Viewer, beware: Film and video can differ

You've read the book, seen the play, and worn the T-shirt. Now catch the movie. But which version?

Increasingly, movies are becoming available to viewers in more than one version. Spurring the trend are two developments on the theatrical and home-video fronts:

A recent burst of film salvaging and restoration has resulted in newly reconstructed editions of old films. These exist side-by-side with incomplete versions that have long been accepted as complete.

Merchants of video movies sometimes replace material deleted from theatrical prints of a film. The cassette version may thus be longer - and notably different - from the wide-screen version shown a few months earlier.

Most salvaging of old movies is done by experts who insist on being faithful to the director's intentions. Abel Gance's epic ``Napoleon,'' reconstructed by Thames Silents of England, and Erich von Stroheim's romantic ``Queen Kelly,'' restored by Kino International of New York, are examples of pictures that existed only in fragmented forms for many years, but can now be seen pretty much as their makers intended.

An enlarged video edition of a film may likewise be truer to the director's intent than the version shown theatrically - but for different reasons. Video merchandisers are free of pressure to keep the ``running time'' short so more movie-house screenings can squeezed into a day. And they're less concerned about ratings (including the notorious ``X'' tag) than theatrical distributors are. So they tend to be more liberal about releasing movies in their originally intended forms.

``Heaven's Gate'' is a dramatic example of a movie with two very different lives. A long and self-consciously ``artistic'' western directed by Michael Cimino, it was pulled from the screen within days of its theatrical release after getting murderously bad reviews. Later it was issued in a drastically shortened form that also flopped. Its video edition contains all the footage of the first version, thus preserving Cimino's vision - and leaving viewers free to fast-forward through the dull spots, a luxury that theaters can't provide.

Another example is Sergio Leone's crime epic, ``Once Upon a Time in America,'' which was given an enormous trim (1 hours) by its American distributor in hopes of avoiding a disaster along ``Heaven's Gate'' lines. Once again, the cassette edition serves up the whole picture, for better or worse. ``The Wild Bunch,'' by Sam Peckinpah, and ``Dressed to Kill,'' be Brian De Palma, are other films-on-video that reputedly include material not seen in theaters. Ditto for ``Angel Heart,'' which was trimmed by 10 seconds just before its release to dodge an X rating - prompting a public outburst on the subject of ``artistic integrity'' from Alan Parker, its director, who presumably prefers the more complete cassette version.

When archivists and technicians seek to restore old movies for theatrical as well as video exhibition, their struggle is usually against the disintegration that takes place when old-fashioned ``nitrate'' film is carelessly stored. Salvagers search for lost or overlooked prints (in storage vaults, private collections, and other places) that may contain footage lost from all known copies.

In other cases, however, archivists and scholars seek to replace material deliberately omitted from the film by studio bosses or exhibitors. One example is the Judy Garland movie ``A Star Is Born,'' directed by George Cukor in 1954. This long but colorful picture was originally launched in a flashy ``road-show'' engagement (major cities, reserved seats) and received fine reviews. But soon afterward, the Warner Bros. studio trimmed it to suit conventional theater schedules, and then trimmed it again before sending it to neighborhood movie houses. Not until 1983 was the full version reconstructed by admirers, who had to fall back on still photos in a few scenes where footage was not only deleted but actually destroyed - by the movie's own studio.

A different sort of example is Orson Welles's melodrama ``Touch of Evil,'' cut in 1958 by Universal-International to eliminate an assault scene that was considered too gamy. The missing footage was replaced in the 1970s.

What's unusual about these films and their video-transferred cousins is that they now exist in more than one form - rather like operas that have wildly different lengths depending on whether the conductor observes traditional ``cuts,'' or whether a supplementary ballet is included.

Unwary spectators may think they're in for one viewing experience and instead be socked with another. The buyer, of tickets and cassettes alike, has reason to beware.

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