Touchstone reportedly delayed the release of ''Billy Bathgate'' because of dissatisfaction with the ending of the film, one that was said to have been ''fixed.''
What they did was go back to the original ending, and it is good they did. It works. So do the last 40 minutes of the film. It's the first hour that poses problems.
For that much time, the new film is twitchy. Based on the novel by E.L. Doctorow, the movie has excellent decor and admirable texture, but it seems disjointed. For too long, it is a film that works very hard to find its core and doesn't do that until the plot focuses on the title character and the woman with whom he becomes involved.
''Billy Bathgate'' is really the story of Dutch Schultz, the notorious gangster who ruled his empire at a time when Lucky Luciano was working the other side of the city.
When the film begins, Schultz, played with great swagger by Dustin Hoffman, is putting one of his former associates out of the way. He has encased his former friend's feet in concrete and is ready to send him to the bottom of the river.
NB We learn, in flashback, that Bo Weinberg (Bruce Willis) had be
trayed Schultz, had taken money that wasn't his and was secretly working with Luciano.
Witness to all this is Billy, a 16-year-old Irish boy who wants to make it as a big-time criminal, with Schultz as his sponsor.
It's a dangerous profession. Schultz is a murderous fiend who does anything he chooses. He destroys all those who threaten his position, and when he finds it necessary to abuse Billy, he does that, too.
Billy does take chances. He gets into bed with the socialite who was Weinberg's girl. When Weinberg is out of the way, she picks up with Schultz, then Billy.
When Schultz discovers that the woman knows too much about him,he decides to put her away. This is when the film picks up, takes form and moves along, but by this time, the movie is already one hour old.
Its trouble may be that it wants to be The Gangster Film of the '90s, and that one (''GoodFellas'') has already been made.
Nicole Kidman is the society lady who enjoys doing time with gangsters, and Loren Dean is the title character, a boy whose mother works in a sweat shop. Both do extremely well with their assignments.
Tom Stoppard did the script, and Robert Benton directed ''Billy Bathgate.'' With all this talent, we should have more than we do.
** A young Irish boy becomes a runner for Dutch Schultz, hoping to join his organization.
CAST: Dustin Hoffman, Bruce Willis, Nicole Kidman, Loren Dean, Stephen Hill
DIRECTOR: Robert Benton
RATING: R (language, nudity, violence)
) RUNNING TIME: 103 minutes