A Few of the Best Edits in Film (Part I)
What makes an edit noteworthy? The context of cinematic conventions, the effectiveness of a transition or the will to innovate through a single splice, influence the process, which for the most part tends to be invisible to criticism. Broken into two parts, and spanning over a century’s worth of film, this list was born out of a curiosity for the evolution of editing, its methods and techniques, and also seeks to understand how editing can reflect, and sometimes embody a scene. Let’s break down some of the most effective edits in film.
The Great Train Robbery, 1903
The first edit.
You’re looking at the first cut in one of the first films to use contemporary editing techniques. Edwin S. Porter directs, it has a runtime of twelve minutes, holds twenty separate shots and successfully implemented the cross-cutting method to show simultaneous action in parallel. Though that’s not on show in the images below. Instead, they had to start by simply cutting from one scene to another.
Sherlock Jr., 1924, edited by Buster Keaton
Taking a seat.
For an era that spotlighted comedy through performance, Keaton once again proved himself ahead of the game by enhancing this gag through editing.
Battleship Potemkin, 1926, edited by Sergei Eisenstein & Grigori Aleksandrov
Eisenstein experimented with a variety of cutting-room techniques that have since become commonplace. One of the more famous examples is his use of montage in the Odessa Steps sequence. Eisenstein’s film doesn’t shy away from a political, albeit dated, jolt. That feeling was enhanced by the deliberate coupling of shots, from officer, to victim, in the editing room.
While this heavily-dosed expressionism epic does not have an editing credit, the power of its montage should not be discredited. Experimentation in post-production rose dramatically during the silent era and Metropolis does well in contributing to that trend. The film is surprisingly fast-paced for its time, and highly influential. The effect below might not be the most impressive to a modern-day audience but it highlights an effective visual technique and simple way to demonstrate a vital plot development.
Napoleon, 1927, edited by Marguerite Beaugé
Incredibly long, insanely inventive and gargantuan in proportions, Abel Gance’s Napoleon broke heavy ground with its fondness for strange, newfound editing choices. The entire film is a masterclass in experimentation, (by now, a heavy theme on this list), especially through copious use of multiple exposure and split-screens. On a similar note, indulge in the frantic beauty of its dream sequence.
Man with a Movie Camera, 1929, edited by Yelizaveta Svilova
Dziga Vertov’s avant-garde and radical social film had no desire to follow the confines of a traditional narrative. His wife, Svilova, manages to construct his footage into a format that both intellectualises the material and entertains the viewer. They even manage to homage the process that brought their film together.
L’Atalante, 1934, edited by Louis Chavance
Never mind the intricacies in filming such a scene, L’Atalante’s underwater fantasy sequence gets the surrealist treatment with its angelic mixture of composition and faint exposure in Jean Vigo’s musing of love, lost, and won.
The 39 Steps, 1935, edited by Derek N. Twist
Train whistle scream.
Hitchcock appears several times on this list, and for good reason. How does one create suspense in the first place? While editing generously facilitates that component of his films, Hitchcock would often form witty cuts from his material. In The 39 Steps, the discovery of a murder, and the scream of its witness, suddenly segue into a screaming train whistle. It noisily introduces two major details: that murder and the train.
Modern Times, 1936, edited by Willard Nico
Notes on people.
By now, film audiences could deduce meaning from consequential images. In Chaplin’s Modern Times, which serves as much as a comedy as an indictment of modern industrialisation, the bustling exit of a subway station is interpolated with a flock of sheep. Gee, makes you wonder what he’s trying to get at…
Citizen Kane, 1941, edited by Robert Wise
Citizen Kane — greatest film ever? No comment. Technically innovative — absolutely; editing included. The opening scene builds intrigue around the figure of Kane, Xanadu and his mysterious death through dissolves and superimposition. Citizen Kane’s editor, Robert Wise, would go on to direct West Side Story and The Sound of Music — talk about tonal dissonance.
A Canterbury Tale, 1944, edited by John Seabourne Sr.
Hawk to plane. Man stays the same.
Yes, I know the hawk and the fighter plane don’t match but neither does its eventual successor of the bone and satellite in Kubrick’s 2001.
Rope, 1948, edited by William H. Ziegler
Alfred Hitchcock wanted to try something different with Rope. He would choreograph ten shots, the length of a film reel, and form the transition to the next sequence by zooming into the shadows of a cabinet, wall, or character’s back. Ziegler constructs the experiment that Hitchcock disparaged, but one that laid the brickwork for other faux one-shot films like the Oscar-winning Birdman.
Sunset Boulevard, 1950, edited by Doane Harrison & Arthur Schmidt
Revealing Joe Gillis.
Exuding in the principles of film-noir, Billy Wilder’s opus (personal opinion) moulds effective flashbacks to tell a tale of Hollywood’s duality. A couple of minutes into the film, we are served a spoiler. That man up on the billboard, the one you’ve paid to see, William Holden, will die in this film. We won’t know how for some time, but the stark nature of the revelation, thanks to the perfectly timed cut is a glorious hint of what’s to come.
Rear Window, 1954, edited by George Tomasini
Enter, the Kuleshov effect. Viewers drawing meaning from the significance of two simultaneous shots defines the impact of Hitchcock’s Rear Window. With frequent collaborator George Tomasini, they compose taut and calculated sequences based on the simple concept of observer and action.
Seven Samurai, 1954, edited by Akira Kurosawa
Kurosawa loved the wipe transition. He uses it frequently in Seven Samurai. They work well to move the story forward but sometimes you wonder if he’s maybe a little too fond of this new discovery. That signature cut, at the time created by using an optical printer, would find itself in a number of succeeding influences — namely, Star Wars.
North by Northwest, 1959, edited by George Tomasini
“Come along Mrs. Thornhill.”
Not included is the risqué, censorship-dodging cut from bedtime to train tunnel that appears a couple of minutes after this moment. Instead, I much prefer the clever transition from the tense Mount Rushmore sequence into that very train cabin. Eve (Eva Marie Saint) tries to get her footing on the cliff face, while Cary Grant’s Roger struggles to pull her to safety. Of course, they manage, even the out-of-sync “come along Mrs. Thornhill” serves the transition well. Roger concurrently pulls her into safety and the romance of their train bunk.
Breathless, 1960, edited by Cécile Decugis
Reinventing the jump cut.
French New Wave was born out of the desertion for the threshold of traditional filmmaking methods. Jean-Luc Godard’s first feature liberally toys with jump cuts. The disregard for logic and continuity brought great attention from filmmakers around the world. The decision, which would eventually affect American films later in the decade, has drawn much analysis. Whether you believe it to be indicative of “the meaninglessness of the time interval between moral decisions,” or a simple rebellion to preconceived conventions, its importance stems back to the potential influence of an editing decision.
Psycho, 1960, edited by George Tomasini
Life goes down the drain.
There are about fifty cuts in Psycho’s three-minute rapid-fire shower sequence. That sort of editing was particularly groundbreaking, especially for American cinema, and precursors the attitudes of American filmmakers to come. When the scene settles to an unbroken pace, the implications, and the demise of the film’s billboard star are known. All the more powerful with the gradual dissolve over Marion’s still eye as her life swirls down the drain.
Last Year at Marienbad, 1961, edited by Jasmine Chasney & Henri Colpi
The quality of memory.
Alain Resnais’ unclassifiable masterpiece is poetic and puzzling in its central mystery. Its dreamlike state is exemplified during the edit. Critics have often pointed out the film’s fluid relation to time and space. At a grand château, a mysterious gentleman asserts that he had a romantic relationship with a female who goes by the name of “A”. An elusive jump cut breaks any established fluency and underscores the heightened sense of enigma.
Lawrence of Arabia, 1962, edited by Anne V. Coates
David Lean and Anne V. Coates transport us to a searing desert panorama with a single puff of air. Like so many other things with Lean’s signature film, its power escapes words, but the decision’s confidence and cinematic richness has made this cut one of the most memorable in film’s history.
8½, 1963, edited by Leo Catozzo
Man in the sky.
At this point, French New Wave had cemented a sort of breezy and ambiguous approach to filmmaking. Often discounted are the similarly minded Italians. Federico Fellini’s illusive 8½ finds itself against the pitfalls of creative ambition with the stylistically offbeat approach of Catozzo’s editing.
Persona, 1966, edited by Ulla Ryghe
Even though the bold image of a burning film reel seems significant enough, I’m still not sure what it means. This cut opens an odd and chaotic sequence — especially by Ingmar Bergman standards. Was it designed for audiences to think the projector had failed, or did it signal the breakdown of structure and spirit to come?
Bonnie and Clyde, 1967, edited by Dede Allen
With the advent of New Hollywood in the latter part of the 1960s, editing was more concerned with becoming its own character. Pioneering editor Dede Allen preluded this change with quick cuts and slow-motion in Bonnie and Clyde’s final scene which reflected the culmination of the infamous couple’s deeds and their bloody end.
The Graduate, 1967, edited by Sam O'Steen
The Graduate’s editing is famed for changing how feeling was conveyed on film. Rather than revealing emotion through exposition, editing doubles as perspective, and serves as a subversive way to divulge reaction and response. Consequently, Mike Nichol’s film is a masterclass in “show, don’t tell” and never is this clearer than in the montage that outlines the tedious repetition of an undefined life. The match cut as Benjamin leaves the pool, landing on Mrs. Robinson instead of the pool raft represents his fascination and desire. Interestingly, despite their shared success at the ceremony, neither Bonnie and Clyde nor The Graduate were nominated for editing Oscars.
2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968, edited by Ray Lovejoy
One of the more famous match cuts on this list, Kubrick manages to pass eons of civilisation in a single splice.
The Godfather, 1972, edited by William Reynolds & Peter Zinner
While the baptism scene manages to craft intense contrast with its use of cross-cutting, the final two shots in the film manage something greater. It’s not an easy task to close out a film as grand as this, but the decision to cut back to Kay’s (Diane Keaton) despaired expressions, extends viewers' thought about the personal extent of this behaviour. That probably would not have been achieved had she not been shown.
Don’t Look Now, 1973, edited by Graeme Clifford
Horror had to be included in this list. Editors can enhance suspense or a single thrill, or even align the material with a jump scare. I scoured The Exorcist for examples, and though the demonic millisecond cut during Father Karras’ dream stands out, the entrancing rhythm of Don’t Look Now’s opening sequence (from the same year) should also receive its fair due. The fairly standard activities of a married couple are linked with the lead up to their daughter’s tragic death. The match cuts, which parallel the action of each location infuse the plot’s supernatural element quite early on. All-in-all it’s very unsettling.
The Conversation, 1974, edited by Walter Murch & Richard Chew
What is with that toilet?
The crucial importance of a seemingly insignificant toilet is gradually revealed in Francis Ford Coppola’s overlooked thriller, in which a tormented surveillance expert, played by Gene Hackman hears too much and tries to discover if the couple he’s trailing will be murdered. I won’t spoil what becomes of the infamous scene, but in what world would this innocent cut have a positive outcome?
Barry Lyndon, 1975, edited by Tony Lawson
Similar to 2001’s jump in the passage of time, Kubrick splices the inevitability of young Bryon’s death with his funeral parade. For a director who was criticised for his lack of “heart,” it is a powerfully wrenching effect.
Grease, 1978, edited by John F. Burnett
The movie musical plight of integrating songs firmly back into the story’s reality has been going on since sound’s inception. On stage, there isn’t much awkwardness; often it’s seamless and works well enough for the medium. On film, with no applause to form a barrier, the possibilities are unfortunately endless. A collective chuckle, prolonged pose, or sometimes even a fade to black have punctuated the end of these songs. The graphic match cut at the end of “Greased Lightning” immediately relates back to the poses in the performance and helps disconnect the “spoken story” to whether or not these guys actually broke out in song. That blurred definition seems to suit the movie musical well.
All That Jazz, 1979, edited by Alan Heim
While this shot is an inevitability throughout Bob Fosse’s semi-auto-biopic, the surprising emotional punch it delivers left me speechless. It bookends the bizarre jubilance of the quasi-musical’s final song, “Bye Bye Life”.
Apocalypse Now, 1979, edited by Richard Marks, Walter Murch, Gerald B. Greenberg & Lisa Fruchtman
One of the most fascinating depictions of wartime’s human cost begins with a warped and surreal moment of multiple exposure and intense imagery. The potent visual composition, which was born out of chance, weaves destruction with human suffering and the unnerving presence of a ceiling fan. Or is it a chopper?