ASKED IF THERE WAS any technical innovation he'd just as soon have missed out on, Alfred Hitchcock thought back over a career that spanned the introductions of sound, Technicolor, and 3-D, and answered, "So far, I never liked what is commonly referred to as the letterbox screen." This complaint has been lodged by other directors too, most famously and memorably Fritz Lang's sly remark in Contempt that the format is only appropriate for filming "snakes and funerals" (Contempt, needless to say, is a widescreen film); but artistic considerations never had a thing to do with expanding the screen.

It was about outshining television. In the silent-film era, a number of differently sized screens were employed, often by simply masking off part of the existing footage to highlight the scene's focus. A justly celebrated example comes from D. W. Griffith's Intolerance, where giant war towers attacking Babylon are isolated in a dazzlingly vertical image. But any act sufficiently repeated inevitably becomes formalized, and eventually such experiments were abandoned for a screen with the aspect ratio (that is, the ratio of the image's height to its width) of 1:1.33, which was soon declared standard by the Motion Picture Academy.

When television was invented, it was modeled on the same ratio; and when TV emerged as an economic challenge to film, studio executives strove to offer in a movie theater what the box in your living room couldn't. The simplest solution was to stretch out the image.

The irrelevance of screen size to artistic merit is proven by the Egyptian's week-long widescreen series: That distended rectangle is as capable of being filled by the dull pomposities of Dr. Zhivago and Ben-Hur or the rousing professionalism of The Great Escape as it is by the feverish, private dreamscapes of Solaris or The Thin Red Line (or anything by Nick Ray--a salute to widescreen that omits Ray is like a Cubist retrospective skipping Braque and Picasso). Hitchcock and Lang had cause for their reservations; but then bad directors can ruin any format, and a great director could probably make a riveting feature out of nothing but snakes and funerals.