Friday, December 19, 2014

Dede Allen, Editor Who Rewrote Film Grammar, 1923-2010

Before Dede Allen, the legendary film editor who died Saturday at the age of 86, most classic Hollywood movies had a subject-verb-object grammar (a longshot of the character followed by a medium shot of his action capped by a closeup of the action's effect on the object) and rhythm. Before Dede Allen, the sound you heard matched the image on the screen. But when Allen spliced The Hustler (1961), locating the psychology of each scene in the establishing shot (the ambitious glint in Paul Newman's eye, the collision of balls on the pool table to indicate the collision of wills between "Fast Eddie" Felson and his rival Minnesota Fats) and overlapping the sound from the forthcoming scene as a segue between sequences, everything changed. Allen didn't think editing should be codified like a textbook but rather allusive like a poem. (Her mentor, Robert Wise -- who served as the film editor on Citizen Kane and hired her to cut his Odds Against Tomorrow, is said to have encouraged her experimentation.)

Dede Allen, Editor Who Rewrote Film Grammar, 1923-2010

Dede Allen, cutting  the facet and making the movie sparkle.
Dede Allen, cutting the facet and making the movie sparkle.

Before Dede Allen, the legendary film editor who died Saturday at the age of 86, most classic Hollywood movies had a subject-verb-object grammar (a longshot of the character followed by a medium shot of his action capped by a closeup of the action's effect on the object) and rhythm. Before Dede Allen, the sound you heard matched the image on the screen. But when Allen spliced The Hustler (1961), locating the psychology of each scene in the establishing shot (the ambitious glint in Paul Newman's eye, the collision of balls on the pool table to indicate the collision of wills between "Fast Eddie" Felson and his rival Minnesota Fats) and overlapping the sound from the forthcoming scene as a segue between sequences, everything changed. Allen didn't think editing should be codified like a textbook but rather allusive like a poem. (Her mentor, Robert Wise -- who served as the film editor on Citizen Kane and hired her to cut his Odds Against Tomorrow, is said to have encouraged her experimentation.)

Influenced by French New Wave filmmakers, Allen cut the duration of the average shot to give the movie a quicker rhythm. Arthur Penn, for whom she edited the groundbreaking Bonnie and Clyde (1967), eulogized her as "not an editor, but a constructionist," the architect of the film's tempo. Allen is most celebrated for her work with Warren Beatty (who produced Bonnie and Clyde and directed 1981's Reds) and John Hughes (The Breakfast Club and Planes, Trains and Automobiles.) Her collaborators -- especially actors -- credit Allen for building their performances, often combining footage from different takes in a jagged and incisive way. Case in point: Jack Nicholson's Eugene O'Neill confessing his love to Diane Keaton's Louise Bryant in Reds. There's an argument to be made that she deserves supporting actor honors for building Al Pacino's performances in Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon.

Allen was an indispensable resource for directors. I love this anecdote (hat tip, Anne Thompson) about how when Hughes couldn't find a suitable ending for Planes, Trains Allen juggled some footage to give him the ending he didn't realize was already there, like a diamond cutter cutting the facet that makes the stone sparkle.

According to those who knew her,  she was an infinitely wise and patient woman could find the needle in a haystack of film and the fun in a humorless moment.  I've always loved her story (quoted in Peter Biskind's Beatty bio, Star ) about complimenting Beatty on the "modern" language of the Reds screenplay, which honored the historical character of  journalist John Reed, but was relatable to 1980s audiences. Beatty's response: "Dede, this is not Warren Beatty as John Reed, this is John Reed as Warren Beatty!" She knew what movie stars were and made them twinkle brightly as the films they were in.

Your favorite movie in the Allen filmography? While The Hustler and Bonnie and Clyde are most influential, for me her work on Sidney Lumet's Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon is unbeatable.

Carrie Rickey Film Critic
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Carrie Rickey Film Critic
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