Dede Allen dies at 86; editor revolutionized imagery, sound and pace in U.S. films
Dede Allen, the film editor whose seminal work on Robert Rossen’s “The Hustler” in 1961 and especially on Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde” in 1967 brought a startling new approach to imagery, sound and pace in American movies, died Saturday. She was 86.
Allen, who was nominated for Academy Awards for “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975), “Reds” (1981) and “Wonder Boys” (2000), died at her Los Angeles home days after having a stroke, said her son, Tom Fleischman.
FOR THE RECORD:
DeDe Allen obituary: In Sunday’s California section, the obituary of DeDe Allen said she was the first film editor to receive sole credit on a movie for her work. Allen was the first film editor to have a solo credit appear on screen alone at the beginning of a film. The article also said Allen was born in Cincinnati. She was born in Cleveland. --
Allen was the first film editor -- male or female -- to receive sole credit on a movie for her work. The honor came with “Bonnie and Clyde,” a film in which Allen raised the level of her craft to an art form that was as seriously discussed as cinematography or even directing.
“She was just an extraordinary collaborator, and in the course of editing that film, I came to develop confidence in Dede,” Penn told The Times on Saturday. “Indeed, she wasn’t an editor, she was a constructionist.”
The two were “not just collaborators,” Penn said, “but deep family friends. We made six films together.”
Greg S. Faller, professor of film studies at Towson University in Maryland, said “The Hustler” and “Bonnie and Clyde” “must be considered benchmark films in the history of editing.”
“It’s hard to see the changes she made because most of what she did has been so fully embraced by the industry,” Faller said.
Allen departed from the standard Hollywood way of cutting -- making smooth transitions starting with wide shots establishing place and characters and going on to medium shots and finally close-ups -- by beginning with close-ups or jump cuts. Although these editing methods had been pioneered by the French new wave and some British directors, Allen is generally credited with being the first to use and shape them in American film.
In Sidney Lumet’s “Dog Day Afternoon,” she employed a staccato tempo, sometimes called shock cutting.
“She creates this menacing quality by not cutting where you’d expect it -- she typically would cut sooner than you might expect,” Faller said. “You weren’t ready for it.”
She would also begin the sound from the next scene while the previous scene was still playing, a technique now standard in film editing.
In all, Allen edited or co-edited 20 major motion pictures over 40 years, but she was most closely identified with Penn and a handful of A-list directors such as Rossen, Lumet and George Roy Hill and actor-directors Paul Newman, Warren Beatty and Robert Redford.
Besides “Bonnie and Clyde,” which was produced by Beatty and starred Beatty and Faye Dunaway, Allen’s films for Penn included “Alice’s Restaurant,” “Little Big Man,” “Night Moves” and “The Missouri Breaks.”
She edited Lumet’s “Serpico,” “Dog Day Afternoon” and “The Wiz”; Hill’s “Slaughterhouse-Five” and “Slap Shot”; Newman’s “Rachel, Rachel” and “Harry & Son”; Beatty’s “Reds” (with Craig McKay, who shared the Oscar nomination) and Redford’s “The Milagro Beanfield War.”
But it was the violent tale based on the true story of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow -- lovers and robbers on the run during the Great Depression -- that secured her place as a pioneer in film.
Hardly a chase scene or violent sequence filmed since “Bonnie and Clyde” has not been a reference to Allen’s distinct style, which she developed under Penn’s direction.
“What we essentially were doing,” Penn said Saturday, “was developing a rhythm for the film so that it has the complexity of music.”
The famed final ambush scene in which Bonnie and Clyde are gunned down on a gravel road in rural Louisiana contains more than 50 cuts, though it lasts less than a minute. At Penn’s urging, Allen and her assistant, Jerry Greenberg, employed slow motion at some points and faster speed at others, creating a tense, violent and balletic conclusion.
Although the film initially left some movie critics in near-apoplectic disapproval of its mix of comedy and graphic violence, Pauline Kael, writing in the New Yorker magazine, called it “excitingly American.”
Kael had special praise for the movie’s editing, especially the “rag-doll dance of death” at the end of the picture, which she called “brilliant.”
“It is a horror that seems to go on for eternity, and yet it doesn’t last a second beyond what it should,” Kael wrote.
In his review in 1967, Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert called it “a milestone in the history of American movies, a work of truth and brilliance.”
Kael’s review and other critical praise prompted many to reevaluate the film, which in 1998 was listed at No. 27 on the American Film Institute’s list of the “100 Greatest American Movies of All Time.”
Dorothea Corothers Allen was born in Cincinnati on Dec. 3, 1923. She attended Scripps College in Claremont but left to take a job as a messenger at Columbia Pictures, hoping she could someday fulfill her dream of being a director.
Within a year, she was an assistant in sound effects, working on three-reelers. After long hours at her job, she would sit beside Carl Lerner, then an editor in television who later edited “Klute” and other films. With Lerner’s guidance, she learned the craft of editing: the assemblage of various scenes to create a coherent film.
In the early days of Hollywood, the cutters, as they were called, were often women, perhaps because, as Allen once commented to author Ally Acker, “women have always been good at little details, like sewing.”
But later those jobs mostly went to men, especially after World War II when military veterans returned to the film industry.
Unable to get a stronger foothold in the movies, Allen went with her husband to Europe and then New York City, where she took various jobs, including editing commercials, while raising her two children.
Working on commercials helped shape her style of editing, she often said.
In the late 1950s, Lerner recommended her for her first major editing task -- for director Robert Wise’s “Odds Against Tomorrow,” the taut film noir starring Harry Belafonte.
Allen credited Wise, who had been a film editor (“Citizen Kane”), for giving her the confidence to find her footing in the profession. She began experimenting with using sound to move the action forward, the precursor to her method of initiating sound from the next scene while the previous scene was still running.
“The overall effect increased the pace of the film -- something always happened, visually or aurally, in a staccato-like tempo,” Faller wrote in “Women Filmmakers and Their Films.”
“Odds” led to Rossen’s “The Hustler,” which gave Allen her first real opportunity to demonstrate what she had learned, including the use of cuts instead of dissolves between scenes.
“I think it surprised Rossen, but he left it,” she told the Film Quarterly in 1992 of her way of editing. “He used to say, ‘It works. It plays. Leave it. Don’t improve it into a disaster.’ ”
Ebert wrote of Allen’s work on “The Hustler” that she found the rhythm in the pool games -- “the players circling, the cue sticks, the balls, the watching faces -- that implies the trance-like rhythm of the players. Her editing ‘tells’ the games so completely that if we don’t understand pool, we forget that we don’t.”
When “Bonnie and Clyde” came along several years later, Allen employed her well-honed techniques and instincts about performance and story to help Penn deliver a film unlike any made in America before.
In 1994, Allen received the highest honor from her peers, a career achievement award given by American Cinema Editors. In November 2007 she received the Motion Picture Editors Guild’s Fellowship and Service Award.
For seven years during the 1990s, Allen was an executive at Warner Bros., overseeing pre- and post-production on many films. She returned to editing with “Wonder Boys” and was co-editor of Omar Naim’s “The Final Cut” (2004) and editor of “Fireflies in the Garden” (2008).
In addition to her son, Tom, a sound recording mixer, she is survived by her husband of 63 years, Stephen E. Fleischman, a retired TV news executive, documentary producer and writer; daughter Ramey Ward; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
Claudia Luther is a former Times staff writer
Must-read stories from the L.A. Times
Get all the day's most vital news with our Today's Headlines newsletter, sent every weekday morning.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.