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When Bad DVD’s Happen to Great Films

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IF you paid $40 for the DVD of ”Lawrence of Arabia” when Columbia released it with great fanfare in April 2001, you probably felt hoodwinked when, this autumn, the studio brought out a new, improved version for two-thirds the price and (sorry) no factory trade-in for your not-so-old but flawed copy.

It turns out the original discs had problems with color accuracy. Look at that first desert battle scene: in each shot, the sky is a different color — magenta, green, reddish-blue. Those grand, gorgeous desert expanses look pale tan instead of the golden-brown of the real sand. Occasionally, Peter O’Toole looks either out of focus or artificially sharpened, as if someone had traced his body with a felt-tipped pen.

All these problems have been fixed Old Movies on DVD, but you’ll have to spend $27 more to add it to your collection.

The video market these days is flush with fabulous-looking DVDs, for great and lousy movies alike. But bad-looking ones keep trickling out, too. So what goes wrong when Old Movies on DVDhappen to great films?

The tale is not a new one. In June 1999, Warner Home Video issued ”The Stanley Kubrick Collection,” a seven-disc boxed set of the director’s films, for $149. Two years later, Warner came out with a remastered edition for $199.

The new box had much better picture quality (and two extra discs, for ”Eyes Wide Shut” and a documentary about Kubrick), but, again, no refund for the earlier, shoddier goods.

The first Warner DVD of Clint Eastwood’s ”Unforgiven,” released in 1997, had blurry images, skewed colors, and a woozy choppiness whenever the characters or camera moved. It took five and a half years before a good version hit the video bins.

At least these films were sent through rehab. Many other great films were turned into substandard DVDs — and, so far, have been left that way.

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Bernardo Bertolucci’s ”Last Emperor” is a gorgeous film. It won nine Oscars, including the 1987 Academy Awards for best picture, best director, and best cinematography. And the DVD, from Artisan Home Entertainment, is one of the most dreadful ever made. Colors are faded, images blurry; if a shot is filled with lines (say, the slats of a roof), they shimmer like hula hoops. It is tragically, agonizingly unwatchable.

Francis Ford Coppola’s ”Godfather” and ”Godfather, Part II,” which take up three DVD’s in a five-disc boxed set, don’t look quite that bad, but — given that they’re among the greatest, most beautifully photographed films of all time — the results are dismaying.
Images are faded in some scenes, way too dark in others, and often speckled with weird distortions. For instance, in the opening shot of ”Part II,” the close-up of Al Pacino against a dark backdrop, it looks as if mosquitoes are swarming down his face. The movie looks better when it’s televised on HBO.

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