Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. Note the cheeky, "Whistler's Mother"-esque shadow R. G. Armstrong casts on the wall to his left.
I confess that I used that frame-grab from 1973's Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid in the latest Class of 1984 giveaway to facilitate a segue into this post. I've wanted to vent a little since getting Warner's new box set of Sam Peckinpah's "Legendary Westerns" (Ride the High Country, The Wild Bunch, The Ballad of Cable Hogue, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid) for my birthday.
Like Back to the Future or Miller's Crossing or Blue Velvet or Se7en, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid is one of those movies that caused an ineffable tremor in my makeup, leaving a fissure distinguishing who I was before I saw it from who I was thereafter. Yet I never went out of my way to recommend it to anyone: it's too flawed, too idiosyncratic--it's frankly boring at times. In the end, though, I don't know if I was protecting it from people or people from it.
In a dry-run of what Warner did to Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America a decade later, the long-out-of-circulation 106-minute theatrical cut of Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid strips the film of its non-linearity and drops portions of Bob Dylan's song score, including the soundtrack hit "Knocking on Heaven's Door." The version I grew up with, dubbed the "1988 Turner Preview," runs 122 minutes and restores, most crucially, a framing device in which Garrett (James Coburn) is ambushed and killed over a land dispute (land implicitly purchased with the money Garrett received for killing the Kid (Kris Kristofferson)), putting an ironic--or literal, but fatalistic/nihilistic all the same--spin on his suicidal gesture of firing at a mirror immediately after gunning Billy down. "Knocking on Heaven's Door" also makes a return (albeit in instrumental form), backing the similarly-reinstated riverside bloodletting of Sheriff Baker (Slim Pickens) as his soon-to-be widow (genre staple Katy Jurado) looks on. (It is impossible to imagine the film without this scene.) Editor-turned-director Roger Spottiswoode oversaw this laconic cut, going by his memory of Bloody Sam's original assembly, and the sum of its parts reaches Days of Heaven levels of transcendence. Indeed, Billy the Kid had become a kind of countercultural icon, and many presumed that Peckinpah saw himself as Billy and Pat Garrett as an avatar for Hollywood producers--the liberal free-spirit trying to squirm out of the two-faced Man's grip and, pointedly, failing. But there's no joy in Billy's borrowed time; unlike Terrence Malick (but rather like Chow Yun-Fat in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), meditation leads Peckinpah not to the bliss of enlightenment, but to endless sorrow. This is a movie about reckonings.
The Two-Disc Special Edition DVD of Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid features both the 1988 Turner Preview and a new 115-minute Frankenstein cobbled together by Peckinpah acolytes, apparently reconstructing the director's vision as conveyed through copious editing-room notes. I'm skeptical--not of the existence of these notes, but that Peckinpah would've ultimately preferred this cut to the Spottiswoode alternative. Shots have been reordered to hamfisted effect in the past/"present" prologue and the opening credits now fall at the end of this virtuoso sequence where they once checkered it, effectively imposing an intermission on the film ten minutes in. Dylan's vocals resurface in "Knocking on Heaven's Door," stealing a little thunder from Pickens and Jurado. Maybe you always prefer the one you see first, but considering Peckinpah's gradual metamorphosis (devolution?) into a member of the avant-garde, a lot of these changes strike me as imperialistic, especially the egregious "tightening" of a few notoriously languid set-pieces.
What are your favourite/least favourite Director's Cuts, Extended Editions, etc.?
Hot Off the Presses (2/3)
Walter chimes in with a zero-star review of the latest superfluous remake, When a Stranger Calls; actually, I thought there was nowhere to go but up with that one, but apparently not. Travis, meanwhile, comes to terms with the Ghost of Movies Past in his review of 1977's Thunder and Lightning.