn ("unless it is the only thing that survives, of course!").

"Regarding the sound," Gitt continues, "all of the original 35mm tracks made by Universal are long gone. We had to use the French fine grain master as our source of audio. Fortunately, this track had not been dubbed into French. However, its quality was mediocre, with printed-in specks and scratches causing many audible pops and clicks. We were able to utilise ‘No Noise' by Sonic Solutions, a digital restoration technique, to remove these unwanted noises without adversely affecting the original sound of the movie."

It took four years to complete the first six titles - The Woman In Green (1945), The Pearl Of Death (1944), Sherlock Holmes & The Secret Weapons (1942), The Scarlet Claw (1944), Terror By Night (1946) and Spider Woman (1944) - at which point Warner Bros.  matched Hefner's funding, allowing for the restoration of the final six films. From 1998, Gitt took over the restoration of both picture and sound for the remaining six titles - Dressed To Kill (1946), Pursuit To Algiers (1945), Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943), The House Of Fear (1945), Sherlock Holmes & The Voice Of Terror (1942) and Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943) - an insurmountable task that would eventually take him until 2001 to complete.

Now fellow Holmes fans can enjoy the result.

Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Collection, which also includes Hounds Of The Baskervilles and The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes, is available now. Buy it direct here.

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