When the first cut is the kindest

The new, longer Exorcist is currently terrifying the US. But are 'director's cuts' better than the originals or just cynical marketing ploys?
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The Independent Culture

That classic horror film The Exorcist is back in "the version you've never seen." That's Warner Brothers talking, or maybe William Peter Blatty, who produced the original film, and adapted its screenplay from his own novel. The first-time round, in 1973, the picture had box-office rentals of $66m, enough to put it in the top 20 earners of all time. I saw it then (aged 32), and I was scared. When the movie went into Regan's room, I felt dread and claustrophobia, and when her mouth opened I was afraid. Not just of the pea-soup vomit, but of the devil's voice director William Friedkin had conjured up - the groaning, intimate obscenities of Mercedes McCambridge.

That classic horror film The Exorcist is back in "the version you've never seen." That's Warner Brothers talking, or maybe William Peter Blatty, who produced the original film, and adapted its screenplay from his own novel. The first-time round, in 1973, the picture had box-office rentals of $66m, enough to put it in the top 20 earners of all time. I saw it then (aged 32), and I was scared. When the movie went into Regan's room, I felt dread and claustrophobia, and when her mouth opened I was afraid. Not just of the pea-soup vomit, but of the devil's voice director William Friedkin had conjured up - the groaning, intimate obscenities of Mercedes McCambridge.

Mercy is still there, but the mistress of ultimate horror for 1973 now plays as a dandy comedienne. This wasn't my insight: I give credit to my 11-year-old son. I had decided, in the spirit of scientific research, that I ought to take him along - actually, I had yielded to his pleas. He liked the film well enough. He thought the head-turning was "cool." And the devil stuff, he thought, was funny. All of a sudden, my 32-year-old shadowed self had become like the Benjy the little kids look after in The Sound and the Fury.

The "new" Exorcist was number two at the box office for two weeks in a row and it's taken in more than $18m. But you don't hear talk about it, as you did in 1973, as to whether or not it should have been allowed. This version is 15 minutes longer than the first, not because William Friedkin has begged for a "director's cut" after all these years. No, the lever here has been Mr Blatty, who chose Friedkin in the early Seventies (he was French Connection hot then), and had to sit by as Friedkin cut out about 15 minutes of stuff that slowed it down.

Those 15 minutes are back, and include Regan's by now famous upside-down walking downstairs. This is startling and athletic, but I think it was sensibly deleted once, for it gives the feeling that Regan could easily get out of her room - and the sense of confinement there is vital to all that follows. The other most notable restoration is a lengthy, detailed spinal operation undergone by Regan. It's the only thing that disturbed my son, and I suspect it was cut because it confused two kinds of horror. Again, I think Friedkin's decision was correct.

In the last 20 years or so, we have had a growing number of re-released classics, sometimes rescued and restored, sometimes significantly enlarged and returned to what the director wanted. This honours the new orthodoxy that directors do, or ought to, make pictures - as opposed to producers or studios, or even audiences. Yet, for decades the studio system, legally and actually, turned out films as it wanted them. That system might have had the wit to hire good directors, but it also very often excluded them from the editing and post-production processes.

Only rarely did a director complain. In 1923-4, Erich von Stroheim was indignant that his Greed (an eight-hour film) was cut down by Irving Thalberg to two hours. For the most part, directors shut up because they wanted to stay employed. It was only later, in interviews with fond critics, that some directors revealed how their dream had been mutilated. Thus Orson Welles disclosed how, in 1942, RKO had taken over his The Magnificent Ambersons, shortened it by maybe 40 minutes, added a new scene or two and tried to tidy up a film they knew was a loser.

There's no doubt about that loss. We have the script, and some stills of those scenes shot, cut and later dumped in the Pacific. It's not hard to envisage the impact of the whole film and it remains one of the grails of film culture that those lost 40 minutes might some day be found. As for Greed, it's a great film, and that's largely because of Stroheim's vision. So more greatness seems undeniable. Unless, at eight hours, the melodrama became absurd, overdone, crazy. We are not used to eight-hour films. At the very least, I can see Thalberg's point of view. And even with Ambersons, I'm bound to add that no one did more to leave the film in jeopardy than Orson Welles.

Part of the problem here is that the necessary work of restoration sometimes jumps at old footage, if only to sustain the economics of the process. A few years ago, Hitchcock's Vertigo was restored - picture and sound. That had to be done if the film was not to perish. But who pays for that work? If it's the commercial owner, then they have a right to look to re-release and that is helped far more by new scenes than by cleaned up sound. When the team doing Vertigo searched the vaults they found a scene that explained what happened to Gavin Elster - the villain who masterminded the cruel plot, He's been caught and imprisoned, it is said. Hitch shot that footage, never wanting to use it, just in case censorship insisted on it. In the event, in 1958, Gavin was allowed to get away, and the restorers honoured that omission because they felt Vertigo meant more without a rescuing authority.

On the other hand, work is now going on now to deliver a "restored" Apocalypse Now. Editor-soundman Walter Murch has gone back to the original script and is re-editing the picture. A substantial halt in the journey up river at a French plantation will be seen for the first time. Christian Marquand and Aurore Clement, its players, will have their day. And there are other belated novelties.

But Apocalypse Now played 150 minutes then, and the consensus opinion was that it already had problems of length and structure. The plantation scene (another 20 minutes) was cut as an editorial decision. In 1979, people felt that was correct. Will it be fascinating for scholars to see it now? Yes. But which version of Apocalypse will be Coppola's? He has already done The Godfather in subtly different versions - and most of us treasure anything extra. With Apocalypse it may be that the film's most drastic need has always been less of Brando. Suppose we get more?

In the majority of cases, the people who cut the first versions of movies did a good job. They may not have been the directors. They may have been callous operatives, but they pursued the question, "Does it play?" and they clipped away until they got it "right". Very often, the "rightness" was measured by the involuntary pleasure or suspense in a test audience. Many books and plays are cut, and deeply sensitive authors often benefit from the expertise of editors. Moreover, there is a mood or momentum in the making of a film that knows it better than any amount of later research. Films have to work when they open. The Exorcist played in 1973 - and it doesn't now. And a great editor has current instincts that no later scholar can match.

Which reminds me: in New York, Thomas Wolfe's novel, Look Homeward, Angel, is about to be re-published. Of course, it was published once before, in 1929. That novel was short, by about 65,000 words, of what Wolfe delivered. It was still 300,000 words. He yielded to the editor Max Perkins who said, look, this is a little repetitive, maybe a touch too long for its own good. The cuts were agreed on. Now, scholars have restored the original manuscript, and they've given it a new title, O Lost. Well, for scholars, this is valuable. For readers... I wonder? When I read Look Homeward, Angel, at a tender age, I felt the power and rhythms so much I could have written 65,000 words of Wolfe over a weekend. I think that Perkins did him and us a great service. Editing is an art, the tumult of great writers can be usefully tamed. And as far as director's cuts are concerned, I'm not sure that I don't prefer wounded directors.

'The Exorcist - The Director's Cut' will be shown at the London Film Festival on 15 Nov and will be on limited release from 17 Nov

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