Martin Scorsese Unspools Rare Nitrate Prints at TCM Festival

The Oscar-winning director also remembered Robert Osborne in his remarks.
Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images

Martin Scorsese received a standing ovation as he introduced a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1934 film The Man Who Knew Too Much — one of four extremely rare nitrate prints that will be shown at Hollywood’s Egyptian Theatre during the TCM Classical Film Festival, which opened on Thursday and runs through Sunday.

“Retrofitting a theater to make it capable and safe to project nitrate is an enormous undertaking,” said the Oscar-winning director, who is also founder and chair of The Film Foundation, of the recently completed retrofit at the Egyptian. “This stock was used in the earliest days of cinema. It’s known for its deep, richer blacker and grey tones. They glow."

“But nitrate film also had a problem in that it decomposes and the bigger problem was that it blew up. It was flammable,” he said. “We are lucky to still have a few nitrate prints that have not decomposed; some are nearly 100 years old because they were stored in temperature-controlled vaults. Only a few theaters can project nitrate, so these films are rarely seen.”

During his remarks, Scorsese also remembered Robert Osborne, who passed away last month. “I don’t think there’s any better way to celebrate him [than with the festival]," Scorsese said. "He was a real lover of film, and seeing the films in the original way they were meant to be seen.”

The print of The Man Who Knew Too Much was struck in 1946 and donated to the George Eastman Museum in 1999.

The festival will additionally screen nitrate prints of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's Black Narcissus (the late Powell was married to Scorsese's longtime editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, who has been working with Scorsese to preserve his films); Otto Preminger's Laura; and Ginger Rogers musical Lady in the Dark.

"The nitrate retro-fit of the booth at the Egyptian Theatre is a natural extension of The Film Foundation's mission," said Jennifer Ahn, managing director of the Foundation. "Providing access to these treasures through the exhibition of nitrate prints is a powerful way to engage audiences and underscore the importance of protecting our cinematic heritage."

Partners in the effort also included the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, TCM, the American Cinematheque, Academy Film Archive and George Eastman Museum.

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