- Greed, 1924, d. Erich von Stroheim
This adaptation of Frank Norris’ epic novel about the ruinous lust for gold among three ordinary people is, in its severely truncated form, still a great film. But Stroheim intended something much different, a vast realist canvas that would portray an entire way of life and the dreams and aspirations of the people living it. Irving Thalberg, the young chief of production at MGM, had a different point of view (miraculously, Stroheim worked for Thalberg a year later on his far less ambitious version of The Merry Widow). There is now a version of the film that supplements the missing scenes with stills, which is interesting but, ultimately unsatisfying. You spend your time imagining what the movie would have been.
- The Elusive Pimpernel, 1950, d. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
Alexander Korda, one of the people who more or less created the British film industry, was the man who wanted Powell and Pressburger to do a Technicolor remake of The Scarlet Pimpernel, the story of a British aristocrat who goes undercover in Paris during the Terror. The Archers made their own uniquely fanciful version of the story, with musical numbers, tongue-in-cheek asides and visual flourishes. Samuel Goldwyn, who had a business arrangement with Korda, detested the film and ordered massive cuts, musical interludes included. The picture was released in the U.S., with some prints in black and white! I saw it in color, on 42nd Street, and it’s always stayed with me. Michael thought that the original cut of the film was gone forever, but we’re holding out hope that it’s sitting in a vault somewhere in this world.
As I get older, Alfred Hitchcock’s films seem better and better, and they become richer and more complex with each new viewing. That includes the supposedly unsuccessful pictures, like Topaz or Torn Curtain. This picture, about a British lawyer’s growing infatuation with the mysterious woman he’s defending on a charge of murder, is in a slightly different category. Hitchcock felt that the script, for which Selznick himself took credit, was never quite right. He himself had worked on the original draft, but he also tried to make the film work as it was – his original cut was 3 and a half hours. The Paradine Case would probably be imperfect in any form, but imperfect Hitchcock is more exciting than most movies.
- The Other Side of the Wind, d. Orson Welles, 1970-75
During the last 20 years of his life, Orson Welles made movies outside of the industrial norm. He worked in the manner of a painter or a composer, shooting a little here, a little there, reworking this and fine-tuning that, over lengthy periods. When Welles passed away, he left many projects in various states of completion. His magnum opus, though, was this movie about an aging Hollywood veteran director (played by real veteran director John Huston) who makes an arty “youth” film in an effort to stay current in the then new “New Hollywood,” and as a veiled expression of homoerotic longing for his young male star. The project developed slowly over the years, changing form and tone, and Welles intended to cross-cut between cinema-verité style footage of a birthday party for the director and the film within the film. At the time of his death, the rough cut and all the materials had been seized as an asset by the Iranian government (the principal financier was Iranian) and then impounded by the French government. Over the years, there have been many attempts to complete the film. Thus far none have come to fruition. In 1975, when Welles was honored by the AFI, he showed two extended sequences, both absolutely dazzling – they are now easily viewable on YouTube. I hope that someday, we’ll be able to see the picture in some kind of form that does justice to Welles’ intentions.
- The Magnificent Ambersons
The young Orson Welles followed up Citizen Kane with this adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s novel about the slow downfall of an Indianapolis family as their entire way of life is destroyed by industrial progress. Where everything went right for Welles on his first film, everything went wrong on his second. The studio management had changed and was far less sympathetic to Welles and his artistry, the film had a disastrous preview and when drastic cuts were ordered Welles was in South America shooting his documentary It’s All True. The film was severely truncated and a new ending was shot by another director. It should be said that Welles was such a genius that The Magnificent Ambersons really is a great film despite its obviously compromised form – every piece of it is so potent that you can somehow feel the vast missing stretches. But when you read Welles’ shooting script and come to fully understand what he intended, it will break your heart. For many years, film scholars held out hope that the work print of Ambersons had survived and might be sitting in a South American archive. Those hopes are dwindling. It appears to be gone forever, just like the late-Victorian splendor of the Amberson mansion.