Picks and Pans Main: Video

updated 04/01/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/01/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

Video is fast turning a nation of movie-house squirmers (the ones who start fidgeting in their seats the second a film passes the 90-minute mark) into armchair aficionados. Even a four-hour epic holds no fear for home viewers curled up with a beer and fast-forward remote to zip past the dull parts. Suddenly a large VCR-owning audience is curious about the "uncut" versions of almost everything on celluloid. How else to explain the existence on tape of the uncut, 225-minute version of the most expensive bomb in film history—1980's Heaven's Gate (MGM/UA, $69.95). People who never dreamed of seeing director Michael Cimino's wrongheaded Western in a theater (the $40-million epic grossed a pathetic $1.5 million) seem ready to rent a copy and discover for themselves where the damned thing went wrong. And don't try to foist off the 149-minute TV condensation: They want the director's original version.

Video restoration is becoming big business. Judy Garland fans can now buy or rent the restored version of A Star Is Born (Warner, $69.95), their idol's best film, featuring almost 30 minutes the studio cut shortly after the film's 1954 premiere. These include two numbers (Here's What I'm Here For and Lose That Long Face) and a wonderful proposal scene between Judy and James Mason. Never mind that the stills used to bridge gaps in the story only slow up the picture (a long haul at 180 minutes), A Starts Born—released last year—has spurred a video treasure hunt.

Trekkies can't wait to get their hands on the restored version of Star Trek—The Motion Picture (Paramount, $39.95) because 13 minutes have been added to the original 130. It's hardly worth noting the new scenes are mostly cutting-room scraps. Even a stray close-up of Spock's ear is an epiphany for fans. The trick to this business is to imply that something—usually sexy, violent or wickedly perverse—is going on with stars in compromising positions.

The release of Crimes of Passion (New World Video, $89.95), currently doing brisk business, pulls off the hustle superbly. Kathleen (Romancing the Stone) Turner received rave reviews as a frigid fashion designer who moonlights as an exotic hooker named China Blue and wards off a psycho holy man, played by Anthony Perkins. Director Ken (Tommy) Russell complained his film had been cut by a studio afraid of an X rating. So Crimes of Passion was released with a relatively safe R rating: The public stayed away—perhaps because they thought the film on view was a concession to prudes. Now the unrated Russell version is available and billed as "the steamiest videocassette of the year." Hardly. Even the more modest soft-core releases, the kind you see on The Playboy Channel, offer more flesh and less filigree. The big moment in the restored Crimes concerns China Blue's graphic episode with a policeman client and his nightstick. In the R-rated version China Blue establishes a similar symbolic point with a customer's big toe instead of a nightstick and with no risk of splinters. But the scene has given the videotape notoriety and maybe a new audience. If so, fine. Crimes of Passion, for all its flaws, is one of the most original, funny movies about sex in years. But the $10 extra it costs for the unrated, red-boxed Crimes (a blue-boxed copy of the R version sells for $79.95) is fairly high for a nightstick, even when wielded by the delicious Turner.

A better bargain in the restoration sweeps is the 227-minute version of Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America (Warner Home Video, $89.95). Even high-powered stars like Robert De Niro and James Woods couldn't bring coherence to the 144-minute muddle that hit theaters with a whimper last year. But this saga of Jewish gangsters in New York during the 1920s becomes a devastating on-target movie with Leone's structure and epic sweep restored. The childhood flashback scenes provide the heart that was previously missing. And the gradual hardening of De Niro and Woods emerges as poignant, not predictable. Viewed in this unexpurgated version, this is one of De Niro's strongest performances. Sadly the revised Once Upon a Time in America is garnering most of its press because of rape scenes featuring De Niro and Elizabeth McGovern and Tuesday Weld. The passionless, sex-as-a-weapon cruelty of both scenes is essential to understanding De Niro's character, but neither scene is remotely erotic. Those coming to this film for voyeuristic reasons will be disappointed. The rush here is in uncovering a minor masterpiece.

Still, the best argument to date for putting films back the way they were is this month's video release of that American epic, Gone With the Wind (MGM/UA Home Video, $89.95). Whoa! Don't think Rhett and Scarlett were up to anything they shouldn't or that Melanie and Ashley were using props to spice up their sex life. GWTW, quite simply, has been returned to the way it was at its premiere in Atlanta on Dec. 15, 1939, when it changed the way America looked at movies.

The restoration was no mean feat. On TV and in rerelease in theaters, GWTW had lost its luster. Colors had faded. The sound track had been attacked by the gremlins of pop and crackle. Hollywood's shining 231-minute classic was beginning to seem like a weathered antique. But recently a mint-condition negative of the film was found in a vault in Kansas, mislabeled "26 reels of color dailies." The picture and sound on this two-cassette package are thrilling. Forget that muddy version you saw on the tube. Tara has been restored along with the blush of Scarlett's cheek. And there are Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Leslie Howard, Olivia de Havilland, Hattie McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen in all their glory. You can feel the fire in Gable when he finally tells Scarlett, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn."

Fortunately somebody did give a damn. The VCR generation's hunger for the unexpurgated has helped restore an American classic for the ages.

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