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Film Editing



The Mini might not seem like the most obvious choice of car for a chase sequence, but some will recall its use in The Italian Job; and in The Bourne Identity it certainly suggests small is beautiful. The sequence where Jason Bourne is chased through Paris by the French police is of course on the one hand a set-piece – a key moment of narrative spectacle that action films are punctuated with – but more specifically a great example of cross-cutting, or parallel montage. This basically means that a filmmaker cuts between two scenes that are not quite placed together in space but are paralleled in time. We wouldn’t generally regard a scene where two characters are talking to each other as an example of cross-cutting: the proximity in space would be too narrow to justify the term. But it can, however, be used without the context of the spectacle, high and low.

Hitchcock offers a very good example of low spectacle yet high suspense parallel montage when he shows us Grace Kelly’s character in Rear Window going to the apartment across the way, while the incapacitated James Stewart fretfully looks on. As the film cuts back and forth between Kelly viewed at a distance in the neighbour’s apartment as the killer returns, and Stewart’s worried countenance, so the film works with a degree of suspense that is equal to, but still different from, the car chase, though both are great examples of parallel cutting.

Impressive too are many of the editing sequences in the work of the Soviet montage filmmakers, including Eisenstein and Pudovkin, directors who weren’t only revolutionising cinema, but were actively present in revolution itself: bringing the Soviet people to consciousness in the wake of the 1917 Russian Revolution. Eisenstein cross-cuts effectively in Strike to show the problems of the workers and the luxurious life of the factory bosses, and more brilliantly still in Battleship Potemkin, where the Odessa Steps sequence plays with time and space to build up a strong sense of indignation for the people against the Cossacks. 

We also of course want to say a few words about that quite straight forward yet technically complicated use of parallel montage: the chase sequence, a fine instance of the set piece meeting parallel cutting. Great examples include Bullitt and the car/train chase in The French Connection, as well as Diva, To Live and Die in LA and Ronin, but the Paris one in The Bourne Identity is also very efficient. First of all we may note that like many great chase scenes it takes place in a city. It can choose to do this for one of two reasons. Firstly it creates a greater number of obstacles for our hero; and it can also suggest the chaos created as the film occasionally attends to the peripheral characters while they are caught up in the mayhem. Comparing Bullitt to The French Connection, the Steve McQueen chase gives us a sense of the character’s prowess behind the wheel (and we should remember Steve McQueen was himself a keen and skilful racing car driver), but allows the city to be an obstacle course from McQueen’s point of view, but not especially troublesome for the city dwellers. In Friedkin’s film we may notice that Hackman’s Popeye Doyle is less impressive behind the wheel, but that is part of the texture of Friedkin’s chase sequence. It isn’t so much about Popeye’s driving brilliance, but the chaos the situation creates on the streets and subways.

The Bourne Identity seems like a combination of these two iconic chases, as Jason Bourne, played by Matt Damon with a Steve McQueen stillness, shows himself to be a great driver, no matter if at the same time the sequence hints at the pandemonium such skill can cause. If The French Connection was more about urban mayhem, The Bourne Identity is, finally more inclined to go in The Bullitt direction. Notice as Bourne (and his love interest Famke Potente) decides to escape the cops at the beginning of the sequence that the tyres screech and the music starts up: the combination putting us not in the ‘objective’ world of the city, but the subjective world of Bourne. If The French Connection for most of the sequence eschewed music accompaniment and played up the sounds of the city, The Bourne Identity wants to earn its keep as an action thriller with an action hero: note the music, the canted angles and the casual asides about the bumpiness of the ride. Though there are moments within the sequence where pedestrians look like they’re in danger – for example when Bourne drives through a zebra-crossing, and people scuttle across it, or goes up along the pavement, and people dive onto a car bonnet – they remain anonymous. Also, though the film cross cuts between the chased and the chasers, the cops are an undifferentiated mass, less worthy of a close-up than Bourne’s hand as he changes gears. By keeping the city dwellers and cops indistinct, the film plays more readily as an action film. It might be useful when looking at chase sequences to see how focused they are on the central character; how interested they are in the general milieu. In the Bourne Identity the city is clearly Paris, yet we are given little sense of the Parisians. If The French Connection remains, finally, a more complex chase sequence, it is partly because of the complexity of the city, New York, to which it attends.


Raging Bull is a great example of editing in relation to character. In the film we should not think of an editing pattern that will first and foremost further the story, but a looser narrative pattern that will explore characterisation. In one sequence, we notice that the scene immediately following a fight doesn’t show Jake in his changing room recovering from the bout, but actually in training for his next one. As he has to sweat off the pounds, the viewer may realise that Jake’s biggest problem is finally fighting with himself: with amongst other things his huge appetite. What in story-telling terms might seem like a non-sequitur; in character terms is quite logical.

This can lead us into a discussion on editing and time: is the editing as it plays with time furthering character or is it furthering story? Often when a film plays with time in relation to the story, what we have is a story told in a different temporal order. Examples include Memento, Irreversible and Pulp Fiction. As Memento director Christopher Nolan has stated, after two or three viewings you will be able to work out exactly what is going on. Even if Memento seems to be a film from the character’s point of view, from inside his head, the film nevertheless still makes categorical sense. The ambiguities are finally those of story rather than character. When Jake La Motta insists his brother should hit him very hard in the face, or La Motta becomes ultra-paranoid over his wife, then there is no editing that could reveal the problem to us. The problem is genuinely inside La Motta’s head, not a story question left hanging until later in the film. Memento etc. are a little like jigsaw puzzles where an unequivocal picture has been cut up and rearranged, and the film expects the viewer to watch carefully as the director arranges it back into order.  Is this not also true if in a slightly different way of films like Fight Club, Open Your Eyes and The Usual Suspects, where character ambiguity is really narrative ambiguity?

Finally they are about stories told, rather than about a character explored. The films are not open-ended, though they are films that demand attentive, concentrated viewing. But there are other films that no matter how attentive the viewer, the film’s meaning cannot be so clear. Examples would include Last Year at Marienbad, Providence, The Spider’s Stratagem, The Conformist, In The Mood for Love. These are films not so much utilising memory and time but exploring them. A definite narrative answer cannot be found. In fact the director of Last Year at Marienbad, Alain Resnais, believed that something happened at Marienbad, while the writer, Alain Robbe-Grillet, insisted it hadn’t. If the writer and director can’t agree, such is the ambiguity of their film, what chance does a viewer have of unravelling it? But this would be Resnais’ point. Once memory is activated, once something slips into time, it becomes extremely difficult to draw a complete picture. The jigsaw is irretrievably cut up.  Many films are not as radical and extreme as Last Year at Marienbad etc, but they are still doing more than putting the story in the wrong order to play with the viewer’s expectations: films like Raging Bull, Citizen Kane, Vagabond and the Mattei Affair enquire into a life, and do so by editing in different time frames to try and make tentative sense of their characters’ existence.


What is the difference between furthering a story and pushing a theme, and is one of our intuitions concerning realism that the story is contained by wider concerns than narrative development and audience wish-fulfilment? From this point of view, Alan Clarke’s Scum would be a work of exemplary realism as it examines the nature of institutions through the specifics of one teenage remand centre. Yet at the same time the film seems to counter realism in form. If the great realist critic Andre Bazin thought realism lay in the long-take, then what are we to make of one of the basic tenets of editing, the shot/counter-shot?

In what is perhaps the most important scene in the film, the character of Asher explores the problem of authority with one of the wardens. As the film offers the exchange in a series of shot/counter-shots, we notice that this differs from most of the other shot/counter-shots in the film as Asher here questions the warden about the nature of power.  When Asher says there is no opportunity for character building in an institute based on character demoralization, so we notice the warden can see the sense in the argument, but at a certain point cannot accept the philosophy behind it without risking the very collapse many of the inmates undergo.

Often the shot/counter-shot is a conflictive device. It can create tension between characters in form as well as in content, and can register a basic battle of wills. Partly why the scene in A Few Good Men between Nicholson and Cruise near the film’s conclusion is so well remembered is that it optimises the cliché of form in relation to content.

Though there are a number of shot/counter shot scenes in Scum that are more formally innovative than the scene we’re discussing here, they allow in some ways for this scene’s pertinence. There is the earlier scene where various inmates are being interviewed by the authorities, and Clarke frames the boy from the low angle between two guards, and then from a high angle behind the boy with the framing creating a triangular sense of oppression as the camera looks down on the authorities looking up.

This would seem to counter the conventional approach to the high angle for authority, low angles for the oppressed. But it’s as though Clarke isn’t interested in the problem of power from the position of the institutionalised. As the inmates are forced to stand; the authorities get to sit, and the film uses the shot/counter shot in this instance to explore the dynamics of power where it doesn’t reside in the strength and force of the individual, but the strength and force of the institution.

In the shot/counter-shot scene with Archer and the warden, the nature of power also concerns the institutionalised, but the dynamics of power lies in the intellectual more than the physical. When earlier in the film the inmates stand while the authorities sit, the two guards standing next to the inmates restrain him merely by their proximate presence, caught well in the framing Clarke adopts.

In the other scene the issue is less formal and physical, than visually straightforward and psychological. The warden is almost literally caught off-guard as he allows space for an un-institutionalised discussion that nevertheless shows us the psychological imprint of the institution on the warden’s soul. Clarke offers a simplicity of form in keeping with the apparent straightforwardness of the exchange, as Archer gives a convincing argument from the point of view of a young, rational person interested in self-definition and self-development, but a dangerous one from the perspective of someone who’s spent his life denying that individuality as he obeys institutions. If he accepts Archer’ arguments, what does have left?

In the other shot/counter shot scene we have mentioned in Scum, the form conveys the constraint; in this later scene the apparent absence of form gives space to an exchange that is then slapped down by the warden’s intransigent institutionalisation. What we’ve proposed here is not that one scene is better than the other; not even that one scene is more cinematic than the other, but mused over how the shot/counter shot serves different needs in different circumstances, yet within the same film.


Why would a filmmaker offer a scene in flash-forward? For this is what Nicolas Roeg does in the Venice set Don’t Look Now. The first and foremost reason might be because Roeg is telling a story of premonition. Donald Sutherland has second sight, and an inkling into future events. But why use a flash-forward in a quite a straightforward scene of a couple making love? The flash-forward scene wouldn’t seem to be premonitory: there is no sense that either character in the scene is thinking of future events. We should remember though that even if Don’t Look Now is often seen as a great fright film, it is first and foremost a film about grief. What Roeg does here is use a premonitory structure but for the purpose of helping us understand a relationship that has been blighted by the death of the couple’s daughter. This is the first time it would seem that the couple have made love since their daughter’s death and it is the one area of togetherness that still clearly now exists between them. If Freud believed that sexuality was fundamental to who we are, Don’t Look Now suggests that is the area of connection between a couple when they find themselves dealing with grief very differently. Though Donald Sutherland’s character says things like “nothing is what it seems” and the “unconscious moves faster than the conscious mind”, he is nevertheless a man given to rational life. Julie Christie on the other hand finds herself moving towards a sense of calm through the possibility of an afterlife, second sight etc., Sutherland is a resolute rationalist, despite his own premonitory capacity.

Now if the film generally uses a jagged, disconcerting editing style to suggest an aesthetic on the side of the non-rational, in the particular sex scene it also and more especially serves to unite the characters through love-making, and also to show how meaningful it has been, by focusing also on the post-coital. It is interesting how rare it is in American cinema to see a married couple making love, and how the best sex, for all Hollywood’s supposed moralism, is pre-marital. One reason for this focus on the pre-marital could be because mainstream cinema concentrates on momentum, and tension, and so characters moving towards a sexual experience creates anticipation, a married couple making love would indicate perhaps reflection. By flashing forward, by showing Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie getting dressed after they’ve made love, it exemplifies, if you like, the film’s temporality, or rather its refusal of momentum. Roeg’s films, including Bad Timing, Performance, and The Man Who Fell to Earth, have always used disjunctive editing to create an uncanny effect of time being strangely out of joint. What is especially intriguing about this scene, however, is the way it allows the uncanniness to retain very strong human feeling. Don’t Look Now is a fright film – people find it very scary – but it comes from human warmth and loss, and this remains a key scene in cinema. (It was, for example, tastefully stolen by Steven Soderbergh in Out of Sight, though used in a much more conventional way).


©Tony McKibbin