Murder in Mississippi
By Peter Conheim
Reading time 4 Minutes
Volume 7, What’s Going On, USA, presented byNWR’s Restorationists three entirely different films with three entirely different sets of unique technical challenges.
In the case of Murder in Mississippi (1965), there is only one single, solitary element known to exist on the film: one last 35mm release print from first run. No negative or other pre-print materials have survived – unlike with the other Joseph Mawra titles we have restored, Chained Girls and Olga’s House of Shame – and were it not for the dogged efforts of private collectors and grindhouse enthusiasts of the past, we wouldn’t have this one copy to work with at all.
Unfortunately, this was one film that suffered from decidedly lousy laboratory work to begin with, and it never looked very good. Its nighttime sequences were rendered as pure mud in the film printing process, with barely any detail; we found that other sections of the film suffered from some kind of optical printing mistake which caused the lower half of the frame to blink and stutter vertically; etc. And, like most exploitation and drive-in films of its ilk, it had plenty of scratches, splices and other kinds of physical damage from mishandling.
Given that we only had this one source to work from, there were aspects of our restoration which simply couldn’t be bettered, particularly when it comes to small jump cuts where footage is entirely missing by a few frames. But ace colorists Ross Lipman and Andrew Drapkin were, for the first time, able to use contemporary digital tools to retime entire sections of the film properly in the color bay, squeezing far more life out of the image than has ever been seen. Perhaps the viewer may not have wished to have had quite as much detail of what’s going on in those woods at night, but…now it is there.
And one more note about Mawra’s use of “Academy” or “square”/”TV” aspect ratio: it was very unusual for 35mm theatrical films to be shot and released in non-widescreen formats after 1953, when every studio and production company jumped on the bandwagon and adopted one of the various competing forms of widescreen cinematography and projection. For reasons unknown, Mawra was a holdout, and Chained Girls and Murder in Mississippi are two films which absolutely can’t be shown masked into widescreen without losing large swaths of the image by mistake. A key guide used by archivists when determining proper aspect ratio for a film’s restoration is often the design and layout of its title credit sequence. One look at this film’s opening credits and it is immediately clear that you can’t crop the top and bottom without rendering them unreadable. But, surely, Mawra didn’t make Murder in Mississippi for television, so his choice of Academy ratio shall remain an aesthetic mystery.
Peter Conheim is the lead Restorationist and Archivist at byNWR.com, and the founder of Cinema Preservation Alliance, a non-profit dedicated to the rescue and rehabilitation of endangered films of all stripes, in partnership with archives, private collectors and laboratories. As a performer from the San Francisco Bay Area, he is the co-founder of Wet Gate: The All-Projectionist Ensemble and Mono Pause, and a long-time member of culture jammers Negativland. He also performs with Malcolm Mooney (from CAN) and the Mutants. His music remastering and restoration projects have included works by DEVO, MX-80 Sound, Tuxedomoon, Noh Mercy, Factrix, Yoshi Wada, John Bender, the Screamers and many others.