Peter Zinner

Oscar-winning film editor


Peter Zinner, film editor: born Vienna 24 July 1919; married (one daughter and one stepson); died Santa Monica, California 13 November 2007.

In 1972 Francis Ford Coppola's epic film The Godfather climaxed with one of the finest examples of narrative cross-cutting in the history of commercial cinema. As the newly born child of Michael Corleone is christened, the young Don Michael, heir to the murdered Don Vito Corleone, wreaks his revenge on his enemies, eliminating them to the soundtrack of the priest's baby-blessing and the church's organ music.

It is unquestionably one of the most dramatically satisfying and audience-shattering sequences in contemporary cinema, a magnificent example of the art of motion-picture editing, the craft of story-telling by montage. The editor of the sequence was Peter Zinner.

On the film Zinner shared the editing credit with the veteran editor William Reynolds, and although rightly nominated for the Oscar they lost to David Bretherton for his equally superb inter-cutting on Cabaret – perhaps because the latter could be seen to be the work of one single editor. Zinner's work on The Godfather is detailed in the studio head Robert Evans's garish autobiography The Kid Stays in the Picture (1994), where Evans refers to Zinner as "an ace editor", and relates how, under Evans's supervision, Zinner added texture (and length) to Coppola's 12-reel edit.

Zinner eventually won the coveted Academy Award for editing in 1978, for his work on Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter, a long film with a remarkable three-act structure, and a wedding sequence that bears more than a passing resemblance to the wedding in The Godfather. He was Academy-nominated again for An Officer and a Gentleman (1982), but did not win, and also took home the British Bafta for best editing for The Deer Hunter and for The Godfather Part II (1974), which he shared with his co-editors Barry Malkin and Richard Marks. The Deer Hunter also won Zinner the American Editors Guild own best editing award, the Eddie.

Peter Zinner was born in 1919 in Vienna and studied piano, composition, and music theory first at the Theresianum in the city and then at the Reinhardt-Seminar, part of the University of Vienna; in later life as a film editor he recalled that white gloves had been a part of his school uniform. But he had to leave Austria when he was 17 years old, fleeing the Nazis with his parents in 1938.

He arrived in Los Angeles in 1940, after a two-year so journ in the Philippines, and began to earn a living as a taxi driver, whilst also playing the piano for special screenings of silent films. His musical ability helped secure him a position in 1943 as apprentice film editor at 20th Century-Fox studios (now Century City) in Hollywood, and he learnt to appreciate the crucial role of the editor in the process of making films. Like many others before and since, Zinner realised that the editor was key to the production of successful motion pictures, and was a position that existed in no other medium.

In 1947 Zinner left Fox for Universal Studios as an assistant sound-effects editor and in 1949 he moved across to MGM at Culver City, at the peak of the studio's success. Here he worked in the music department on many major movies, uncredited on the screen but fortunate to be involved with some of the finest motion picture talent on some of the best films ever made: he worked with the composer Miklós Rósza on Quo Vadis (1951) and Ivanhoe (1952), for the producer Arthur Freed on Singin' In The Rain (1952), The Band Wagon (1953) and the multi-Oscar winning Gigi (1958), and on Gene Kelly's experimental Invitation to the Dance (1956).

He worked with Jacques Ibert, André Previn, Adolf Deutsch and Bernard Herrmann among other composers and with such artistes as Fred Astaire, Maurice Chevalier and Mario Lanza, the latter particularly on For The First Time (1959), for which Zinner had graduated to music editor. He was also fortunate to collaborate at MGM with two of the industry's great arrangers, Conrad Salinger and Roger Edens.

He freelanced as a music editor on a variety of independent features, including King Kong vs Godzilla (1962), They Saved Hitler's Brain (1963) and The Naked Kiss (1964). Finding it difficult to make the break from music editor to film editor in a very conservative Hollywood, Zinner joined up with two other MGM editors to set up the first independent film editorial company in Los Angeles, Post Production Inc. In 1965 he was taken on by Columbia on their production of Lord Jim, which involved spending a considerable time in London with the producer-director Richard Brooks.

Brooks liked Zinner, and the following year asked him to picture edit his feature The Professionals (1966), starring Burt Lancaster and Lee Marvin. The popular and critical success of the film helped consolidate Zinner's reputation and he worked again with Brooks, on the masterly In Cold Blood (1967). He also established a working relationship with the producer-director Blake Edwards on Gunn (1967) and Darling Lili (1970), both for Paramount under Robert Evans. This in turn led to The Godfather in 1972, via some major salvage work on the US-Russian co-production The Red Tent (1969).

Now firmly established as a film editor, Peter Zinner worked on many other titles in this period. As well as The Deer Hunter, in 1978, the films he edited include Mahogany (1975), starring Diana Ross, and five pictures for the director Frank R. Pierson, including the Barbra Streisand version of A Star Is Born (1976). Pierson believed Zinner "was definitely in the top rank of editors of two or three generations" and highlighted as a distinguishing characteristic "his great sense of music".

In 1981 Peter Zinner directed his only feature, an adaptation of Morris West's thriller The Salamander, with an all-star cast headed by Franco Nero, Anthony Quinn and Claudia Cardinale, but it was lack-lustre and only achieved spotty box office results. Offered An Officer and a Gentleman (1982) by Paramount to edit, Zinner returned to the cutting room and thereafter edited two of the most successful television mini-series ever, The Winds of War (1983) – winning an Eddie for one of the episodes – and its sequel War and Remembrance (1988).

He continued to alternate feature work, such as the boxing flick Gladiator (1992), with prestige television drama, and won another Eddie for Citizen Cohn in 1993. He also made a rare acting appearance in the Sean Connery vehicle The Hunt for Red October (1990), playing the Russian Admiral Yuri Ilyich Padorin.

Peter Zinner's last job was on the Arnold Schwarzenegger feature documentary Running with Arnold (2006), which he edited at the age of 86, sharing the credit with his daughter, the film editor Katina Zinner.

Tony Sloman

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