Considering Dede Allen: The Editor as Revolutionary

 To understand what Dede Allen did for movies, watch the first moments of “Serpico.” As the opening credits roll on a black background, sirens wail in the distance. They grow louder as other sounds—a rhythmic beating noise and labored breathing—come in. By the opening frame—a close-up of Al Pacino’s bloodied face—we are already rooting for Serpico, a character we don’t even know. A moment later we learn the source of the rhythmic noise, so reminiscent of a heartbeat: the sound of windshield wipers on the police car speeding him to the hospital. 

Plunging headlong into the story’s emotional center was Dede Allen’s signature.  Though the decision to open the film with the immediate aftermath of the shooting was probably in the script, the heart-pounding elements—pre-lapping sound and rapid cutting between the emergency and the leisurely reactions to it from the station and police commissioner’s house–were purely editorial. As Craig McKay, an editor who worked with Allen on “Reds,” “Slaughterhouse 5” and “Night Moves,” recalled, Allen’s mantra was “You have to cut with your gut.” 

       From the Silent Era through the 1950’s, the language of editing was straightforward: scenes opened with establishing shots that steadily moved to medium shots and close-ups. Dissolves and fades signaled every change in time and place. Shoe leather—the depiction of characters’ movement from place to place—dragged down the action. Dede Allen rejected the idea that audiences needed such devices to understand the story—“never use a useless shot” was another of her mottos—and in the 1960’s, beginning with Robert Rossen’s “The Hustler,” she began to reject them. 

More significantly, Allen made radical innovations that over the years have become commonplace: making sound precede picture (pre-lapping); composing sequences of rapid cuts among a variety of shots; mixing slow motion with regular speed; cutting before the end of the scene; and fracturing time by changing the sequence of scenes. (A few younger editors employed these techniques in the 1970’s, notably Walter Murch for Francis Ford Coppola and Thelma Schoonmaker for Martin Scorsese.) 

Although some of these decisions were directorial, their prevalence in films edited by Allen—among them, “Serpico,” “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Little Big Man,” “Missouri Breaks,” and “Dog Day Afternoon,” clearly point to her. (So do interviews with Allen and the directors and editors with whom she worked.) 

In 1967, Allen became the first film editor to receive a solo opening credit on a movie—“Bonnie and Clyde.” Before then, editors had been studio employees, not freelancers in need of attribution. Beyond that, editing was a low-profile job that was considered partly manual labor. (When she started in the late 1940’s, Allen was told she’d never succeed as an editor because she wasn’t strong enough to carry the reels.)  But by the 1960’s, the studio system was irretrievably broken and the creative contribution of editors increasingly recognized. As McKay pointed out, “Individuals were carrying the responsibility that studios once carried.” 

“Bonnie and Clyde” features superb acting, directing and cinematography, but the editing makes it a masterpiece. Nowhere is Allen’s contribution more striking than in the climactic shootout, which juxtaposes long shots of the meadow and birds in flight, medium shots of the bushes where the shooters are concealed, and close shots of Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway’s faces as they register the birds, the rustling leaves and finally each other before collapsing in a hail of bullets. Some of the close shots are in slow motion, capturing the way time distorts in traumatic circumstances. It’s a scene whose power never diminishes: more than 40 years later, it remains shocking, vital and new. 

Although Allen worked with many directors, including the actor-directors Paul Newman, Robert Redford and Warren Beatty, the six films she made with Arthur Penn and the three she made with Sidney Lumet are among her most emblematic. Though some capture current events (“Serpico” and “Dog Day Afternoon”) and others the past (“Bonnie and Clyde,” “Little Big Man,” “Missouri Breaks”), all reflect the turbulent freedoms of decade in which they were made—1966-1976. 

Sidney Lumet’s “Dog Day Afternoon,” a ripped-from-the-headlines story of a Brooklyn bank robbery gone awry, showcases Allen’s talents in the “Attica” scene, in which bank robber Sonny (Al Pacino) incites the gathering crowd. As Sonny begins yelling “Attica,” Allen makes a series of rapid cuts from him to the onlookers, the media and scores of riot-ready policemen outside the bank. As the momentum increases, she cuts to a helicopter shot, giving us a bird’s eye view as the street explodes into mayhem. But equally reflective of Allen’s style is the scene introduces Sonny’s estranged wife, Angie (Susan Peretz). Though Angie has very little screen time, Allen’s use of voiceover against a montage of maternal drudgery tells us all we need to know about her life. 

A departure from contemporary subjects were the two Westerns Allen edited for Penn, “Little Big Man” and “The Missouri Breaks.” Although “Little Big Man” was largely set between 1850 and 1876 and “The Missouri Breaks” in the 1880’s, both films feel modern because of her editing.  The use of pre-laps and very few fades liberate both films from the plodding pace of classic westerns. But the pacing of “The Missouri Breaks” feels rushed at times and, as the story jumps back and forth in time, the lack of visual transitions is sometimes jarring. As admirable as Allen’s motives and techniques are, it’s not unreasonable to expect fades and dissolves in a period piece—and more recent western-themed films like “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” and “There Will Be Blood” signal a change in that direction. 

By the end of the 1970’s, Allen’s techniques were no longer radical; in fact, they had been embraced by other editors. Three decades later, audiences don’t even notice them—except, of course, in contrast to old movies. By the time Allen edited “Wonder Boys” (2000), her style was no longer striking: it was the norm. Still, “Wonder Boys” works beautifully because of it, beginning with the opening frame, a blur of colors over which bells and murmuring voices can be heard. As the scene comes into focus, we see an academic quadrangle through rain-speckled glass and hear Michael Douglas’s voiceover, which begins as the reading of a short story and veers into witty commentary. “Never the let the audience get ahead of the story” was one of Dede Allen’s dictates. In “Wonder Boys” the story begins just before our arrival; the fact that we’re immediately in the thick of it says everything about her genius.

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Craig McKay’s quotes were taken from “The Legacy of Film Editor Dede Allen,” NPR, April 19th, 2010 

Films Edited by Dede Allen Discussed in this Essay: 

  1. Wonder Boys (2000) dir. Curtis Hanson
  2. The Missouri Breaks (1976) dir. Arthur Penn
  3. Dog Day Afternoon (1975) dir. Sidney Lumet
  4. Serpico (1973) dir. Sidney Lumet
  5. Little Big Man (1970) dir. Arthur Penn
  6. Bonnie and Clyde (1967) dir. Arthur Penn
  7. The Hustler (1961) dir. Robert Rossen

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