Sunday, May 2, 2010

Quick Cut and Fade to Black: The Passing of Dede Allen

I just read about the death of an American moviemaking titan most of the world has never heard of. But without her, many of the films between 1961 and 2000 that are now considered classics may not be remembered today. Her name was Dede Allen (1923-2010) and she was one of the most skilled film editors to ever pick up a pair of scissors.

Here's a brief list of the films she worked her magic on (and her abilities were magical): Bonnie and Clyde, The Hustler, Slaughterhouse-Five, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Night Moves, Slap Shot, Reds, The Breakfast Club, Henry and June and Wonder Boys. Hers was a singular skill, she brought a passion and a vision to her craft that is only matched by very few editors in the modern era (Thelma Schoonmaker comes to mind). Without her, it could be argued that Bonnie and Clyde would not have the impact it has. Mixing reaction shot, slow motion and cutaways, her decisions helped that film's finale become the legend it is. Even the slow-moving Reds has a visual rhythm that would not have existed without her. Considering how incredibly talented she was, it's quite amazing she worked on so few films (according to IMBD, 31 titles from 1958 to 2008, plus her first credit in 1948). Perhaps too many directors were intimidated by her abilities and therefore she was not given the amount of work she deserved. But when she worked, even if you didn't know her name, you knew you were in the hands of a master. Even something as relatively innocuous as The Breakfast Club "moves" because her hands were in the editing suite (and it is to John Hughes' credit that he hired her because of her work on Dog Day Afternoon, a very talky movie of another sort). The greatest crime of all is that, though nominated three times (Dog Day Afternoon, Reds and Wonder Boys, but not, unbelievably, for Bonnie and Clyde), she never won an Oscar. Maybe it wasn't just directors who were afraid of her, maybe so were her fellow editors.

Too many of today's films seem to be cut to ribbons, thrown into the air and stitched back together again (I'm looking at you, The Dark Knight). The ability to build story through cutting rhythm is increasingly a lost art, and with the death of Allen there's one fewer genius out there.

-- David Churchill is a film critic and author. He is putting the finishing touches on his first novel, The Empire of Death.

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