Okay, just a passing aesthetic/artistic question for you film buffs out there. (I've been trying to watch more movies this year.)
Everybody probably knows what "film noir" is. It was originally a French term for a genre of gritty, naturalistic, character-driven black-and-white American movies of the pre-television '40s and '50s that often showed lives that were dark and amoral, dangerous, and often doomed. Sometimes the plot lines could be overheated, as they often were in the potboiler detective fiction that in part inspired them, and many were what were then called "B" movies—low budget. The better ones had psychological tension as well as melodramatic suspense. My favorite is The Asphalt Jungle, a superb heist film full of sexual tension—a very young Marilyn Monroe plays a memorable bit part—that was set and shot almost completely at night.
The '40s and '50s were also the era of the censors. But the censors (the so-called Production Code enforced after 1933 was surprisingly comprehensive—at 3700 words, it was only 700 words shorter than the U.S. Constitution!) didn't only delete parts of films—they also added them. For instance, there's a short segment in Gun Crazy (a.k.a. Deadly is the Female), a 1950 precursor of Bonnie and Clyde in which the protagonist uncharacteristically expresses his regret over his life of crime. It doesn't fit the plot, and it doesn't even fit the look of the rest of the movie. Some critics have suggested the scene was added at the insistance of the Hays Office as a moral lesson for the audience.
No spoilers here
Anyway, in 1944, Fritz Lang—the great German director of such masterpieces as M and Metropolis—made one of his 21 Hollywood movies, a tale of temptation and downfall called The Woman in the Window. The film has a "surprise twist" ending, which apparently delighted large swaths of the unwashed hoi polloi at the time, but which has dismayed critics and savants ever since. It's apparently widely believed by film noir buffs, albeit not with absolute certainty, that the surprise ending, which actually adds comedic touches to an otherwise grim and fatalistic film, was inserted at the insistence of the censors, or at least added to mollify them.
But here's the thing. The ending that the director himself supposedly preferred—a dark closeup of Edward G. Robinson's face as the phone rings and his eyes close—is completely contained in the present movie. The cutesy parts are added on after that.
So my question is, in this age of computer video wizardry, what's to stop some guerrilla fan from creating a version of the movie with the director's preferred ending, simply by eliminating the rest? Fade to black and roll the credits. If you believe the existing ending was created for or by the censors, an "activist" version like that would essentially be a bootleg "director's cut," long after the fact (Fritz Lang died in 1976).
Is that ethical? I can see arguments either way. Movies, of course, have returned to so-called "Pre-Code" standards—moralistic censorship has been reduced to a series of advisory ratings that restrict theater access by minors. So why not give Fritz the grim, noir ending his film deserves? On the other hand, he did add the "official" ending, so you could also argue that tampering with an artist's finished work violates it—all sorts of forces influence the content and appearance of movies, and seldom does a director get to have it exactly the way he wants it.
I don't know a lot about movies, so I'm curious as to what more devoted film fans might think of something like this. Who knows, maybe it's even been done.
"Open Mike" is a series of off-topic posts that appears here on Sundays. This time, Mike refrains from writing about the noble Shackleford's thrilling start to the Belmont, and his heartbreaking fade before the wire.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by B.J.: "This sort of thing went on all the time. One only has to look at the career of Orson Welles for examples. Arguably the greatest film of the 'noir' genre is Welles' 1958 film Touch of Evil. The film is famous for, among other things, the opening single shot which runs about three minutes. The studio took the film away from Welles, re-edited it and added additional footage shot by someone else. Welles wrote a memo of approximately 60 pages suggesting changes and cuts that would restore the film to his original vision. Not surprisingly, he was ignored. The memo still exists, but Welles original cut does not. The film was re-released in the '70s in a new version, but this was just a longer version or the original release. In the late '90s the film was released again in a re-edited version that follows as closely as possible the changes suggested in Welles' memo. But since Welles' original version does not exist, even this is only an approximation, however close, of Welles original vision. Interestingly, some of the changes had to do with the soundtrack. Remember that Welles came to the movies from radio."
Featured Comment by David: "If the movies are still in copyright, then you are breaking the law if you modify them and distribute them (creating a derivative work). Religious oriented groups have tried this with services that remove 'objectionable' material for their customers. They have all been shut down by the studios. If you want to do it to your own copy, no one can stop you, it's when you pass it along to others that you get into trouble. It's really no different than modifying someone else's still picture and distributing it."
Featured Comment by Paul Byrnes: "God what a can of worms, Mike. It's an intriguing idea, and mash-ups are everywhere now so someone will do it, but I tend to think you can't monkey with history. It's like a Time Machine thing: go back and meet your parents, Marty McFly-style, and you might not be born at all. Studios did lots of shitty things to great film-makers, but where do we start? John Ford used to shoot his films so they could only be cut one way; Clint Eastwood does much the same thing, but directors who revisit sometimes stuff their own films up—like Coppola when he did Apocalypse Now Redux. No discernible improvement, some arguable disservice.
"I think we should preserve and protect—that's all—but even that is controversial. Does preservation allow you to make Dolby tracks of movies that were in stereo or mono? It does if you want to make a buck. Even reputable restorations are doing that. What about tweaking the colours? I work with an archive as well as writing constantly about old movies (and new) and sometimes the tech guys just have to guess, especially when trying to recreate tints on silent films. Do you think it was pink or puce? I guess I'm arguing that less is more in terms of dealing with the past. You can watch the Fritz Lang and imagine the ending, both ways, if you want. Just because some ass once had the authority to change it doesn't give another ass the right to change it again now."