Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Dede Allen Was A Hero To Me--A Movie Tribute

I used to make short movies as a kid, with my old Kodak Super-8 camera, and whatever friends I could  round up, lighting them as best I could.  The most satisfying aspect, creatively, of the whole process was the editing afterward.  My "editing bench" was a small video screen flanked by two "arms", on which the plastic reels of film would be attached, and handles on each arm allowed the cranking of the film forward and back through the viewer.  In front of that was a small cutting tool with a scraper.  I would painstakingly assemble the film strips, looking for the exact frame lines at which to cut.  To cement two cut ends together, the emulsion, or exposed side of the film, was scraped, and a special dissolving glue was applied to each end that fused them together. 

I took great pains to cut at exactly the correct frame. I also experimented with lengths of shots, jump cuts, rhythm, and angle.

That was back when the people behind the scenes of moviemaking were my heroes.  I thrilled to names like Geoffrey Unsworth, Vittorio Storaro, Edith Head, Robert Knudson, Vilmos Szigmond, Jan Troell, and especially, the editors:  David Bretherton, Alan Heim, Thelma Schoonmaker, Verna Fields, and Dede Allen. 

I spent my youth imitating these groundbreakers, these giants in the eyes of a hopeful boy lost in a reverie of creativity.

Dede Allen died last week, and the news of her passing hit me like the loss of a family member.  Allen edited some of Hollywoods greatest films, several of which are in my treasure trove of favorites.  She came to prominence with 1961's "The Hustler" with Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason. Later, through the late 60's, her work was recognized for its powerhouse innovation and integration of techniques from the French New Wave to create an exciting and groundbreaking aesthetic in American film. 

This was best seen in her work in the classic "Bonnie and Clyde".  Her unusual cutting and rhythm kept the viewer off-balance, and heightened the sense of impending violence.  This technique was brilliantly employed in the more free-form "Alice's Restauruant" in which the devil-may-care style appropriately matched the liberated characters on screen. "Dog Day Afternoon" was a juggernaut of suspense and humor.  Al Pacino's frenzied evocation of Attica in front of a curious crowd during a bank hostage crisis is bravura work from Allen.  For "Reds", Director Warren Beatty shot two and a half million feet of film, employing scores of cutters for dailies, until Allen assembled a 3-and-a-half-hour work that never flagged.

Sadly, she was ever a bridesmaid at the Oscars, true of many deserving artists who were so skilled and effective, that voters most certainly thought they could wait another year to recognize her.

Allen, like her contemporaries, used the rather primitive movieolas and other equipment available to her, and had no high-concept, computerized editing technology in those early days. She was like a writer and sculptor in the raw medium that was the film stock she molded into classic work.  While her effects may have been appropriately invisible to the casual viewer, it inspired boys like me who watched in awe and wonder, and could not wait to shoot a few rolls of film just to see how we could put it all together later.

As a budding artist, nothing was more satisfying.

Classic film editing is becoming a neglected art, and fades ever darker with the passing of great editors like Dede Allen.  With the help of humble folks like myself, I hope work like hers will be revisited, and appreciated, for many more years.

Here, from "Bonnie and Clyde" (1967) is perhaps the most famous sequence Allen ever edited, and one of the essential classics of American movies.


  1. Interesting post, Tom! I have to admit I never gave much thought to the editing process until my daughter started doing it in film school, but I can totally appreciate, especially after watching the clip, the artistic nature involved with it and the amazing talent and skill Dede Allen possessed. The film world has certainly lost a cherished member.

  2. Tom, I was obsessed by the activity of film editing all through high school.. It provides similar satisfactions as writing.
    I would like to know more about your daughter's current work!
    Thank you for commenting on a topic that means a lot to me.

  3. Classic, iconic, and still moving....