Lean Cuts

Sight and Sound, July 2008

 

As a young editor, David Lean refused to confine himself to the cutting room. When he first started out in the film industry working for Gaumont in the late 1920s, he took on a variety of jobs. He was a clapperboy, an assistant cameraman, even wardrobe “mistress”, and he held on to the habit of wandering into the other departments long after he was promoted to editor of the newsreel series Gaumont Sound News in 1930.

 

Money for Speed, a “quota quickie” Lean edited in 1933, offers a fascinating early glimpse of someone who involved himself in every aspect of the film-making process, even venturing on to the performers’ side of the camera: Lean can be seen early on in the film in the non-speaking part of a racetrack reporter. The film’s director, Bernard Vorhaus, welcomed and encouraged his young editor’s enthusiasm. Money for Speed may not quite have won the battle against a system geared to cheaply made, pedestrian entertainment, but director and editor shared an understanding that led in their next collaboration to a piece of inspired film-making.

 

Part of the pleasure of seeing The Ghost Camera (1933) today is to witness the flair and creative ingenuity with which Vorhaus and Lean overcame the limitations of low-budget production to exploit cinema’s full narrative potential. I say “Vorhaus and Lean” because the film demonstrates a symbiotic relationship between the two men. What and how Vorhaus chose to film resulted from his confidence in Lean to control the pace, mood and tension of the story in the cutting room.

 

In a climactic court scene, a coroner mercilessly exposes the holes in an unreliable witness’s testimony: a low angle camera, closing steadily on the judge, delivers a series of progressively more extreme close-ups. In a sequence that recalls the celebrated ‘knife’ sequence in Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929), Lean hammers home the assault by cross-cutting between judge, witness and evidence, introducing each item to the sound of the judge’s heavy repetition of the phrase “despite the fact that…”. Lean would repeat the effect a decade later in Brief Encounter (1945), when Laura’s gossiping acquaintance Dolly Messiter assails her with intrusive questions on the train home.

 

Lean believed that the cutting room was at the very centre of the creative operation of making films. He did not think of editing and directing as different jobs; to him they were fundamentallv the same one. “The film editor or cutter is a second director,” he wrote. “In my opinion, film editing is, or should be, very closely allied to direction. Director and editor are both concerned with the dramatic presentation of a scene and the performance given by the actors in that scene. They are both storytellers. They both decide what the audience has got to look at – and when.”

 

It was in the cutting room that Lean acquired his all-seeing eye, enjoying the privileged position of being able to view every foot of film more than once – a position not even the director enjoyed. This made it possible to appreciate what worked in all areas of the production – performance, decor, lighting and just as crucially what did not work. His cutting room experience explained not only his formidable command of film technique, but also the kind of exacting perfectionist he became when he graduated to directing. Working with finished images alone in the privacy of the cutting room, he was used to imposing final form on a film with a certainty that the group effort of the sound stage, so susceptible to chance, could not match.

 

The purity of the cutting room became an ideal for his approach to film-making as a whole. “He saw every story in terms of cuts,” commented his close colleague Anthony Havelock-Allan, and in visualising the complete mosaic as director he did everything he could to regain the control he had known in the cutting room, defending himself against the unpredictable. His work was about precision and finely engineered effect. His practice as a director was to map out exactly what he would shoot in a final editing script. Equivalent to Hitchcock’s storyboards, these scripts amounted to elaborate blueprints, which he stuck to as closely as possible. The actors he preferred were those who could deliver exactly what he asked for. He liked Celia Johnson because, as Havelock-Allan observed, “He knew that if he wanted her to lift an eyelid on a given phrase, she could do it.” There was little scope for improvisation, because Lean’s film-making was all about realising the final cut already running through the imaginary Moviola in his head.

 

In his quest for the ideal, Lean brings to mind Colonel Nicholson striving with formidable and dangerous single-mindedness to build the perfect bridge in the jungle. This was the quality behind his great feats of epic film-making – The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Doctor Zhivago (1965) – although it could also lead him astray.

 

When Lean returned to the cinema after many years away to adapt E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India in 1984, his need for certainty was such that he took on what he considered to be the key creative roles of screenwriter, director and editor. Yet the film itself is all about the absence of certainty. Lean’s adaptation is a wonderful but deeply flawed anachronism. Made after the publication of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children but before Hanif Kureishi’s My Beautiful Laundrette, it feels like the British film industry’s last imperial adventure. The casting of Alec Guinness as the Indian seer Professor Godbole seems unpardonable today, but it reflected Lean’s reliance on an actor he knew could give him the exact performance he had previsualised in that cutting room mind of his.

© Charles Drazin, 2008.

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