The Reaction Is What Really Counts (Film Editing)

John Wayne was wont to say, "I don’t act, I react." It was by no means an original phrase, and if it was meant as a self-assessment of his ability, he was shortchanging himself. At best, screen acting is a difficult art, whose subtleties often escape its critics; it demands great competence in all its aspects, of which, as the cliche indicates, reacting is one of the most important. In the theater, dialogue may be "king"—in films, the reaction is where most things happen.

Reaction is transition, change, movement—and movement is life. Reaction can reveal the birth and growth of awareness, show a quantum leap in levels of anger or of love, or discover to us the gathering of one’s wits in thought or a change in attitudes or state of mind. It can express approval, doubt, or disbelief and do so in a universal language—without words.*

In comedy, it can range from the deadpan reaction of a Buster Keaton, through the wicked leer of a Groucho Marx, to the screamingly broad distortions of a Jerry Lewis or a Martha Raye. In a more serious vein, it may range from the steady, almost sly look of a Spencer Tracy to the boldly stated responses, whether snarling or smiling, of a Jimmy Cagney at his best. However, whether obvious or subtle, no screen actor can claim to have mastered his art until he has complete control over all his reactions, and no film editor can claim to have mastered his craft until he can most effectively present those reactions to the viewer.

It can be argued that this is properly the concern of the actor and the director, and in a perfect world, this would be so. But unfortunately, in most collaborative efforts, whether in art or in politics, a great deal of time is spent in disguising lapses in taste or judgment, in fleshing out missed opportunities, or simply in correcting mistakes, and this is "cutting territory."

On the more positive side, it is rarely that a writer, an actor, or a director exhausts all the useful possibilities and nuances of even the finest script—which always leaves a "little something" for the editor to deal with. If an editor is willing to look for, and accept, the challenge, this aspect of the craft can be a good deal more rewarding and pleasurable than the amelioration of a film’s mistakes. However, in both these areas, creative "handling" of reactions can be a rich and productive field.

Now let us "begin at the beginning"—understanding the need for a reaction, finding it, and then timing it. Writers are aware of the importance of the reaction as a vital element of communication. Some screenwriters in particular know that a good reaction can eliminate a lot of words, but full and accurate instructions are difficult to write in script terms. Besides, the actor and the director hate to be "written down to" as much as does an intelligent viewer, so the writer usually delivers his instructions in a conventional form. Here are three actual examples:

1. From The Left Hand of God:


2. From The Caine Mutiny:


3. From Walk on the Wild Side:


A weakness of this convention is that it often leads to redundancy. Many writers are taught, or conditioned, to be playwrights—they feel that reactions must also be expressed through dialogue, as in


But Jean is a fine actress, and her nod can say it all. In the first example, the "small shrug" says "Why not?" There is no need to verbalize it. A moment’s thought will make clear how the line in the third example could also be eliminated, although this would have to be worked out on the set. As for the second example, the "desperation" was quite explicit in the whole scene; the instruction here was quite unnecessary.

A good director combs his script and carefully monitors his rehearsals for such obvious tautologies. And though most actors love their lines, the best of them have learned the value of acting through reaction and are eager to cooperate. Spencer Tracy, who could ‘ ‘read the lyrics" better than any actor of his day, was always happy to see one eliminated, and one of his reactions could replace a pagefull of words.

The great majority of reactions are easily identified. Consequently, they are often taken for granted. But even a procedure as simple as finding the start of the reaction requires close and careful examination. The Moviola does not necessarily tell the whole story, and often only the big screen will reveal whether or not the cutter has included the complete reaction in the film.

That reaction is not always heralded by a movement of the facial muscles. The most subtle reactions may show a barely discernible "glint" or change in the expression of the eyes, especially if the actor is listening, as he should be, and not just waiting for a cue. The very first frame where the change begins must be marked, then preceded by the several "empty" frames mentioned earlier.

Obviously, the length of a reaction can have a decisive bearing on a scene’s impact, but many filmmakers are not aware of how easily this factor can be manipulated. One quick example will illustrate the point.

Scene: A woman exits a building. As she nears the curb, a car pulls up and a man steps out. He wears a hat.


Now Molly can react in a number of ways. We will examine the two extremes. First,


Since there is no hesitation in Molly’s reply or in her reaction, the viewer will assume that the situation is routine and j that nothing especially dramatic is about to happen. Or,


When the viewer sees Molly hesitate for a measurable length of time, he thinks with her, and a number of possibilities cross his mind. Is the man a near stranger? Is he someone she knows, but fears? Is he an ex-husband with vengeance on his mind? Is he going to "take her for a ride?" Or is he just a fellow worker collecting his carpool? Her eventual "All right," although spoken exactly as in the first version, will now have one of several possible meanings. Even the sound of her response will seem different because the viewer’s imagination has been nudged into activity.

It is still possible to extract an audience input, and a good deal of that possibility can be contrived in the cutting room.

Let us examine two such manipulations which share similar solutions, First, in the previous example, let us assume that the scene was shot with the first version in mind. During editing sessions, it is decided to add a little suspense to the scene, either for comedic or for melodramatic purposes. (Such decisions are made more frequently than one might imagine.)

Second, a screen character is thinking his way through to an important decision. He is fully aware of his alternatives, which have been laid down in earlier scenes, and he makes up his mind expeditiously. However, the cutter knows that the viewer’s awareness of the alternatives has been dimmed by intervening sequences, and he undertakes to give him more time to recall them to mind than was allowed for in the filmed reaction.

In both examples, extra footage preceding the actor’s reaction is required, and such footage is usually available. It is that part of the reactor’s close-up, immediately preceding his reaction, which shows him listening to the speaker who has supplied the "food" for his thought. As a rule, the listener does not move or react prematurely, and an extension of considerable length can be obtained from the "listening" footage.

An actor need not be "emoting" to supply the cutter with a reaction. Stillness also can be a vital expression (read, E.A. Poe’s, "Silence—a Fable"). If the close-up comes at the point where the actor should react to a given stimulus, the very absence of movement can show a character "lost in thought." When the reaction finally comes, we know he is reaching a conclusion.

There are occasions, such as would be quite likely in the first example, where no footage for an extension is available. The cutter still has a trick or two up his sleeve. He can ‘ ‘freeze frame" the close-up immediately preceding the reaction (unless, of course, there is background movement). If the actor’s move is not too sharp when his "live" action begins, no viewer will be aware that a foot or two of film has been "frozen" from one selected frame. The cliches "rooted to the spot" and "frozen in amazement" describe such a reaction accurately, and they have a most dynamic connotation.

Another alternative is to find a suitable reaction from another sequence in the film, which is not as unrealistic as it sounds. (I once found a usable close-up reaction in another film!) If the shot is close enough to avoid showing too much clothing (which might be different) and the hair is not dressed too differently (usually no problem with males), such a "borrowed" scene can be quite satisfactory, even if originally shot in a different setting. The background of a large close-up is usually unidentifiable at best.

There is an important lesson here for every beginner—one that every good editor has learned—never give up. If it is necessary to correct a fault, or if it is possible to improve the dramatic quality of a sequence, and the proper material is not at hand, explore all possibilities or invent a few. The odds that some workable solution can be found are so overwhelming that one should never stop trying, no matter how difficult the problem. Always remember that film is the art of illusion, and the most unlikely things can be made to seem real.

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