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

Part 8

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

Raging Bull (1980)

d. Martin Scorsese

(Best Film Editing Winner: Thelma Schoonmaker)

In the film's brutal, no-holds-barred look at the gladiatorial sport of boxing in documentary-style, B/W newsreel footage, Jake La Motta (Robert De Niro) unsparingly engaged other boxers in the ring in some of the most realistic, visceral, bloody, and brutal yet stylized boxing scenes ever filmed.

Sweat and blood sprayed out of the ring, devastating blows were seen in close-up, and flashing - actually exploding - camera bulbs popped.

Michael Chapman's stunning, crisp black-and-white cinematography (throughout the entire film except for the home video segments) and subjective camera used innovative techniques including slow-motion (varying camera speeds), 360 degree pans, and titled camera angles for various fight scenes.

Although the eight fight scenes seemed to occupy much of the film, their screen time totaled only ten minutes, but they took about six weeks to film.

Even more time was necessary to edit the dozens of shots that made up each boxing match.

Body Heat (1981)

d. Lawrence Kasdan
Film Editor: Carol Littleton

In this dramatic, modern day film noir, set in the hot atmosphere of Miranda Beach, Florida, alluring, crafty, and sultry femme fatale "Matty Walker" (Kathleen Turner) seduced corruptible, dim-witted, naive, and incompetent attorney Ned Racine (William Hurt), to convince him to kill her husband Edmund (Richard Crenna).

Before the attempted murder, in one of the film's numerous, highly-charged, sweaty sex scenes with incredible sexual tension (due to its precise editing), Ned broke into her locked house through the porch bay window with a garden chair (to the sound of wind chimes) to kiss the awaiting, horny and receptive Matty.

She was standing waiting for him at the foot of her stairs. He made love to her on the floor, when she removed her bright red skirt and panties to accommodate him and begged: "Do it!"

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

d. Steven Spielberg

(Best Film Editing Winner: Michael Kahn)

At the start of a memorable sequence in the film's exciting prologue, Indiana "Indy" Jones (Harrison Ford) had just snatched a fierce-looking but beautiful golden idol from an altar, located in a mid-1930s South American rainforest jungle cave setting.

After a miscalculation, Indy set off a loud chain reaction of destruction.

The entire sanctuary rumbled and shook and rocks fell loose from the collapsing walls, as Indy spun around and ran through the tiled floor area.

He set off a noisy torrent of poisonous darts and arrows.

After losing the idol and then regaining it from his traitorous Peruvian helper Satipo (Alfred Molina) who was bloodily spiked in the head, Indy suddenly turned toward a loud rumbling noise, and saw behind him a huge, thundering boulder.

The giant bowling ball rock tumbled, roared and rolled in his direction - perfectly sized to fit the passageway. Indy dashed just ahead of the destructive, crushing boulder.

He lept to safety outside the cave, just as the giant rock slammed into the entrance of the cave and sealed it perfectly.

Flashdance (1983)

d. Adrian Lyne

(Best Film Editing Nominee: Bud Smith, Walt Mulconery)

MTV, a cutting-edge music video channel on cable, was launched 24/7 in August, 1981. As a result, its style of fast-moving montage, circumventing conventional narratives with visual storytelling, was influential on many films that followed, such as Adrian Lyne's R-rated Flashdance (1983), and later on Tony Scott's music-infused Top Gun (1986) (particularly the sequence filmed to the tune of "Take My Breath Away") and Ridley Scott's Thelma & Louise (1991).

Lyne had previously been a TV commercial director, so his style was characterized by fast-edited clips accompanied by 80s hit songs in some of the film's sequences, similar to the style of television advertisements.

The filming style was derided by some critics as being only a "series of rock videos" and the entire film was viewed as a 95-minute, youth-oriented music video.

Most filmgoers remember the film's early signature sequence in which 18 year-old blue-collar worker Alexandra (Alex) Owens (Jennifer Beals), a steel welder by day, erotically danced on stage in a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania bar named Mawby's, and was drenched with water while reclining back on a chair.

However, there was another stylishly-edited dance or workout sequence in which black leotarded Alex taped up her feet in preparation for an intense workout of running in place, twirling, and stretching (usually performed by body double Marine Jahan), to the tune of Michael Sembello's hit song (She's A) Maniac ("And she's dancing like she's never danced before"). There were lots of closeups, fast cuts and blurred action typical of the MTV style.

In the film's climactic, infamous audition dance sequence, the quick-cut editing masked the fact that there were multiple dance doubles used, as well as a male breakdancer.

JFK (1991)

d. Oliver Stone

(Best Film Editing Winner: Joe Hutshing, Pietro Scalia)

Director/co-writer Oliver Stone's complex, provocative docu-film thriller was a controversial, speculatively revisionistic, historical epic surrounding one-time New Orleans DA Jim Garrison's (Kevin Costner) investigation of the John F. Kennedy assassination on November 22, 1963.

Its intriguing interpretation was based on the well-publicized and alleged conspiracy theories of the obsessed attorney about the mystery of the death, and on the testimony of a number of unreliable witnesses.

Stone employed innovative, masterful and impressive film editing (with quick cuts and use of various film stocks) through the work of Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia (who won Oscars), and he created, through gripping cinematography, a tense, kinetic atmosphere that mirrored the whirlwind of memories, incidents and scenarios that played out in the DA's mind.

The film masterfully assembled, edited and merged, like a jigsaw puzzle, various sources of material (newsreels, photos, black and white, color, 8 mm, 16 mm, etc., minature models, and re-enactments) into one film to create a semblance of truth, but not necessarily real history.

However, Stone was attacked and dismissed by the American media, CBS, The New York Times, Time, Newsweek and The Washington Post, for deliberately combining factual and historical footage with hypothetical footage to make it appear to be one seamless, objective and truthful record of events. In response, Stone released the screenplay, annotated with its factual sources.

The trial scene in the last half of the film featured three very memorable segments to disprove the idea that assassin Lee Harvey Oswald (Gary Oldman) acted alone:

(1) a detailed analysis of the famous Zapruder film (shot near the grassy knoll) that was subpoened by Garrison's office, but unseen by the American public ("a picture speaks a thousand words, doesn't it?"). The film disproved the Warren Commission's open and shut case of "three bullets, one assassin" - "the time frame of 5.6 seconds established by the Zapruder film left no possibility of a fourth shot." Garrison called junior counselor Arlen Spector's theoretical assertion of the 'Magic Bullet Theory' -- "one of the grossest lies ever forced on the American people."

(2) the scornful rejection of the Magic Bullet theory (the 'official' Warren Commission version of events) which Garrison declared unlikely or impossible, demonstrated with a walk-through, a scale model, and diagrams of the bullet's zig-zag path presented for evidence. Garrison: "This single bullet explanation is the foundation of the Warren Commission's claim of a lone assassin and once you conclude that the magic bullet could not create all seven of those wounds, you have to conclude that there was a fourth shot and a second rifle, and if there was a second rifle, then by definition there had to be a conspiracy."

(3) Garrison's impassioned closing-statement monologue scene - a final summation of the case with his damnation of the entire US military-industrial complex and the possibility of a massive conspiracy and coverup (allegedly aided by Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones)) surrounding JFK's assassination. The film concluded with him staring directly into the camera, and addressing the viewing audience (and jury): "It's up to you."

Scene of Garrison's Theory of the Conspiratorial Killing

Courtroom Scene - Film

B/W Re-enactment

Color Re-enactment

8mm Zapruder film

Scale model

B/W Newsreel

Historic Still Photographs

Color Newsreel

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

d. Jonathan Demme

(Best Film Editing Nominee: Craig McKay)

In the Shelby County Courthouse, the fourth and final encounter between FBI agent-trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) and ex-psychiatrist Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), played out like a profound, perverted parody of a "love scene," sexual power struggle, or a complex chess game.

In the middle of the Historical Society Room on the fifth floor, a massive temporary iron cage had been erected, cordoned off by black and white striped police barricades. Inside the cage, Dr. Lecter sat at a table reading, his back to her. Without turning, he greeted her: "Good evening, Clarice."

In the remarkable scene in the tightly-guarded room, both alternatingly traded information and confided in each other - learning vital secrets that each one coveted. The camera moved to closer angles on their faces as the scene progressed and the intimacy level intensified.

A domineering close-up filled the screen with Lecter's forehead as the intimidating doctor compared everything to Clarice's failed attempt to rescue a frantic, bleating and "screaming" lamb from the slaughter when she was a child to her present day motives regarding the rescue of another innocent victim, Catherine Martin (Brooke Smith):

And you think if you save poor Catherine you could make them stop, don't you? You think if Catherine lives you won't wake up in the dark ever again to that awful screaming of the lambs.

The camera slowly progressed beyond and through the bars until it appeared that the menacing doctor had broken through the cell bars to psychologically assault the vulnerable Clarice:

What did you see, Clarice? What did you see?

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

d. Jonathan Demme

(Best Film Editing Nominee: Craig McKay)

In the climactic, terrifying chase sequence in a dungeon-like hideaway, FBI agent trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) cautiously followed the serial killer madman Jame Gumb (Ted Levine) (aka Buffalo Bill) down the stairwell into the cellar with her gun drawn.

Swiveling from side to side with her gun for protection, Clarice found herself in Gumb's laboratory and skinning room, where big moths flew overhead, and a 'skin suit' was briefly seen on a dressmaker's dummy. In a bathroom off the workroom, a female hand and wrist extended up out of a murky mixture in a bathtub.

As Clarice reacted in horror to the sight, the lights went out and she found herself in total darkness. Gumb had fitted himself with night-vision goggles (seen before when Catherine was abducted), and from his perspective, everything appeared in a greenish tint, and he watched her as she flattened herself against a wall and tried to get her bearings. [Note: The sequence was reminiscent of the final fifteen minutes of Wait Until Dark (1967).]

The serial killer reached out with one hand to stroke her hair and the skin of her face. His fingers floated through the air just inches from in front of her. Then he paused, raised his gun in the air, and cocked the hammer. Its loud metallic click tipped Clarice to his location.

She spun around - in slow motion - and fired flaming shots from her gun muzzle at him, at point-blank range, killing him.

She looked around - viewing newspaper clippings commemorating his own killings, a lingering medium shot of a child's-size American flag leaning against a dusty Army helmet, and a close-up of a revolving, turquoise-blue, "Chinatown" paper mobile emblazoned with a butterfly design.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

d. James Cameron

(Best Film Editing Nominee: Conrad Buff, Mark Goldblatt, Richard A. Harris)

Two of this action film's best sequences were masterfully edited, showing a neat role reversal:

the former cyborg assassin T-800 Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) from the first film was really a good-guy Terminator in this sequel, programmed to protect the young teen John Connor (Edward Furlong)

This was revealed in The Galleria chase sequence with both Terminators, including a second bad-guy Terminator called T-1000 (Robert Patrick) (dressed as a cop), who were in pursuit of John. The newer model Terminator was a liquid metal model with pseudomorphic capabilities.

The young boy found himself in the direct line of fire as both Terminators aimed their guns at him! The Terminator shielded John's body and blocked the bullets as the cop emptied his pistol into the cyborg's back - the Terminator then turned and fired repeated shotgun blasts into the cop's body.

The sequence concluded with the high-speed Flood Control Channel Chase involving a commandeered big-rig tow truck. The T-800 sailed his bike down into the canal, miraculously keeping the bike upright when it bottomed out on the ground. He caught up to John, swept the kid off his motorbike and swung him onto his own Harley.

The big rig at full speed crashed into the divider which bisected the canal into two channels - the small Harley passed through one of the channels ahead of the massive truck. The rig exploded into flames ignited after the collision, although the figure of the T-1000 emerged from the flames as a smooth, chrome-surfaced man - a featureless, liquid mercury-like shape, until transforming back into the cop.

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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