'Gangs' preview teases Cannes

— They would have loved to get the whole film, but Cannes Film Festival organizers were grateful enough to get 20 vivid minutes of "Gangs of New York," Martin Scorsese's long-awaited, still unfinished epic with a high-voltage cast and a budget to match.

Scorsese brought along two of his stars, Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz, for Monday's sneak preview of the 19th-century drama, one of the most anticipated events of this year's festival. Fans waved signs saying, "Welcome, Leo!"

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Actress cameron diaz, left, American director Martin Scorsese, center, and actor Leonardo DiCaprio arrive for the screening of their film "Gangs of New York" at the Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, France. Monday's sneak preview will have to last expectant audiences until the film's predicted Christmas release.

The audience in the grand Lumiere theater, packed with the likes of Sharon Stone, Juliette Binoche and director David Cronenberg, appeared to like what it saw: a huge period production with street brawls and blood feuds and knife-throwing.

The all-star cast includes Liam Neeson, Jim Broadbent and � most notably � Daniel Day-Lewis, lured out of semi-retirement, who appears set to steal the show.

Christmas release set

The two-hour, 40-minute film is set for release at Christmas � a year after it was originally due to hit theaters. At a news conference, Scorsese and Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein didn't deny reports that they have sparred about the length of the film, but did try to play them down.

"Listen, I'm an excitable person," Scorsese said. "And Harvey is a colorful person, too."

The director said there have always been delays during editing of his films. And this, he said, "is a big film."

Weinstein did not mention the film's reported $90 million to $100 million budget. But, he said, "We spent some money on this film because we wanted to create the kind of old-time movie that we don't see anymore."

The movie is set in the early 1860s, during the Civil War. While the United States was in danger of being torn apart, another war was raging in lower New York City � in the Five Points, one of the toughest slums in the world, between gangs like the Plug Uglies and the Swamp Angels.

The war pitted Irish immigrants, arriving daily by the thousands, against the Nativists, who opposed immigration and saw the Irish as interlopers. "This was a time for testing the idea of what America was supposed to be," Scorsese said.

All-star casting

Day-Lewis plays Bill the Butcher, a Nativist and the powerful leader of the Five Points. Years earlier, Bill killed the revered Irish immigrant Priest Vallon � in front of Vallon's son, Amsterdam.

After 15 years in a reform house, Amsterdam (DiCaprio) returns to the neighborhood to take his revenge. He quickly realizes he must infiltrate Bill's inner circle. As he does, he meets pickpocket Jenny Everdeane (Diaz), who has a past with Bill.

DiCaprio looks more grizzled here than in "Titanic," with a goatee and long hair. Day-Lewis, who won an Oscar for "My Left Foot," makes another of his startling transformations, strutting boastfully in a tall top hat, long tailcoat and bushy, upturned moustache, and speaking with a heavy New York accent.

"I'd oftentimes hear him sharpening his knives in his trailer," DiCaprio said laughingly, trying to give a sense of how Day-Lewis threw himself into his character. "For him, every character is like fighting a battle."

Weinstein told how the enigmatic Day-Lewis � who was working as a cobbler in Florence at the time � was lured to New York "on false pretenses," then persuaded to play the part during a long dinner at an Italian restaurant in Harlem with Scorsese, DiCaprio and Weinstein.

For Scorsese, the film is one more in a canon of works focused on New York, from "GoodFellas" to "After Hours" to "The Age of Innocence."

He told Monday's audience that the stories on which "Gangs of New York" is based have been in his heart and mind since he was 10 years old, in downtown New York.

"These stories permeated the walls and the cobblestones of the streets," he said.

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