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Hal Ashby’s long-lost caper movie

Routinely termed a neglected figure of the 1970s New Hollywood, Hal Ashby has been undergoing a modest posthumous renaissance of late: a smattering of retrospective screenings, an overdue biography, a vocal celebrity fan club whose ranks include Wes Anderson, Judd Apatow and Cameron Crowe.

Ashby’s directing career spanned a mere two decades: he was a successful film editor (who won an Academy Award for 1967’s “In the Heat of the Night”) and was 40 by the time he directed his first film, “The Landlord” (1970). He died of cancer in 1988 at age 59. The received wisdom neatly divides his filmography into halves: the ‘70s heyday, an illustrious run that spanned cult classics (“Harold and Maude”) and major hits (“Shampoo”), followed by the ‘80s flameout, a mire of drug use, health problems and studio battles, culminating in his final film, “8 Million Ways to Die,” a 1986 crime drama described by Pauline Kael as “permeated with druggy dissociation.”

Only his most partisan admirers would deny that the director suffered a drop-off in inspiration after his last major film, 1979’s “Being There.” Still, as part of the ongoing Ashby revival, some of his later works, until now dismissed as footnotes at best and outright follies at worst, are being given a closer look. One, the odd-couple caper “Lookin’ to Get Out,” surfaces this week on DVD in a director’s cut about 15 minutes longer than the version released to hostile reviews and minimal box office in 1982.

Even more than most Ashby movies, “Lookin’ to Get Out” is an actors’ vehicle -- in fact, it was expressly conceived as one, written by none other than its star, Jon Voight, in collaboration with a friend, Al Schwartz. Voight energetically throws himself into the lead role of Alex Kovac, a fast-talking blowhard and compulsive gambler who skips town with his best buddy and fellow loser Jerry (Burt Young) when creditor thugs come calling.

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These small-time high rollers head to Las Vegas, where they wheedle their way into the plush Dr. Zhivago Suite at the MGM Grand and get the house to extend them a line of credit to boot.

Scams are hatched on the fly, money is summarily won and lost, and Alex endures an unexpected reunion with an ex-flame (Ann-Margret), who happens to be the kept woman of the casino boss (Richard Bradford) and the mother of the little girl Alex never knew he had (played by a 6-year-old Angelina Jolie, Voight’s daughter, in her first screen role).

The troubled circumstances of the movie’s production and release are well recounted in Nick Dawson’s meticulous new biography “Being Hal Ashby: Life of a Hollywood Rebel.” The director was juggling the postproduction of another doomed comedy, “Second-Hand Hearts” (1981), and the development of “Tootsie” (a gig he eventually lost to Sydney Pollack because “Lookin’ to Get Out” fell far behind schedule).

Unhappy with the version of the film he turned in, Paramount executives demanded a reedit, and Ashby, fed up and beaten down, left it to his editor, Bob Jones, who worked with Voight to produce a shorter cut.

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It was in the course of researching his book that Dawson realized that Ashby’s preferred edit, a further fine-tuning of the cut he submitted to the studio, still existed. The director’s cut of “Lookin’ to Get Out” is no lost masterpiece, but you can easily see how a truncated version would have stifled its loose-limbed energy.

The obvious reason for its failure, as Dawson points out, is that the movie, a shaggy-dog farce with an unsympathetic, even pathetic protagonist, was conspicuously “out of line with the popular cinema of the 1980s.”

Even then, it must have seemed like a throwback. There are shades of Robert Altman’s 1974 gambling buddy-movie “California Split.” The pseudo-improvised macho theatrics, especially on Voight’s part, often suggest a lesser John Cassavetes film.

“Lookin’ to Get Out” is part of Warner Home Video’s Directors Showcase series, devoted to underappreciated work by major filmmakers. Other new titles include David Cronenberg’s “M. Butterfly,” John Boorman’s “Beyond Rangoon” and Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Zabriskie Point” -- all better and more interesting films than their reputations suggest.

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