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Commercial Misunderstandings

by Alexander Miller

Created 11/29/13

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Sometimes pictures flop at the box office when they shoudln't. Other times critics destroy a film before they're even released. Some occasions politics get in the way, and censors ruin the directors vision, or the directors are forced to make concessions in the editing room or else their film won't be seen by anyone.
Sometimes films are nearly destroyed by studios, others get cut, recut, and cut some more until the picture is beyond recognition. Thankfully, the fine folks of The Criterion Collection care enough to work with directors in order get the right running times, soundtracks, subtitles, color corrections, crossing the t's and dot the lower case j's before releasing compromised movies such as these. Now we have director approved editions of great films that could have easily faded away.

  • After the success of The Deer Hunter Michael Cimino was given a huge budget and final cut to make his masterpiece Heaven's Gate. However, production went way over schedule, and the budget had nearly quadrupled. Cimino had to edit 1.5 million feet of film under duress to make its holiday release. Though Cimino had final cut he asked to bring in a film with a three hour runtime, after eight months of editing he showed a work print running five and a half hours, rumors about the theatrical premiere say the film was still wet from processing and no one had actually seen the full theatrical cut. The critics hated the film, Cimino posted a full page letter in Variety imploring that the movie be pulled from theaters so it could be edited with the same care from which the project had began. But it was too little too late, and Heaven's Gate was the biggest box office flop of all time.
    The film enjoyed a brief renaissance when Jerry Harvey's team at the Z Channel premiered the directors cut at 219 minutes, giving the term "director's cut" new meaning. Thankfully The Criterion Collection has this film in all it's glory, and I'll go on the record saying it's a personal favorite.

  • Soderbergh's Che is a truly unique experience. Avoiding cliches and political idealism, he and Benicio del Toro tell the story of histories most prevalent revolutionaries. Unfortunately the reviews at Cannes were mixed, and critics vary on the films merits. Why, I don't know, Che is a remarkable cinematic achievement from a director who's always reinventing himself, aesthetically and technically. His informal retirement notwithstanding, I hope Soderbergh continues to keep us on our toes with his visionary work.

  • A remarkable film on all counts. However its political content, was too much for French audiences and claimed it glorified the actions of Charles de Gaulle. And it was not widely released until 2006! For over thirty years this film was nearly unseen and that should be considered a crime, I love Melville and this film is one of my favorites.

  • The first Criterion DVD, and one of the best of the lot. Due to the troubling wartime politics of it's release Joseph Goebbels dubbed the film "Cinematic Public Enemy No. 1" and to quell the potential uproar the French government banned the film as long as the war should last. Prints were thought to be destroyed but it was smuggled from France to Russia and back to France with many other films in tow. The film was restored and released by Criterion in 1998, what a journey for one film to make.

  • Spartacus was an initial commercial success, however road to its completion was a bumpy one. Kirk Douglas, who was one of the producers initially signed Anthony Mann to direct the picture, who a great director in his own right, but couldn't work things out with Douglas. Stanley Kubrick was then hired for the job. Even though the film doesn't bear Kubrick's distinctive trademarks, Spartacus remains a technical triumph of epic cinema. It also boasted a script from blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo. This led to protests, and none other than JFK broke the picket lines from the protesting American Legion to see the film. Later on cuts were made, and a very homoerotic scene between Curtis and Olivier ( who would later be dubbed by Anthony Hopkins) was re recorded in 1991. Another long journey for a classic film.

  • Apparently Winston Churchill tried to halt production altogether and one of the best British films almost never came to light. Luckily after some delegating it was passed and The Archers dodged a bullet. Or if I wanted to make a lame joke I could say "dodged an arrow"?

  • Fuller himself had to meet with Daryl Zanuck and J. Edgar Hoover about Widmarks line "Are you waving the flag at me?". It was seen as unpatriotic and Zanuck backed Fullers claim, and told Hoover he knew nothing of movie making!
    A great, and tough (even by Fuller standards) film might have been too tough for its audience at the time. But now Pickup on South Street is a noir classic that I frequently revisit.

  • Nearly every Kubrick film is controversial. Paths of Glory was practically banned in France until 1986, and was pressured by European censors to limit the films release. Thanks to the Blu-Ray update producer James B. Harris has an interesting story concerning the films alternate ending.

  • Poor Orson fell on hard times by the time F for Fake was released. He says in the book "My Lunches with Orson" Conversations between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles "The Tragedy in my life is that I can't get the Americans to like it. Outside of New York the critics hated it." Welles' film is a fascinating documentary/essay on hoaxes, forgery, art, and our perception of art. But, like many movies on this list, critics and audiences have taken over thirty years to warm up to this overlooked gem from a misunderstood auteur.

  • One of Wilder's most uncompromising films. And he made quite a few of them, so that says a lot. Upon its release critics felt its depiction of journalism as too grim, and slapping big media in the face might have been too hard to take in 1951. Now it seems more relevant than ever, they changed the film's title to The Big Carnival for its release, I'm sure they were trying to capitalize on the other noir titles with the word "big" in them The Big Sleep, The Big Combo, The Big Clock etc.. Wilder was sued, and the film was hard to come by until the Criterion release in 2007.

  • The Stalinist landscape made things hard for everyone in Russia, to put it lightly. And although he favored Eisenstein's first installment, his second one was banned. Regrettably Eisenstein wouldn't live to see his film receive a formal release and critical revaluation.

  • Cut, slashed and recut. Gilliam's film had tested poorly and was shaved down to what is known as "the love conquers all" version. Since Blade Runner's theatrical cut (with the clunky voice over and "happy ending") did so well (that's sarcasm) the studios were confident the "love conquers all" edit would succeed as well. Again, thank to people who care about movies and their directors Brazil is now available in its original or truncated versions, you be the judge!

  • A wonderfully twisted film from Michael Powell. Much to Powell's disadvantage the critics did him no favors by their scathing reviews. One critic said the film "should be thrown in the sewer", others went on to call it "nauseating", and "depressing" and the list goes on. This literally killed Michael Powell's career as a director. And now the film is on nearly every "top ___ movie" ever made list. Many good films are just ahead of their time.

  • The Catholic church went into a frenzy when this came out, and the Python's only had to thank them for the amount of attention the controversy gave this film.

  • Kurosawa collaborated with three of Japan's prominent directors Keisuke Kinoshita, Kon Ichikawa, and Masaki Kobayashi starting a "Committee of the Four Knights". This was going to be their first picture, and since it wasn't a commercial success and the committee disbanded after Kurosawa's attempted suicide.

  • Originally made for television Don Siegel's revision of Hemingway's story was deemed too violent for television and was released theatrically. Part of that might have to do with the assassination of J.F.K. and if you listen to the audio bonus features with Clu Gulager you'll hear some great stories about the production.

  • There's a story behind nearly every Sam Peckinpah film and Straw Dogs, to this day has been the subject of debate. Due the long, brutal rape scene and Peckinpah's eye for the raw nature of violence was the source for many negative critical reviews. The film was edited down to receive an R rating for a theatrical release in the states. However, it remains a fascinating examination of masculinity, violence and the vulnerability relationships. Of course the film was remade, the tagline originally reads, "Everyone has a Breaking Point" sounds nothing like "Every Man has a Breaking Point", right? This is on my Blu Ray upgrade wishlist, but I'm not optimistic.

  • A troubled production from the start. De Sica spoke little to no English, Selznick left him notes that ran up to 50 pages. Montgomery Clift had issues with leading lady Jennifer Jones, who at the time was Selznick's wife.Which, in itself could be the subject of a movie. The film was cut and released both as Terminal Station in Italy and Indiscretion in the US. Clift wrote it off as a "big fat failure" and critics hissed at it too.

  • Initially banned by the French before the war, then banned by the German's during the war - the film was lost until 1956 but the reconstructed cut wouldn't see the light of day until 1965. Having the poor fortune to open during a politically turbulent period, next to a patriotic historical documentary with an audience of politicians and right-wing pundits it was booed after screening. Now it's considered as one of the best films ever made, and like many on the list cut, and recut.

  • Another great film to come under heavy censorship due to WWII politics. The film caught flak from the Vichy occupation, left-wing resistance, Communist party and the church as well. Le Corbeau was banned and so was Clouzot from directing, though it only lasted until 1947.

  • The Arkadin character conceived from radio plays based on the Harry Lime character who he played by Welles in Reed's The Third Man. Another Welles film that was cut, again and again. Released at 93, 95, and 98 minutes, the Criterion release finally compiled the Complete Mr. Arkadin, or Confidential Report, judge for yourself which version is the best!

  • Despite a great cast, and an overall insane revisionist western style, Walker tanked at the box office and was shelved for twenty years before a (thanks to a Criterion) DVD release.

  • Ironically, Fuller was the victim racist accusations because of this anti racist film! The one sided nature of criticism is an example of a film falling victim to unfair accusations.

  • Due to the extremely explicit sexual content, this film is still banned in its country of origin.

  • One of Altman's best movies and it tanked at the box office.The period between MASH and Nashville Altman directed six films in five years, some of them are among his finest work. The Long Goodbye, California Split, Images, Thieves Like Us, Brewster McCloud, and of course McCabe & Mrs. Miller, the vacuous reaction to the success of Nashville was that it was a "comeback" but Altman hadn't gone anywhere, he was making great movies and this is one of them.

  • I guess all of Orson's films were misunderstood in some way or another. Chimes at Midnight, easily his most personal and easily his best work had gone largely unseen for years. Most critics disregarded this masterpiece except Pauline Kael and some warm welcomes in the UK.

  • Hopefully Criterion will restore and release every Welles film ( I know that's not going to happen, but we can always dream, right?) and the release of Othello is another great entry in the directors Shakespeare canon. Of course Othello did great in Europe, winning the Palme d'or at Cannes and yet couldn't find distribution in the US.
    Furthermore Othello was butchered and the restoration process has been a source of debate since 1992, what with missing scenes, audio syncing, Gregorian chanting and so forth this upcoming/new release will be momentous.

  • One of the ideal cult films that people love and critics hate. For Hunter S. Thompson fans it was leap forward from Where the Buffalo Roam, and it turned on leagues of gen-xers and gen-yers to tune in and drop out as they embraced the now late Gonzo journalist and his drug fueled exploits.

16 comments

  • By Dan Schafer
    March 07, 2014
    04:39 PM

    This is a great list. I have to say I turned away from Heaven's Gate because of so many terrible reviews even after I saw Criterion released it, but the other night I finally watched it, and I enjoyed it a great deal. It is a shame that it was so butchered and left with such an ugly reputation. Thanks for pointing it out and again, great list.
    Reply
    • By Alexander Miller
      March 09, 2014
      05:25 AM

      I really appreciate that! I felt the same way about Heavens Gate until I saw the Z Channel Documentary, "A Magnificent Obsession" and I discovered a lot of great titles through that documentary. I just got the Heavens Gate Blu-Ray in the mail not too long ago and I'm happy it's part of my collection.
  • By _Peter_
    March 14, 2014
    05:20 PM

    Excellent work on this list. I don't know how I overlooked it. You've got some great films listed above with an excellent review on each.
    Reply
  • By Alexander Miller
    March 17, 2014
    10:34 AM

    Hey Thanks a lot! I enjoyed the "Submerge Yourself" list, I'm having way too much fun making these.
    Reply
    • By _Peter_
      March 26, 2014
      01:01 PM

      So am I.
  • By JeffK.
    May 18, 2016
    09:24 PM

    This list shows that at times the making of a film and all of the background drama is often as interesting as a film itself.
    Reply
  • By Jake Blackman
    August 07, 2016
    11:34 PM

    Really good list, now that it's released you might want to put The New World on here.
    Reply
  • By ericgarfield31
    September 26, 2016
    11:59 AM

    Looks great! :)
    Reply
  • By Alexander Miller
    November 20, 2016
    09:44 AM

    Thanks for all the likes everybody! Hopefully more lists will get posted, these are fun and I love the feedback!!
    Reply
  • By Nick Inman
    January 24, 2017
    11:08 PM

    "Che is a remarkable cinematic achievement from a director whose " Whose what? Whose WHAT? All jokes aside, this is an awesome list. I don't know why, but I tend to find myself more drawn to these kinds of polarizing films than I am to the established "classics" or the mainstream successes. They're just more daring, more interesting. One movie I want to bring up, that Criterion released years after this list, is Dr. Strangelove. The Cold War subject just hit too close to home at the time. In fact, it may hit even closer today.
    Reply
  • By Alexander Miller
    February 26, 2017
    10:51 AM

    Yikes! I didn't realize I left the rest of the Che comment dangling like that, good catch, thanks for that! I feel the same way, even if it means an imperfect film like Heaven's Gate, there's still a lot to admire and rediscover. Most visionary directors were ahead of their time to a fault; Welles, Altman, Renoir, and Kubrick. Dr. Strangelove is one among many classics from the director (well all of his movies are classics one way or another, exception being Fear and Desire?) it seemed like a moderate success in North America. I think movies based around the Cold War are some of the most fascinating, being a "cold" war made it so creative imagination could run loose with spy thrillers, counterintelligence movies, and of course satires. Thanks for reading!
    Reply
    • By Nick Inman
      April 12, 2017
      12:53 AM

      Hey, it's all good, man. Like I said, awesome list. Not just because of the films listed, but also for your articulate writing. Also, Kubrick's far and away my favorite filmmaker, who not only made many classics, but many of them were highly controversial as well (as you pointed out in your Paths of Glory blurb). I've always believed that a great filmmaker makes films for the future, and Kubrick, like Welles, Altman, and Renoir, and many others, most certainly did that.
  • By loofrin
    March 02, 2017
    01:14 PM

    F for Fake is one of my favorites. I was entranced the first time I viewed it. The opening shot of all the men watching the actress (I forgot her name) walk/strut through the town square in her miniskirt is just pure genius. The art forger is just delightful (its been a while since I last saw this, I may have to rectify that situation very soon). This is a quirky film. Every turn is a slight of hand, misdirect. By the time the end credits start rolling I have a WTF did I just watch. What's real, what's not... what's truth, what's conjecture. A wonderful film, definitely worth the time.
    Reply
  • By Alexander Miller
    March 06, 2017
    01:03 PM

    Only Welles could have made a movie like this, he wanted to make a whole slew of these essay movies like F for Fake, but it never came to be. Which is too bad because that would have been so cool if there were more of these.
    Reply
  • By DarkMarc
    April 20, 2017
    12:48 AM

    Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard was dark his next feature Ace In The Hole was pitch black. I have always liked Ace In the Hole but I knew that it was not everybody's favorite especially during the optimist 1950s. Plus, it has one of the best snippets of dialogue. When Kirk Douglas tells Jan Sterling that she needs to go to church more often to get sympathy her response to Kirk is priceless: "Kneeling bags my nylons"
    Reply
  • By Mark F.
    October 17, 2017
    07:33 AM

    Sorcerer deserves a spot on this list. I too recently bought the restored Heaven's Gate and while I'm not totally convinced, I couldn't take my eyes off it. As for Che, there's a great bit of dialogue at the very end of part one when they are driving to the revolution: "Unbelievable."
    Reply