Dede Allen, who died over the weekend of a stroke at the age of 86, thought of herself as a “gut editor.” In a quote from Mark Harris’s book “Pictures at a Revolution,” about the Academy Award nominees for Best Picture in 1967, Allen succinctly explained her technique. “Intellect and taste count,” she said, “but I cut with my feelings.” The movie Allen cut in 1967 (with her feelings as well as her intelligence and a great deal of innovation) was “Bonnie and Clyde,” and though her work was inexplicably unrewarded by the Academy, it was one of the primary reasons the film became an important and influential movie. The sequence where Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow meet their bloody end remains one of the most justly famous scenes in cinematic history. Some of its shock value has been lost in 40-plus years and many have imitated its techniques (particularly its blend of shots of different frame rates to elongate its eruption of violence), few have matched its power or its bloody beauty:
From the moment Clyde steps out of his car to the overhead shot of the two lifeless bodies is about one minute and three seconds. In that time, there are 60 cuts, a particularly impressive number when you consider that Allen assembled the sequence long before digital editing, piecing together actual segments of celluloid, a few frames at a time. After a long, successful career as an editor and a period as an executive for Warner Brothers, Allen learned to edit on an Avid, and used it on Curtis Hanson’s “Wonder Boys” (that time, she got an Oscar nomination). While no one would dispute computers make editing easier, Allen didn’t necessarily find them superior.
In a 2000 interview for Movie Picture Editors Guild Magazine, she told Mia Goldman that the classic techniques had their advantages. “The greatest disadvantage [to digital editing] I can think of is that you don’t screen your material as much as you used to.” she said. “I’d do a lot of memorizing and somehow the availability of the exact pieces that I had memorized made the process seem, ironically, more immediate.”
According to the Los Angeles Times’ obituary for Allen, she got her start in the movie business as a messenger at Columbia Pictures. Though she dreamed of being a director, she worked her way up as a cutter in the special effects department. She eventually began editing commercials then graduated to feature films as the cutter on films like Robert Wise’s “Odds Against Tomorrow” (1959) and Robert Rossen’s “The Hustler” (1961). Soon came “Bonnie and Clyde” which, according to the Times, marked the first time in history an editor received sole credit for their contribution to a film.
Her filmography also includes Sidney Lumet’s “Serpico” (1973) and “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975) and Warren Beatty’s “Reds” (1981); she received Oscar nominations for Best Editing for the last two. Though she’s now best remembered for “Bonnie and Clyde,” her most underrated work might have come in two classic, genre-defining comedies: George Roy Hill’s “Slap Shot” (1977) and John Hughes’s “The Breakfast Club” (1985). Every American teenager since then has watched the latter; most of them have studied and then imitated the famous dance sequence, brilliantly edited by Allen to Karla DeVito’s song “We Are Not Alone”:
Here’s a classic scene from “Slap Shot.” The biggest laugh in the clip isn’t the fighting, or the dialogue — it’s a single, sudden jump cut from the brawl to the aftermath (look for it at the 1:40 mark):
In the interview with Goldman, Allen was asked what advice she had for editors. She said, “I would give the same advice I gave in the old days which is learn where the scene is.” In the flash of glances between lovers in the split-second before their death, or the angry glare of a ref to a hockey goon, in dozens of movies, hundreds of scenes, thousands of cuts, Allen always found it.
[Photos: Dede Allen during the production of “Reds,” Paramount Pictures, 1981; “The Hustler,” 20th Century Fox, 1961]