On this, the 59th anniversary of the assassination of JFK in Dallas, World of Reel‘s Jordan Ruimy has posted a recap of a Gangs of New York piece that was titled Gangs vs. Gangs, and which originally appeared in my Movie Poop Shoot column in December 2002.

Here’s my own recap, which I posted on 1.24.18.

I was told earlier today that the Gangs of New York Wikipedia page mentions a noteworthy piece by yours truly, posted in December 2001, that described the differences between a 1.37:1 work print version of Gangs that I saw on VHS vs. the final 2.39:1 release version. Here’s a link to the original article, and here’s a repost of it:

If Miramax Films and Martin Scorsese had decided to release a polished, cleaned-up version of the Gangs of New York work print they had in the can (or, if you want to get technical, that was stored on Marty and editor Thelma Schoonmaker‘s Avid) sometime in October ’01, we’d all be enjoying a better, more rewarding film than the Gangs that will open nationwide four days from now (12.20.02).

I’ve seen both versions and most of you haven’t, so I know something you don’t. The best Gangs of New York will not be hitting screens this weekend, and may never even be seen on DVD, given Scorsese’s apparent disinterest in releasing “director’s cut” versions of his films, or in supplying deleted scenes or outtakes or any of that jazz.

The work-print version is longer by roughly 20 minutes, and more filled out and expressive as a result, but that’s not the thing. The main distinction for me is that it’s plainer and therefore more cinematic, as it doesn’t use the narration track that, in my view, pollutes the official version. It also lacks a musical score, with only some drums and temp music.

This leaves you free, in short, to simply pick and choose from the feast of visual information that Gangs of New York is, and make of it what you will. And if that isn’t the essence of great movie-watching, I don’t know what is.

It also points out what’s wrong with the theatrical release version, which I feel has been fussed over too intensively, compressed, simplified, lathered in big-movie music and, to some extent, thematically obscured.

Miramax and Scorsese had the superior work-print version in their hands 14 months ago. It’s a little rough around the edges, but it’s not tremendously different from the version being released on Friday. It is only missing Leonardo DiCaprio‘s narration, a musical score and some CG effects, which tells me it could have easily been prepared for a December ’01 release. But Miramax decided otherwise and pushed it back it until now. If you ask me their reasons for doing so were short-sighted and wrong.

Wrong like the Ladd Company was in putting out the edited-down, narration-fortified Blade Runner in ’82 and the truncated version of Once Upon A Time in America in ’84, and wrong like Walter Parkes was in pushing DreamWorks to release the shorter version of Cameron Crowe‘s Almost Famous instead of the obviously superior Untitled version, which eventually came out on DVD.

When I say Miramax, of course, I mean honcho Harvey Weinstein. I could be wrong (nobody’s perfect), but I don’t believe Scorsese for a second when he says the theatrical version coming out this Friday is the one that bears his personal stamp of preference. My guess is that Harvey’s mitts are all over this puppy. Scorsese may have his weaknesses or indulgences as a filmmaker, but he’s always let his films play at their own pace and allow them to be true to themselves — their own tempo, themes, moods. He’s used narration before, but never in such a way that the narration wound up feeling like an encumbrance. And he’s never been one to speed his films up when they weren’t working.

Why has Scorsese been pooh-poohing questions about an alternate cut in interviews? I think he’s playing along to get along and move on with his career, which is panning out quite nicely now that he’s set to direct The Aviator. The $100 million-plus Howard Hughes biopic is due to roll in May with Gangs star Leonardo DiCaprio as the famed adventurer and movie producer. It will be presented to the public under the domestic banners of Miramax and Warner Bros.

There was a “maybe” rumble about it in Variety, but I broke the story 14 months ago in the New York Daily News about Weinstein’s decision to delay the Gangs release “until the spring or summer in ’02.” (That’s what I was told.) The Miramax spin was that the film was being delayed because it contained uncomfortable echoes of the 9.11 tragedy, but I always felt that was kind of a dodge and now I pretty much believe that.

There’s a lot of smoke and ash in the air during the final gang battle, which you could argue is reminiscent of the smoke and ash that covered downtown Manhattan air after the collapse of the twin towers. There’s also a brief shot in the film’s third act showing a row of dead bodies with lit candles placed on their chests, which summons memories of the thousands of tiny candles that burned for weeks in memory of the dead near Ground Zero.

But Gangs is such a complete immersion into the particular world of 1862 and ’63, and so scrupulous in its recreations, I didn’t experience so much as a flicker of 9/11 recollection.

It appears that the more fundamental Miramax view was that the film needed work, and so back it went to the editing room and the scoring stage, as the interest on the $110 million or so that Gangs cost to produce started accruing. Roughly twenty minutes were eventually trimmed (give or take), a voice-over narration by DiCaprio was added, and Elmer Bernstein‘s score was scuttled in favor of a new one by Howard Shore.

A feature-length version wasn’t even shown at the Cannes Film Festival in May ’02, which took place at least six months after this work-print version had been assembled. Instead, a 20-minute product reel, which I saw several weeks ago in Los Angeles and was suitably impressed by, was screened. Only over the last couple of weeks has the final, full-sized version been seeing the light of day.

I’m not saying the theatrical release version doesn’t have its rewards. Scorsese’s story of love, revenge and social upheaval in 19th Century New York is a kind-of Dickensian mulligan stew you can jump into and happily splash around inside of. It’s like a giant culinary pig-out for movie buffs — a buffet of wonderfully detailed, old-fashioned (i.e., organic instead of CGI), epic-scale filmmaking.

Gangs is so fine and flavorful in this respect you can turn your mind off totally to the story and characters and still come away satisfied.

Let me take my hat off right now and throw it high into the air in tribute to Scorsese, production designer Dante Ferretti, costume designer Sandy Powell, cinematographer Michael Ballhaus and all the others on the team for this achievement.

It’s been a long time since the colors, sounds and textures of a bygone era have been recreated with this much authenticity and precision. Believe it — what we’re watching isn’t unfolding on a monstrous outdoor set built upon Rome’s Cinecitta Studios lot, but is really and truly happening in downtown New York, circa 1862.

And let’s not forget the robust flavor and sheer enjoyment that pours out of Daniel Day Lewis’s habitation of the villainous Bill the Butcher, which won him a shared Best Actor trophy last weekend from the L.A. film critics. Or, for that matter, the fierce, feral-like performance by DiCaprio as the tortured hero, Amsterdam Vallon. Or the first-rate turns by Cameron Diaz (delivering her best work since Being John Malkovich), Brendan Gleeson, Jim Broadbent, Gary Lewis, Henry Thomas, Liam Neeson, Cara Seymour and David Hemmings.

And yet script flaws have made Gangs into two movies — the magnificent first hour and forty minutes, and the less satisfying final hour, give or take, minus the final credits. (VARIETY puts the running time at 168 minutes.)

Gangs starts out as a revenge piece and seems to be interested in this aspect for the bulk of its length, but it ends up with the gathering forces of history (gradual assimilation of the Irish into New York’s political power-sharing arrangement, the Draft Riots of 1863) not only overwhelming the gangs vs. gangs angle but making the characters strongly driven by personal motives and power trips — Lewis’s, mainly, but also DiCaprio’s to some extent — seem suddenly small and superfluous.

One of the plus factors of the work-print version is that this shift in emphasis seems to unfold a bit more gradually, and with a touch more resonance.

Starting in 1846, Gangs shows us the knee-high Amsterdam witnessing the death of his father, Priest Vallon (Neeson), at the blood-soaked hands of Bill the Butcher in a violent turf battle over which gang — the Natives or the Irish-fortified “Dead Rabbits” and their allies — will hold sway over the Five Points section of Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Flash forward 16 years, with a fully-grown Amsterdam being released from a New York reformatory called Hellgate. He returns to Five Points to set in motion his methodical plan to eventually kill Bill, who has become the reigning Godfather of the area, taking a piece of all the action from each and every operator. Amsterdam goes to work for Bill as a thief and eventually ingratiates himself with this florid-mouthed fiend as a kind of substitute-son figure.

Perhaps the film’s best scene is when Lewis unloads his soul to DiCaprio after a night of debauchery, remarking that “civilization is coming to an end” and lamenting at one point, “I never had a son.”

Meanwhile, Amsterdam begins to fall in love with a pickpocket and sometime prostitute named Jenny (Diaz), who figures more and more intimately into his life the closer he comes to confronting Bloody Bill with his true agenda. But Bill is tipped off to the truth of things by Amsterdam’s two-faced ally, Johnny (Thomas), who also has eyes for Jenny, and he strikes first, leaving Amsterdam half-dead and licking his wounds in an underground cave.

This is when Gangs starts to lose his punch and vigor. When DiCaprio goes down (albeit temporarily), so does the movie…and it runs into more and more trouble as it goes along.

The last hour is about Amsterdam reviving the Dead Rabbits, who had been outlawed by Bill after the 1846 battle, but this time more as a political force in the coming wave of New York political dealmaking. He pacts with Bill’s former ally Boss Tweed (Broadbent) and persuades his father’s old ally “Monk” McGinn to run for political office, which results in a win. But Bill, set in his rancid ways and fearful of changing times, interferes and forces Amsterdam and his Rabbit brethren to gather their forces for another violent showdown.

But just as this final conflict is about to happen, a bigger disturbance rocks the city. The Draft Riots, sparked by the poor’s resentment at being forced into uniform while the rich were able to buy their way out of military service for $300, explode, and the Bill vs. Amsterdam face-off suddenly seems like a nickel-and-dime squabble. At times the smoke from the U.S. military cannon fire aimed at nearby rioters makes it difficult for warring gangs to even see even other.

Bill’s demise and Amsterdam’s triumph are, of course, symbolic of the changes that were overtaking New York at the time, but story-wise the gang showdown happening concurrent with the Draft Riots is not a satisfying turn. It’s a basic law that any film that starts out as one thing but ends up as another will always have hell to pay.

(Wait a minute — I just thought of a solution. Ready? Amsterdam considers the obvious fact that Bill didn’t sneakily murder his father in 1846, but cut him down as an honorable opponent on the field of battle, and one who respects his memory. He thereby finds it within himself to come to Bill’s aid as he’s cut down by military rifle fire. Amsterdam drags him to a safe haven and embraces him as he dies, showing him the respect that Bill had always shown to his father. He does, in short, what John Wayne did in The Searchers when he picked up Natalie Wood at the end and embraced her and said, “Let’s go home, Debbie.” )

As is, the last hour is definitely problematic. Some of this, to judge from the work print, is Marty’s doing, but a lot of is almost certainly Harvey’s. Cut it! Trim it! Make it move faster! It starts to feel choppy, forced, accelerated. Scorsese uses intrusive title cards to explain which melee is taking place where during the Draft Riot sequences. Then he uses a Mel Allen-type announcer narrating the action for same. (The announcer stuff was taken from actual telegraph reports that were relayed between various police precincts during the riots.)

The crowd is shown stringing up black guys and burning them alive, and while I’ve since figured out that their resentment was about the whole slavery issue behind the Civil War, it’s not all that clear why when you’re watching the film.

Finally, sadly, Gangs ends on a note of confusion. It stumbles across the finish line. I walked out in a kind of stumble myself, wondering what had happened.

Such was my view after seeing the theatrical release version nearly two weeks ago. Then I was told by a respected critic that he’d heard from a friend that Scorsese had passed along a three-hour -plus version of GANGS on tape and confided, “Putting aside my contractual obligation to deliver a shorter, two-hour-and-forty-minute version to Miramax, this is the version I’m happiest with,” or words to that effect.

Intrigued, I ran a “Word” item the next day asking anyone out there in possession of a longer cut to consider sending it along. Two days later a guy slipped me a tape of the three-hour work print.

The tape has some extra footage and scenes that go on longer than they do in the theatrical version, but it’s not radically different from the roughly 158- or 160-minute version (not counting credits) opening on Friday. Being a second or third-generation dub, and taken right off an Avid, it looks crummy as hell. It’s different than the version opening next Friday, but scene after scene after scene play exactly the same in both. And yet for me the work-print version is much more of a turn-on.

The lack of narration is welcome in the tape version because it makes for a simpler, more elegant film. It can be “work,” in a way, to listen to a narrator explaining this and that, or providing a context. It makes for a purer, less fettered experience to just let the visuals to do their stuff, with the audience just absorbing everything as it happens, and everyone putting it together on their own time and terms. It allows for fresh discovery.

I’m assuming Miramax pressed Marty to add the narration because test audiences said they didn’t understand this and that. Gangs editor Thelma Schoonmaker told me last week that the narration was put into Gangs because “a lot of intelligent people couldn’t understand what was going on” in some scenes, and “we felt it made some aspects of the film more clear.”

And so the Modern Hollywood dilemma: the test-screening simpletons don’t understand something, and the artistry from a world-class talent like Scorsese’s is subsequently reduced into something pedestrian, because the budget is so big and the distributor feels the film has to be dumbed-down in order to have a chance of recouping.

The work-print version has some extra stuff here and there, but not all that much. Most of its longer length comes from additional slivers of footage.

In the theatrical version there are electric guitar power chords on the soundtrack during the opening and closing battle sequences; there are none in the work print version, and the scenes play much better without them.

There is an added scene of Leo and Henry Thomas together just after the burning-house, dueling-fire-brigade sequence in the first act that informs the bonding that these characters experience in the early stages.

There’s a funny line that Marty himself delivers as the head of a well-do-do uptown household. Cameron Diaz’s Jenny has gotten inside the abode in order to rob it by pretending she’s a recently-hired housekeeper. When the regular housekeeper explains that Diaz has arrived, Marty’s pater familias says, “We don’t have a new housekeeper.” (The character appears in the theatrical version, but says nothing.)

To my great disappointment, the voice-over of an official reading aloud the various reports about what’s going down in various neighborhoods in Manhattan as the Draft Riots unfold is also in this version. Worse, Marty himself is heard reading it. He apparently felt on his own that this was important, and I can’t understand why. The visuals are enough to tell us we’re seeing aspects of the same insurrection in different locations.

The third-act battle between Leo and Daniel Day Lewis goes on a bit, and seems more intriguing than it does in the theatrical version. The superfluous nature of their conflict is emphasized by the drawn-out fighting and the camera lingering on their bodies as they lie next to each other beneath the smoke and ash…exhausted, spent …a little bit like the depleted Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston bashing each other in that famous scene from William Wyler’s The Big Country (’58).

I loved the ending, which is almost the same but without the music and the effects. Amsterdam and Jenny are standing over Bill’s grave in a Brooklyn cemetery, with Manhattan visible across the East River. There’s a line Leo says to Cameron as they leave the cemetery — “Can I walk with you a little?” or words to that effect — that I don’t think is audible in the theatrical version, but which works very nicely.

Because of its quiet, gentle quality, it’s a bit more satisfying than the theatrical version’s finale, which uses a final piece of Leo’s voiceover along with Shore’s music telling us we’ve come to the End of a Big Important Movie.

Schoonmaker was at an HBO studio last week working on the Gangs DVD, which she said will be coming out next August. It will contain no extras and no deleted footage. “Marty doesn’t believe in that,” she said. “He believes in showing only the finished film.”

I don’t think it matters if the work print I’ve seen represents Scorsese’s idea of a nearly-finished film 14 months ago, or not. The point is that it shows that Gangs is a rich enough thing to stand on its own without narration or florid music to prop it up. Watching it proved to me once again that less can sometimes be a whole lot more.