By Peter Conheim
Reading time 5 Minutes
The third and final entry in our film noir-tinged byNWR volume, Joseph Lerner’s 1950 Guilty Bystander, was one of the more eagerly-anticipated projects of the Restorationists team. It falls into a category of 1940s-1950s noir productions were churned out by independent producers or “Poverty Row” studios (ala Eagle Lion or PRC) which may have been shot by very talented cinematographers, landed on the quirkier end of the subject matter spectrum than most major studio pictures of the time, or starred interesting actors who’d lost their big Hollywood contracts (Joan Leslie in 1949’s Repeat Performancecomes to mind).
Guilty Bystander has a little bit of all of this, and sports gorgeous photography by Gerald Hirschfeld – but you would never have known that, unless you saw the film’s original release. As the film has fallen into the public domain, it has only circulated in unbelievably bad video copies for decades, which, in turn, tended to be taken from damaged and cut 16mm prints. Amongst film noir enthusiasts, Guilty Bystander has been one of those elusive titles that seemed destined to only be available hidden underneath blurry brown layers of murk and garbage, with entire sequences of the film virtually unreadable. If you were one of the few private collectors to own a 16mm print, it would almost certainly be heavily worn out, missing bits and pieces, and not printed that well to begin with.
And so it was with great excitement that we learned from researcher, programmer and “The Czar of Noir” Eddie Muller that he had discovered the British Film Institute in London was holding what is believed to be the sole existing 35mm safety print of Guilty Bystander in its vault. Its original negative is lost, likely destroyed when Deluxe Labs went out of business (if not earlier), and this print would therefore be the closest thing to the “master” that would likely ever be found on the film. An arrangement was made with the BFI to access the print and have it scanned at Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna, Italy, who had previously worked magic on our restoration of Shanty Tramp.
As print sources go, we are all fortunate that this copy of Guilty Bystander was archived at the BFI before it could sustain too much serious damage from sloppy projection and handling. Unfortunately, though, as could be expected with a 69-year-old element, there were issues of instability in the image, as well as some curious negative scratching. The Restorationists were able to correct the vast majority of these problems, but there are also a handful of sections where frames are outright missing, likely removed after damage, and these irreplaceable sections unfortunately have to remain has subtle jump cuts. The optical track on the print was also particularly noisy, but we worked with Red Channels studio to clean out an immense amount of hiss and crackle from the track.
Thanks to the wonderful archival interview from 1987, conducted with director Joseph Lerner, and his collaborator and wife Geraldine Lerner, by Richard Koszarski (available to stream here on byNWR), we learned that not only did Geraldine cut picture on Guilty Bystander and Joseph’s other films, but she also mixed his sound as well – a fairly unusual gig for a woman at the time. Her incredible attention to detail, in terms of matching room tone from shot to shot and creating ambiance, points to her as a unique artist in her own right, and this new restoration allows us to listen to the film carefully just as much as view it.
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.