Alan Bell

Editor of classic film soundtracks
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The Independent Online

Alan Moffitt Bell, sound editor: born Lemington, Northumberland 27 May 1931; married 1956 Mary Bird (three sons, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1974), 1975 Jasmine Cannon (marriage dissolved 1986); died Mevagissey, Cornwall 5 August 2006.

Sound in motion pictures is generally taken for granted by audiences, but the soundtrack digested in the cinema is seldom that which was recorded when the photographed images were taken. Dialogue is invariably re-recorded later; off-screen sound effects are added; on-screen sound effects replaced or enhanced; aural atmospheres are created; and the whole soundtrack made available without dialogue for foreign sales. This whole process is the province of the dubbing (originally "doubling") editor, often credited as sound editor or latterly, and pretentiously, as sound designer.

Alan Bell would have none of that "sound designer" business, regarding himself with modesty as a dubbing editor, and proud as such. He was lucky and talented enough to work on a series of films with Britain's most creative directors at their peaks - Joseph Losey, Lindsay Anderson and Nicolas Roeg amongst them - and to have aided such international talents as Jacques Demy and Jerzy Skolimowski to build memorable soundtracks.

Bell did not start off with the intention of working in film. A Geordie, whose political outlook was shaped by hearing first-hand tales of the Jarrow marchers, Bell was born in Lemington, on the outskirts of Newcastle upon Tyne, in 1931. After leaving Lemington Grammar School in 1947, he became a navigator in the Royal Air Force, training in Gwelo, Southern Rhodesia, and flying aeroplanes across the Atlantic, beginning on Ansons and ending up with Boeing B-29 bombers. He eventually became a flight sergeant, part of the Guard of Honour for George VI at Sandringham and a pilot in the Queen's Coronation fly-past. But with the death of a close friend in a flying accident, he left the RAF in 1955.

Through the kind auspices of another friend, Bell fetched up at Technicolor Film Laboratories in West Drayton, in those days invariably a route to the film cutting rooms; his first film, as an assistant film editor, was the CinemaScope romp Three Men in a Boat (1956). He was popular and assiduous enough to ensure a continuity of regular employment, including such features as Carol Reed's The Key (1957), on which he met and was befriended by Sophia Loren, and a run of features for Warwick Films, on which he worked as both picture and sound assistant, including such titles as Victor Mature's Interpol (US title Pickup Alley, 1957), and The Bandit of Zhobe (1959), plus Killers of Kilimanjaro (1959) and the unshown Karolina Rijecka (1961), both featuring Anne Aubrey, then mistress of the Warwick Films producer Irving Allen.

Other feature work included What's New Pussycat? (1965) and Genghis Khan (also 1965) on which Bell assisted the distinguished film editor Reginald Beck on cutting battle sequences. He also worked with Beck on The Leather Boys (1965) and Modesty Blaise (1966).

Bell shared with Beck a love of good ale and a fine smoke, and it was Beck who accorded Bell his major break, as senior sound editor on the director Joseph Losey's Accident (1966), a film in which the total soundtrack was to be as important as the Harold Pinter-scripted dialogue. Bell rose to the challenge magnificently, never more so than during the remarkable closing sequence of the movie, where all the key action takes place off-screen. Indeed, Bell dated his own feature credits from Accident, every previous film a mere apprenticeship.

A run of distinguished features quickly followed with Bell as sound editor: Frank Sinatra in The Naked Runner (1967); Peter Yates's pre-Bullitt car-chase flick Robbery (also 1967); Losey again, this time in Rome, for Boom with Noël Coward (1968); and Lindsay Anderson's parable If . . . (also 1968), classic soundtracks all.

Bell began to develop a unique style of sound editing. In general, a dubbing editor would submit a variety of sound choices to a director, who would then make a final decision at the sound mix itself, but Bell was so certain of his own taste and understanding of the director's needs that he achieved success with a minimalist procedure. He spent time carefully selecting effects at sound libraries or recording them himself, but he himself would pre-select, and only proffer one choice at the dub.

Directors and editors were surprised but delighted, and grew to appreciate greatly Bell's technique, which saved time, decisions and, ultimately, money. He was swiftly in demand and in 1970 delivered the first of five distinguished soundtracks (to include the brilliant The Man Who Fell to Earth, 1975) for the director Nicolas Roeg: Walkabout, with its exquisite aural track creating a disturbing on-screen ambience.

Bell worked with a string of British directors, such as Peter Collinson, Michael Apted and Bill Forsyth, and with the French director Jacques Demy on The Pied Piper (1971) and Lady Oscar (1978). Bell regarded his second film for Lindsay Anderson, the social epic O Lucky Man! (1973), as his favourite job of all, and worked again with Anderson on The Whales of August (1986), starring Bette Davis and Lillian Gish.

Freelance work arrived regularly, but Bell was well-known for his restlessness. Between full sound editing jobs, he took on work helping out other sound editors, and was dialogue editor on, among others, Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor (1987) and Neil Jordan's The Company of Wolves (1983), on which he distinguished himself technically by completely removing an actor's lisp by substituting - and physically editing in - his own recorded sibilants.

Also in 1983, he sound-edited The Bounty, a movie that beckoned to a seafarer like Bell, who actually shot sound effects for the film out on the briny. Bell and the sea were old friends: he met his second wife when he was selling his boat the Harry Hotspur to a friend of hers in Cornwall, and as the catamaran sailed away with its new owner, Bell and his wife-to-be were left alone on the quay together, as romantic a scene as could have come from a classic British movie.

The apogee of Bell's inventiveness could well be considered The Shout (1978), the Jerzy Skolimowski film in which a single sound effect - the titular shout - actually dictated the action, but the body of Bell's some 60 screen credits is full of such sonic felicities.

His conviviality and his talent were sorely missed when he decided to retire in 1999, when the industry itself had changed, as electronic editing replaced moviolas and synchronisers, and old dogs needed to learn new tricks. The content of contemporary cinema, too, had substantially coarsened, and Bell, whose favourite film was the French romantic classic Les Enfants du Paradis, was acutely aware of this sea-change. He retired to Cornwall without regret.

Tony Sloman

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