Obituary: Rudi Fehr

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The Independent Culture
THE DEATH of the film editor Rudi Fehr removes one of the last links with the classic Hollywood studio era. Fehr joined Warner Bros in 1936 and stayed for 40 years. He returned to the editing bench in 1984 to gain an Oscar nomination for John Huston's black comedy Prizzi's Honor.

"I really intended to be a diplomat," Fehr recalled of his early years in Berlin. "But, because of the Hitler regime and my ethnic background, it was not possible. So, I studied music and wanted to be a symphony conductor." However, Rudi's father, a banker on the board of one of the leading German film combines, arranged a job for his son and within months he was editing his first film, Der Schlemiel (1931).

Fehr worked for the producer Sam Spiegel in Germany, then in Austria and England after the Nazis came to power. He moved on to Warner Bros' studios at Burbank, California, initially translating German films into English, then becoming an assistant to the editor Warren Low on such notable productions as The Life of Emile Zola (1937), starring Paul Muni, and Jezebel (1938), starring Bette Davis.

My Love Came Back (1940) with Olivia de Havilland was the first feature he edited himself. While cutting Million Dollar Baby (1941), he met one of its supporting players, Maris Wrixon, who later became his wife.

Of his early work, Fehr said, "I was especially pleased with Watch on the Rhine (1943). The director had never made a film before and I worked with him day and night to lay out all the shots." This was Herman Shumlin, who had directed the hugely successful stage original on Broadway and was fine with the actors (Paul Lukas and Bette Davis) but had no idea of film technique.

Working at Warner Bros, Fehr had little choice in the films he cut. "Each of the major studios produced about 60 pictures annually. The picture that started shooting was assigned to the editor who had just finished a show," he told one interviewer. Editors worked in varied genres and had little or no opportunity to impose a style of their own. In fact, asked recently whether there was such a thing as a style that would identify a particular editor, he responded: "In my humble opinion, absolutely not!"

Many of his films were routine, but A Stolen Life (1946) had the visual intricacy of Bette Davis playing the dual role of two sisters, initially on screen at the same time, and Humoresque (also 1946) presented John Garfield as an outstanding violinist, dubbed by Isaac Stern. Garfield had to be carefully filmed and edited as he couldn't play a note. He kept his arms behind his back in close-ups while a member of the studio orchestra perched on each side of him, their hands coming into frame to do the fingering and bowing. John Huston's tense crime drama Key Largo (1948), with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, was another plum that landed in Fehr's lap.

The production chief Jack L. Warner came to place great value on Fehr's taste and judgement, and in 1952, without asking him first, promoted him to a producer. But, after handling the mediocre 1953 remake of the musical The Desert Song, Fehr escaped back to the cutting rooms, where he had the great satisfaction of editing two Alfred Hitchcock thrillers in a row.

I Confess (1953) was shot in Quebec, but Fehr remained in Burbank to look at each day's rushes as they were processed, phoning Hitchcock with his comments. The footage went off to Canada for Hitch to view, then back to Fehr to start editing. Despite the director's reputation for "storyboarding" his films and "cutting in the camera", Fehr recalled in a 1992 interview, "I never saw any set-ups he had thought of before. I never saw anything on paper. With I Confess, he shot a lot of film because he knew he couldn't go back to Quebec to retake it."

The second Hitchcock film, Dial M for Murder (1954), produced much less footage, being shot mostly on one set at Burbank, but Fehr again saw no evidence of preconceived editing by the director. "He gave me a completely free hand. He never told me how to do anything. He looked at the film after I finished my first cut and gave me few changes - never more than five or six. I got along with him just famously. It was the most pleasant association I've ever had in my career."

Dial M was shot in 3-D. Fehr had earlier cut the horror hit House of Wax (1953) in that short-lived process and found that it made no significant difference to his work other than to ensure that the 3-D highlights, like a ping-pong ball leaping out of the screen, were presented to maximum effect.

When Fehr did accept an executive position in 1955, it was as Warners' head of post-production. He viewed the rushes of all the films in production each day with Jack Warner and oversaw their editing. He was also required to accompany the studio chief on the five-minute walk from the cutting room to his office, so that Warner could avoid being collared by people he didn't want to see by pretending he was too busy discussing an editing crisis.

"I never asked for special favours, even though I was alone with him two hours a day while we went over rushes," Fehr recalled in 1987:

Once, my wife convinced me to ask for a two-week vacation; we wanted to go to Arrowhead. Warner's answer was, "Rudi, when I'm here, you are here. When I take my vacation, you take your vacation."

Finally, Warner did take his vacation. I went to his right-hand man and asked for my vacation. He said, "Are you crazy? Do you want me to carry the ball for you too? I need you now more than ever." So he said no; and therefore from 1956 to 1963 I didn't have one day off.

Fehr became a skilled diplomat and intermediary between executives, producers and directors, trying to get all sides to agree to editing changes. He specially supervised the foreign-language versions of the Jack Warner production of My Fair Lady (1964) in order to make them as good as the English one.

He remained at the studio 10 years after Jack Warner relinquished power. He managed to get on with the next generation of innovative film-makers and, after retiring from Warner Bros in 1976, he joined Francis Ford Coppola at Zoetrope, working on post- production of Apocalypse Now (1979) and as the supervising editor on One from the Heart (1982).

In 1984, when John Huston asked him to edit Prizzi's Honor, Fehr exclaimed, "But the last time I edited was in 1954!" "Oh, it'll come back to you," responded Huston. Fehr went to work. "The toughest problem was to cut 28 minutes out of a two-and-a-half-hour cut. I thought that Huston was going to do that, but I was told it was my responsibility." Working on the picture with his daughter Kaja, he cut it down to an effective 129 minutes.

In more recent years, Rudi Fehr taught editing and post-production at film schools, worked on foreign- language versions, and chaired the committee for the foreign film Academy Award.

Rudi Fehr, film editor and film executive: born Berlin 6 July 1911; married Maris Wrixon (three daughters); died Los Angeles 16 April 1999.