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Dede Allen dies at 86; editor revolutionized imagery, sound and pace in U.S. films

Her work on 1967's 'Bonnie and Clyde' ushered in a new aesthetic that's now the standard in American film. She earned Oscar nominations for 'Dog Day Afternoon,' 'Reds' and 'Wonder Boys.'

April 18, 2010|Claudia Luther

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

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