It’s the first scene of the iconic movie Chinatown and Curly (played by the immortal Burt Young) is lamenting, “Oh, oh, oh, she’s no good!” about his cheating wife, and Curly moans and carries on and at some point cries out, “I think I’ll kill her!” Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), the private eye who took the pictures of Curly’s wife with her lover, gets very angry, he pounds the desk with his fist, he screams at Curly, “You gotta be rich to kill somebody, anybody, and get away with it. You think you got that kind off dough, you think you got that kind of class?”
Someone took the line out of the movie.
A line that is key to the meaning of the film.
The great thing about being older is that you get to experience things first hand so you remember stuff everyone else has forgotten or didn’t know existed. The terrible thing about being older is that you get to experience things first hand so you remember stuff…well, you get the drift.
The first time my husband and I saw Chinatown at home, probably on VHS, we were so stunned we practically jumped off the sofa, “Wait, they took out the line!” The great screenwriter and teacher, Syd Field remembers. He talks about that line in his book, Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, in Chapter 7, called “The SetUp: Wherein We Discuss the Importance of the First Ten Pages of Chinatown” (Screenplay by Robert Towne).
I mean, maybe you have to be older to understand the holiness of what I just placed down there. Robert Towne. Chinatown. Syd Field. Now, I know that screenplays change all the time while the film is being made. But, no, not after the movie is made, after it's seen, after it becomes SACRED! I mean, we heard the line! And, we got it. So, it’s not just in Syd Field’s fabulous book. And, when you think, when you as a devoted film viewer think on the final scene of Chinatown, you feel that early line deep down in your soul.
Now, here’s a line, man, did this line ever bug me - from The Godfather - who the hell messed with an important line from The Godfather? Did Francis Ford Coppola himself actually reach in and pluck out this line - I mean, I HEARD THE GODFATHER SAY IT - he says it to Sonny -
“Ah, never interfere between a man and a woman.”
It happens to be, not only foreshadowing of Sonny’s demise, but it happens to be Sonny’s fatal flaw - his temper, his arrogance, his impetuousness, his immediate demand for immediate satisfaction, for immediate justice as he sees it.
Ok, so Sonny’s mother says something like it at dinner, she waves her hand and tells Sonny, “Don’t interfere,” when he starts to join in on an argument between his sister and her husband.
Let’s face it, it’s a great line even without Sonny’s issues. It’s one I repeat often. Classic Godfather wisdom right up there with “You cannot truly be a man unless you spend time with your family.” A line which he ostensibly says to his godson, Johnny Fontane, but is really aimed at Sonny to whom the camera pans, off to the side of the room.
So, imagine my surprise when I bought The Godfather set, and watched it in all fangirl eagerness only to be left with the same empty hands. No? No line? Where did it go?
I couldn’t believe it. I know I hadn’t imagined his voice clearly saying the line in my memory.
Then, one Christmas Day, I was busy in the kitchen while everyone else was watching a Godfather marathon on A&E in the living room when my daughter called out, “Mom! Mom! The Godfather said it! He said the line!”
I knew it! It exists somewhere, darling!
I guess there are different forms of movies out there, some whole, some cut for some reason, some cut to make room for commercials, some cut for decorum, or censorship.
Oh, there are others. In the beloved and iconic British TV series, Poldark, for instance, the lovely scene where Ross washes Demelza before he’ll let her into his house. No nudity, only a milky white shoulder is revealed while Demelza gets sloshed with water. Cut.
Another line, one of my favorites. Demelza is visiting the drunkard (now sober), Captain Blamey, to try to encourage him to see her cousin-in-law, Verity, again, a union that has been forbidden by Verity’s family. Captain Blamey tells Demelza that she is certainly extraordinary to visit him and propose a new meeting with Verity. Demelza, putting on her gloves while she talks, says, “T’is only now I’m learning the ways of gentlefolk and I can already see what misery it brings to people’s lives.”
It’s an important line, cut from the VHS version for a couple of decades, but replaced in the DVD (no bathing scene, however). The entire theme of Poldark is freedom. Ross Poldark, in the first scene, after having returned to England from our Revolutionary War in which he fought on the British side, recounts his feelings about the so-called "heathens" (Native Americans) saying they are “often more Christian and more civilized than we.” The person he is speaking to laughs and accuses him of joking. But, Ross isn’t joking. He is often embarrassed by his own class and prefers the honesty and bravery of the poorer people in his country, in effect, championing a new, revolutionary way of life, much like America.
In fact, the very first line of The Godfather, which we hear, in the dark, is “I believe in America.” I hope no one takes it away.
It’s the reason I want to keep important lines in films. Freedom. Freedom of speech. Freedom for the writer to keep his/her words and for the people to keep hearing the truth. After all, I've always believed in fiction as the only real way to get the truth out there.
Patricia Goodwin is the author of When Two Women Die, about Marblehead legends and true crime and its sequel, Dreamwater, about the Salem witch trials and the vicious 11-year-old pirate Ned Low. Holy Days is her third novel, about the sexual, psychological seduction of Gloria Wisher and her subsequent transformation. Her newest poetry books are Telling Time By Apples, And Other Poems About Life On The Remnants of Olde Humphrey Farme, illustrated by the author, and Java Love: Poems of a Coffeehouse.