Touch of Evil (1958): Though “director’s cuts” are a cottage industry, rare is the one that actually reverses a film’s reputation. Gutted to 95 minutes by its producers, who also graffiti’d credits onto one of the finest tracking shots in history, Orson Welles’ last American film was restored to a more meaty 108 minutes in 1976. In 1998, editor Walter Murch did one better, following Welles’ instructions to devise an even longer cut that more accurately portrayed its director’s haunted vision.
Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973): Sam Peckinpah spent the majority of his last Western drunk on the set, but in reality, he was making a devastating masterpiece, using the tale of William Bonney to portray the death of the West. Audiences would have to wait till 1988 to see this version: Execs cut his down to 106 minutes, and it was only restored to its 122-minute version four years after its maker had died.
Heaven’s Gate (1980): Critics and audiences were already hip to the absurdly troubled production of Michael Cimino’s grim anti-Western—laid out brilliantly in United Artist exec Steven Bach’s book, The Final Cut—by the time it lurched into theaters, at a seriously maimed 149-minute cut. The tide turned somewhat when Los Angeles’ Z-Channel aired the full 219-minute version, and while it’s still problematic, few could sanely call this version one of cinema history’s worst.
Once Upon a Time in America (1984): Perhaps it was understandable that most American studios didn’t want to release a 269-minute epic, Sergio Leone’s swan song or not. But initially releasing a 139-minute version, which made the events chronological? Unpardonable.
Kingdom of Heaven (2005): For whatever reason, Ridley Scott is the king of films saved by director’s cuts. Blade Runner was rescued years after its disastrous debut. And on video, he was able to flesh out a Crusades epic that felt truncated and incoherent when in theaters.
Margaret (2011): The contract dictated Kenneth Lonergan’s troubled sophomore effort could run no longer than 150 minutes. While the newly released “extended edition” more closely approximates its maker’s vision, that doesn’t disqualify the theatrical cut. Humanity, in effect, received two intentionally messy masterpieces for the price of one.