Remembering Pioneering Film Editor Dede Allen Dede Allen — who worked on The Hustler and Bonnie and Clyde — died this week. In 1967, Allen became the first film editor — male or female — to receive sole credit on a movie for her work. Her rapid cutting style changed the way movies were seen and heard in the theater. Today, Fresh Air remembers Allen with interview highlights from 2000.
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Remembering Pioneering Film Editor Dede Allen

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Remembering Pioneering Film Editor Dede Allen


We're going to remember Dede Allen, a master film editor who died last Saturday in Los Angeles. She was 86 years old. One of her achievements was editing the classic 1961 movie "The Hustler." It starred Jackie Gleeson as Minnesota Fats and Paul Newman as the aggressive young pool shark Fast Eddie Felson.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Hustler")

(Soundbite of pool balls)

Mr. PAUL NEWMAN (Actor): (as Fast Eddie) I dreamed about this game, fat man. And I dreamed about this game every night on the road. Five ball.

(Soundbite of pool balls)

Mr. NEWMAN: (as Fast Eddie) You know, this is my table, man. I own it.

(Soundbite of pool balls)

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. NEWMAN: (as Fast Eddie) Thirteen ball.

(Soundbite of pool balls)

Mr. NEWMAN: (as Fast Eddie) Seven ball.

(Soundbite of pool balls)

Mr. NEWMAN: (as Fast Eddie) Four ball.

(Soundbite of pool balls)

Unidentified Man (Actor): (as character) Game.

(Soundbite of pool balls)

Mr. NEWMAN: (as Fast Eddie) Eleven ball.

(Soundbite of pool balls)

Mr. NEWMAN: (as Fast Eddie) Rack 'em.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. NEWMAN: (as Fast Eddie) Ten ball in the corner.

(Soundbite of pool balls)

Mr. NEWMAN: (as Fast Eddie) Ten ball in the corner pocket.

(Soundbite of pool balls)

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Man (Actor): (as character) Game.

DAVIES: In 1999, Dede Allen became the first film editor to receive a Career Achievement Award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. She's credited with editing or co-editing 20 major films over a 40-year period, including "Dog Day Afternoon," "Serpico," "Night Moves," "The Missouri Breaks," "Reds," "The Breakfast Club," "The Addams Family" and "The Wonder Boys."

Editing is essential in shaping the narrative and rhythm of a film, yet we often aren't conscious of it. But in Arthur Penn's 1967 film "Bonnie and Clyde," the editing of the final shootout was clearly remarkable. It was one of the most violent death scenes in cinematic history up to that point. As Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were hit with dozens of bullets, we see their bodies twitch and jump with the impact of each hit. And adding to the impact of the scene were the rapid edits that conveyed the fury of the bullets and showed the action at varying speeds.

(Soundbite of movie, "Bonnie and Clyde")

(Soundbite of gunfire)

DAVIES: Terry Gross interviewed Dede Allen in 2000. They began by talking about that shootout scene in "Bonnie and Clyde."

TERRY GROSS: You know what's always interested me about that scene, that it's really so little blood for so many bullet holes. It's almost as if there's a double standard in what violence is acceptable, that the bullets were okay but not the blood.

Ms. DEDE ALLEN (Film Editor): Well, an interesting thing, which is a parallel thing to this, is when we saw it, it was at a preview and Arthur almost died because everything was so bloody and so red. And I spent 11 more days at Technicolor to get the tone that Arthur wanted. I mean he was just distraught. It was a great preview. You know, it saved our lives that preview, but the color was pretty heavy and dense and the blood was very, very dark.

And I don't know how that quite relates to the bullets but certainly, I don't think Arthur was ever interested in having violent blood spurting out unless it was a real reason for it because basically this was a film that he made after the Kennedy assassination, and I've always felt that that was that last scene was a kind of a symbolic scene about the violence in America which, of course, still exists.

GROSS: When you were first learning how to edit film were there certain rules that you were told were basically unbreakable that you've subsequently broken?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ALLEN: Oh yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ALLEN: I remember one man, a very, very generous man who was doing Ann Miller pictures and he took me in and said I want to teach you something. He said you always start with a long shot, then you move in to an over shoulder or a group shot. And he said and you never change that order. Of course, when I started cutting in the years in New York before I could get features I was working in a - what was called a spot house and I was doing industrials and things. And somehow or other I was breaking that rule constantly.

I was doing medical films where, you know, I just didn't seem to think about that that way. When I got a chance to cut for Bob Wise I was terrified. He was after all, Orson Welles' editor and, you know, and I was very impressed. This was the first picture he also was in charge of producing. Harry Belafonte was producing a picture called "Odds Against Tomorrow," 1959, and I was by then 34 years old and I had been I had started when I was 18, so that was a long route to get there.

But the first Saturday that I ever showed Bob Wise my first scene it was a scene up on Riverside Drive in a clunky apartment where Ed Begley and Robert Ryan first meet with Harry Belafonte and Robert Ryan plays a very racist bank robber. And I worked that scene over and over and over again. And in those days you had hot splices, meaning big foot splices where if you lost a frame you had to slug it in black.

And so the first sequence that I showed him it had what I used to call little blackies in them. You know, little black slugs in them. And he looked at the scene and he punch me on the arm and says good girl. I like to see you've been working with that. Never be afraid. I said, oh I was so afraid all my mistakes would show. He says no. He says you've been working the scene. It wasn't like a time now where it would be Avid or something where can do it any one of a dozen ways and nobody sees your mistakes. He was just so encouraging. I mean I couldn't have had a better mentor as my first big feature.

GROSS: Let me ask you about the film "The Hustler," one of the early films you edited. This is the 1961 classic about pool hustlers starring Paul Newman and George C. Scott.

Ms. ALLEN: Right.

GROSS: And Jackie Gleeson. It was directed by Robert Rossen. In the pool scenes there's a real great rhythm between the pool shots, the view of the table and the cutaways to the reactions of the players and the spectators. And in some scenes the pace seems to just escalate as the game goes on and tension increases. Can you describe your approach to editing those pool sequences through the film?

Ms. ALLEN: Yes. Actually the pool sequences were the first things that were shot. We were in Ames Pool Hall for a long time and I was back in my cutting room cutting it. And when we shot what became montages and even the ones that were montages as the pace increased in that whole sequence at the beginning of the first big game that Minnesota Fats wins, it was long but it played.

This is the point I think I'm trying to make, it played. It played long. Once it was say a full reel and I got it down to then a half a reel and then, you know, this is for each montage. Some of the montages were faster. But if a scene played Rossen would tell me well it's kind of a he said don't piss in the mustard. It's kind of a dirty expression.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ALLEN: I don't know it you can use that. Don't improve it into a disaster.

GROSS: So you like to be at the rehearsals if possible. You like to be on the set. You like to see the dailies. Do you ever worry that that will influence your decision? That when you're actually editing a movie that a scene might look different than your memory of it or then the way it played on a set, and that you'll be kind of too influenced by the way it played on a set as opposed to...

Ms. ALLEN: Well, that's a good question. That's a very good question because actually I don't like to be on the set. I don't want to know who's fighting with who. I don't want to know any of that. That doesn't interest me in any way. I'm only on the set when I'm called on the set.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. ALLEN: Otherwise I don't really go on the set. I never go on the set because I like to look at the film and for me it's fresh.

GROSS: Right.

Ms. ALLEN: And I don't have to know any of the baggage that goes with making it.

GROSS: What should a good editor do to watch out for an actor?

Ms. ALLEN: Well, you just don't put anything you never make an actor look, for instance, if a woman is going up a staircase and there's a camera following her and it's someone who's being photographed, even if they have a very slender figure, sometimes they could look a little wobbly in the rear end. You would never put a shot like that. And I've sometimes seen things like that, where actors weren't protected as much as they could or an actor has a bad take and you - or they take a breath or they take that pause that you know is a preparation, and I've sometimes seen those left in films, and thats someone who just didnt know that they could get rid of that and cover it and not show where an actor basically paused because they were doing a prep. You have to know when they're really into the character and when they're not. Its a matter of knowing good acting, I guess.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Youve seen the technology of film editing change a lot since the 1940s, when you started as an apprentice. Tell us how you made an edit when you first started and how you make them now, digitally?

Ms. ALLEN: Well, when you first start you make an edit on film, you cut it on a splicer. And the splices have all changed too, because they used to be - or you do it with a scissor. I beg your pardon. I haven't gone back far enough.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ALLEN: You do it with a scissor and you would lose one side of the frame. You would lose a frame between each cut and so you had to put there are some even - I think in 16 mil when you lose two frames. I can't quite remember, but that's what I meant when I was talking about the Bob Wise, the first scene I ever cut.

GROSS: Right.

Ms. ALLEN: If you lost the frame, you had to slug it and you would slug it in black because that shows better than white. You wouldnt slug it in white because that would flash bright. So you would see the thing shatter with these little black things going through. I remember at Columbia, where I first started, I never got into the picture department there, but I remember before preview there would be these I would go up sometimes and be called in to help clean the film. They would clean the film within an inch of its life and replace any slug that was in it for the preview, and you would have your hand in a big double tin of carbon tet, which became very dangerous later. And you would squeegee it through various solvents very, very slowly to clean it up for the picture.

GROSS: Carbon tet is like a dry cleaning fluid.

Ms. ALLEN: Yeah. Its something used to be used for cleaning film, but its an noxious one. I mean its not, you know, you can get very sick from it.

GROSS: Right.

Ms. ALLEN: But we didnt know that in those days.

GROSS: And now youre editing digitally.

Ms. ALLEN: Now I'm editing digitally. Then there was the period when you had tape, of course. You know, you spliced it and you had - then you had the period of the Carlos Rivas, which is a straight splicer, where you only have to put one sprocket. And then Walter Murch developed one where you only had to put a half a sprocket, an little tiny thing where you never saw the tape. I mean each generation contributes. Its wonderful.

GROSS: Did you ever find yourself resisting change and preferring it the old way? Or did you go along with all the changes and welcome them?

Ms. ALLEN: You can't work in this industry if you resist change. I happen to love equipment. I mean, you know, when I lived with my grandparents the last three years of high school, I would fix the pluming and stuff like that. My grandfather was a surgeon. He wouldnt touch anything like that. So I was always - had fun with my mechanically - so I had no troubles with Moviolas and things like that, because mechanically I kind of liked them.

GROSS: When you started off in movies during the war and lot of men...

Ms. ALLEN: Second World War.

GROSS: Yeah. And a lot of men...

Ms. ALLEN: We have to say that these days.

GROSS: Thats right. And a lot of men who had had jobs were off fighting the war, so there were more openings. Do you think anything was more difficult for you as a woman? Were there any obstacles put before you? Were people willing to mentor you in spite of the fact that you were a woman?

Ms. ALLEN: Thats a word that wasnt used in those days. Nobody I used it in terms of I think I used it earlier in the interview because I've heard it so much lately.

GROSS: Right.

Ms. ALLEN: Obviously there are people who encourage you. I mean I never would've been able to get ahead in anything because I was working mostly with men, unless the men who helped me were encouraging. I mean thats, as far as I'm concerned, it took in my generation, certainly, men to help women. You just couldnt go blasting your way. After all, you had to the hardest thing to do is to be able to learn everything of what goes on in a laboratory and not be considered a, you know, an overbearing ballbuster, is the word that they used to use. I guess they still do. They use worse words now.

Anyway, its very hard to retain yourself as a woman and still be knowledgeable. And the only way you can do that is to learn everything you have to know about everything so that nobody can fool you, and laboratories were a wonderful place because I ended up with great relationships with people in labs because I had come from having cut commercials and industrials and laying out my own opticals.

So I knew labs and I knew the people who did the opticals and I knew what you could do. And when you know your stuff, they respect you. They dont think of you as a man or a woman. But it took in every new relationship in the early days. It took going through that period of learning that I really didn't know what I was talking about. So you had to work harder.

DAVIES: Dede Allen speaking with Terry Gross in 2000. Allen died Saturday at the age of 86.

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