Best Film Editing
Sequences of All-Time:
From the Silents to the Present

Part 7

Best Film Editing Sequences of All-Time
Film Title/ Director & Editor and Film Description

Don't Look Now (1973, UK/It.)

d. Nicolas Roeg
Film Editor: Graeme Clifford

This intense mystery/drama told about a vacationing married couple Laura (Julie Christie) and John Baxter (Donald Sutherland). They were in Venice after the tragic accidental drowning demise of their daughter in England.

The two had a three-minute explicit, honest, and frank love scene in their hotel room in which they reconnected emotionally. [Many questioned whether the sex was real or not.]

The erotic sex scene was creatively edited - intercut and juxtaposed with their showering-bathing-dressing (in both the bathroom and bedroom) and last-minute preparations for going out to dinner afterwards. As they relaxed languorously together on the bed, she stated: "You've got toothpaste all over your mouth" to which he replied: "Eat if off" - she responded with a kiss, and a playful stroking of his naked backside as they both stretched out on a bed to make love.

[Note: The scene was imitated in Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight (1998) between George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez.]

The Film's Infamous Love Scene

Another deftly edited sequence was in the film's seven-minute opening with over 100 separate shots. It was composed of a series of intercut foreshadowing visual clues that were later elliptically inter-woven into the film, ominously portending further death.

The Conversation (1974)

d. Francis Ford Coppola
Film Editor: Richard Chew

Francis Ford Coppola's timely, low-budget cinematic masterpiece of the 1970s was a slowly-gripping, bleak study of electronic surveillance and threat of new technologies.

In its audacious opening scene (under the credits), the setting was surveyed with a bird's-eye view of Union Square in downtown San Francisco during a busy lunch time on a sunny day in December. Pedestrians, office workers on lunch break, and Christmas shoppers mingled together in the long view.

Slowly, the camera zoomed closer and picked out a young, white-faced Mime (Robert Shields), dressed in a black-and-white drum major's costume, who imitated and parodied unsuspecting bypassers. The Mime selected a mid-40s aged, balding gentleman in the crowd who was sipping coffee and wearing a grayish, transparent rain slicker. The man - soon identified as the protagonist - was Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), a bespectacled, slightly balding, mustached, mid-forties leader of a professional team of snoopers-for-hire who were monitoring something in the park.

Below a neon-lit sign for the CITY PARIS (on top of an image of the Eiffel Tower) high atop a building was a bundled-up individual wearing headphones holding an extended shot-gun microphone pointed into the square. It became increasingly clear that the target of surveillance, where the telescopic gunsight was aimed, was a young couple, later identified as:

  • Ann (Cindy Williams), a young pretty woman in her twenties
  • Mark (Frederic Forrest), a clean-cut, well-dressed company executive

Innocuously, Harry stood close to the couple as they joined the group of spectators around the band. Another man named Paul (Michael Higgins), part of the eavesdropping team, with a hearing-aid wire and carrying a shopping bag with electronic recording devices inside a disguised gift package, also discreetly followed them to 'record' their conversation. Bits and pieces of their disjointed, fragmented talk were heard as it cut in and out while they were walking and talking.

Later in the film, Harry methodically sorted through the materials from the previous day's work. In a mesmerizing scene, he threaded and synchronized three tape recorders with the tapes from the three locales (Unit A: shopping bag, Unit B: parabolic, Unit C: City of Paris). By playing all three recorders at the same time and varying their volumes on a mixer, Harry was able to construct, synthesize and splice together a fourth clearer recording onto another Ampex tape-recording machine.

Painstakingly, he rewound and replayed fragments of dialogue - slowly piecing together Ann and Mark's audible conversation. Flashbacks cut back and forth to the footage from the previous afternoon.

Eventually, as he listened and further interpreted, he revealed evidence of what he conjectured was a sinister plot regarding the 'personal problems' of his clients. At the same time in the scene, he argued with his assistant Stanley (John Cazale), who made annoying statements about their "stupid conversation" on the tape.

But as Harry delved deeper and deeper into the recording, spinning and rewinding the final inaudible fragments of conversation, he finally deciphered the most devastating and crucial line of dialogue below the sound of the bongo drums:

"He'd kill us if he got the chance."

Jaws (1975)

d. Steven Spielberg

(Best Film Editing Winner: Verna Fields)

Spielberg's film was a huge summer box-office blockbuster in the mid-1970s, although the filming suffered many difficulties:

  • technical problems (the film was dubbed "Flaws" by the crew)
  • costly delays in the schedule on Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts where the set was located (the on-location shoot escalated from 55 days to 159 days)
  • issues with malfunctioning, hydraulically-operated mechanical sharks (one was nicknamed 'Bruce' after the name of Spielberg's lawyer) after they were placed in the salt-water

Much of the film was severely edited to avoid showing the shark for a long period of time (because of problems with the fake sharks), thereby actually enhancing the film's scare quotient.

Rocky (1976)

d. John Avildsen

(Best Film Editing Winner: Richard Halsey, Scott Conrad)

This phenomenally successful, uplifting, "sleeper" film was filmed in a record twenty-eight days with a paltry budget of about $1 million, and ultimately grossed well over $100 million.

The action-packed, 'feel-good' crowd-pleasing story, shot mostly on location, told of the rise of a small-time, has-been, underdog Philadelphia boxer named Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) against insurmountable odds in a big-time bout. He was given emotional support by his shy, hesitant, loving girlfriend Adrian (Talia Shire).

In the most memorable, well-edited sequence of the film, a montage accompanied by the rousing song "Gonna Fly" (by Bill Conti), Rocky underwent further grueling training and workouts in preparation for his Bicentennial fight against Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers).

  • at dawn, he sprinted beneath an overhead train
  • made another run through the City of Brotherly Love's streets and marketplaces
  • punched a bag
  • did one-armed pushups
  • took punches to his mid-section
  • executed endless situps
  • pounded more slabs of beef
  • sprinted along the city's waterway

In the conclusion of the sequence, he dashed (and effortlessly flew) up the endless steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, taking many steps with each leap.

He turned and faced the panorama of the city, with his hands triumphantly raised in the air. Although his first run up the endless steps was overwhelmingly strenuous, this run was easy.

The cover story "Italian Stallion" in TEMPO Magazine (red-bordered like Time Magazine) displayed his fighting stance.

Star Wars (1977)

d. George Lucas

(Best Film Editing Winner: Paul Hirsch, Marcia Lucas, and Richard Chew)

The Oscar-winning Death Star battle sequence was prefaced by a briefing session. Rebel Alliance pilots, including young Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), were told about the Death Star's one vulnerable Achilles' heel "weakness" - a long, narrow shaft at the center. If penetrated, entered by a small one-man fighter after a difficult approach, and struck in a direct hit with a proton torpedo, it would explode the entire leviathan in a lethal chain reaction.

During the actual battle, as the Rebel fighters plunged toward the Death Star's surface to enter the trench and reach the target area, Luke heard Obi Wan Kenobi's/Ben's (Alec Guinness) advice inside his helmet: "Luke, trust your feeling." The engines of the Imperial fighters screeched into range as they entered into the impressively choreographed space battle/attack.

The Rebel fighters of Luke's Red Group entered the Dogfight Alley trench, but one by one, all of the fighters were blown up as they attempted to fire torpedoes. Luke became the last hope of the Rebels when all the other wingmen were eliminated.

Providing surprise backup support in their battered freighter, roguish Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca unexpectedly reappeared to defend Luke just as Darth Vader (voice of James Earl Jones) was preparing to destroy his Rebel fighter. Solo screamed: "Yahoo!" and blasted away at the Imperial fighters from behind.

Vader's fighter craft was clipped by one of his own fighters, causing him to hurtle wildly out of control into deep space. Han assured Luke to continue: "You're all clear, kid. Now let's blow this thing and go home."

In the exciting conclusion, Luke moved toward the target area and fired his two proton torpedoes at exactly the right instant with a well-placed shot into the shaft, without using his targeting computer.

Han, Luke, and the remaining Rebel fighters swiftly flew away from the Death Star.

Instead of the Rebel planet exploding, the Death Star flashed and exploded in a destructive shower of white, killing the evil forces.

All That Jazz (1979)

d. Bob Fosse

(Best Film Editing Winner: Alan Heim)

During the early morning ritual of hung-over director Bob Fosse (Roy Scheider) in this semi-autobiographical American musical film, the film opened with the self-destructive, work-aholic showman in quick shots in his bathroom:

  • he pressed 'Play' on his cassette deck to start his Vivaldi classical music (Concerto for Strings and Continuo)
  • he dropped two Alka-Seltzer tablets into glass of water, watching them fizz
  • he reached for his Dexedrine pill prescription in yellow bottle
  • he viewed the tape reading: "TOTAL AUTOMATIC SHUTOFF"
  • he reached for the glass (top-view)
  • he leaned backwards, sweating, against his mirror
  • he took the cap off of the Dexedrine bottle
  • he stood under the shower head to let the water hit his head
  • he took Dexedrine pills
  • he administered more Visine to his eye
  • he leaned forward holding his aching head with his hands
  • he adjusted shower nozzle
  • he drank the Alka-Seltzer mixture
  • he turned toward his mirror (next to a poster of dancing legs)
  • he put more Visine in his eye and then blinked
  • he stood in front of his mirror to deliver his trademark or signature line: "It's showtime, folks!"

Apocalypse Now (1979)

d. Francis Ford Coppola

(Best Film Editing Nominee: Richard Marks, Walter Murch, Gerald B. Greenberg, Lisa Fruchtman)

Producer/director Francis Ford Coppola's visually beautiful, ground-breaking masterpiece with surrealistic and symbolic sequences, detailed the confusion, violence, fear, and nightmarish madness of the Vietnam War.

The war film told about a US Army assassin's mission, both a mental and physical journey, to 'terminate' a dangerously-lawless warlord and former Colonel who had gone AWOL, had become a self-appointed god, and ruled a band of native warriors in the jungle.

The lyrical, slow-moving opening sequence was a dazzling, edited combination of cinematography, music and hallucinatory images from the brutal and destructive war in Vietnam. The sounds of the war chopper blades (chuk-chuk-chuk) were heard and flaming sights of war were seen at the edge of a green-canopied jungle of palm trees as explosive fiery napalm was dropped.

The mind-altering, mournful words of the soundtrack from The End: "This is the end..." (sung by burned out 60s rock star Jim Morrison of the Doors) played over nightmarish memories of the war. Dust swirls and golden, billowing napalm flames filled the air.

In 1968, debauched, moody, divorced Army Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) of US Army Intelligence (505th Batallion, 173rd Airborne), was in a sleazy, dingy, sepia-toned Saigon hotel room, isolated, alienated, sweat-bathed and recovering from battle fatigue. At first, his inverted face was superimposed over the left half of the screen.

There were panning shots of his dog tag, a pile of bills, his wallet, a woman's picture, an opened letter and envelope, cigarettes, a glass and Cordon Bleu bottle, and a gun lying next to his pillow. He was drinking and deliberately closed off from the outside world, haunted by his liquor-induced memories of the choppers, gunfire and the war.

The sound of the helicopter blades was brought back by the whop-whop (or puck-puck) sound of an overhead ceiling fan. He realized his present state of inactivity, having been in Saigon a week - and feared that he was beginning to go a little crazy. In a flat-voiced voice-over, as he looked out the slats of his venetian-blinded window and laid on his bed, he revealed that he was desperately "waiting for a mission" and praying to get back into the N. Vietnamese wilderness: "Saigon. S--t! I'm still only in Saigon."

During a frenzied, spastic, half-nude karataka dance in the room, he self-destructively punched and broke the mirror (symbolically destroying his own image), bloodied his right fist and then wiped the bright red blood all over his face and nude body.

Best Film Editing Sequences
(chronological order)
Introduction | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10

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