Obituary: Reginald Beck
Wednesday 29 July 1992
VSEVOLOD PUDOVKIN, the Russian director and cinema theorist, described editing as 'the foundation of film art'. He might also have added that editing is the only facet of film-making that is peculiar and specific to cinema, for all other aspects - directing, writing, acting, photography, sound - also exist outside the craft. At its finest, film editing is invisible, seamless, and totally subservient to the style of the particular film, influencing both rhythm and pace. At its worst, it is obtrusive, flashy, and irritating, and it is this latter that the public tends to notice, and to refer to as 'editing'.
In his now-classic textbook The Technique of Film Editing (1952), Karel Reisz enlisted the experiences of the masters of film editing - 'Names,' wrote Reisz, 'that will need no introduction.' The list, which included David Lean and the great Jack Harris, was headed, by dint of alphabetical order, by Reginald Beck.
Reggie Beck was one of the very best of film editors. Like his two surviving younger contemporaries, Ralph Kemplen and Russell Lloyd, Beck began as a fully fledged editor in the Thirties. Death at Broadcasting House is his first traceable screen credit, and This Man Is News (1938) was his first sizeable success, leading to Carol Reed's The Stars Look Down (1939).
Two features directed by Anthony Asquith brought Beck to the attention of Laurence Olivier, then about to embark on the wartime propaganda feature Henry V (1944). Noel Coward had nabbed David Lean to edit his own wartime opus In Which We Serve (1942), and Olivier opted for Beck. Beck's contribution to both Henry V and Hamlet is so immense, so considerable, that film historians today tend to gloss over it, not fully understanding the role of the editor in addition to physically cutting the film. Beck aided Olivier throughout, helping with set-ups, pacing the tempo, selecting the size of shot (close, medium, long) and generally holding Olivier's hand. In return, Olivier accorded Beck one of the most memorable of screen credits. On Henry V the end title reads: 'Produced and directed by Laurence Olivier in close collaboration with the editor Reginald Beck.' On these four clearly separated lines of credit, Beck's contribution is uniquely acknowledged. On Hamlet (1948), Beck is credited as Associate Producer (Helga Cranston as Editor). Hamlet brought four Oscars home to Britain, including Best Picture.
Between the Olivier masterpieces, Beck edited for John Boulting (Journey Together, 1945) and Alberto Cavalcanti (They Made Me a Fugitive, 1947). The Olivier connection continued with Peter Brook's The Beggar's Opera (1952) and then a trio for Herbert Wilcox, at that time Britain's leading film producer. But Beck took a stab at directing in The Long Dark Hall (1951), with Anthony Bushell as co-director, a screenplay by Nunnally Johnson and William Fairchild and Rex Harrison and Lilli Palmer in the lead roles. Beck's modest, taciturn manner did not lend itself naturally to direction, and, although immensely popular with fellow technicians and artistes, he never directed again.
Reggie was chosen to edit Darryl F. Zanuck's first independent production, the prestigious Island in the Sun (1957), and other CinemaScope films followed, including the seriously undervalued Harry Black (with its complex flashback story-within-a-story), and Serious Charge (1959), which featured the screen debut of Cliff Richard.
In 1958 Beck first edited a movie for Joseph Losey. Their professional and personal relationship was regarded as one of the great screen partnerships, although at the time of The Gypsy and the Gentleman neither Beck nor Losey could guess that they would work on 17 films together, two of which, The Romantic Englishwoman (1975) and Modesty Blaise (1966), would be televised, by coincidence, in the week following Beck's death.
Perhaps the most popular film to come from this collaboration was The Go-Between (1971), but in Secret Ceremony (1968) and, particularly, the Harold Pinter-scripted Accident (1967), Losey and Beck reached their peak. There is a sustained exterior hold in Accident that is totally of the cutting room: it is breathtaking in its audacity, and became influential in its style.
When Losey died, Beck confided that he had 'lost a friend', but amazingly Beck outlived not only Joseph Losey, but also the star (Diana Dors), and his own first assistant (Mike Campbell), on Steaming (1985), the last film Losey directed and the last film Beck edited.
Beck was a wise, kind and generous man, and, as an editor, a marvellous teacher. His former assistants, like 'Bunny' Warren, Alan Bell, and Michael Ellis, have all gone on to distinguished careers in the cutting rooms. When not working, Beck took pleasure in running a public house, The Jolly Woodman in Burnham Beeches, though the pub was really managed by his wife Rene, who predeceased him by a year.
Thorold Dickinson has written that, 'Only those who know the craft can estimate the essential contribution of the editing process not only to the art but also to the physical (and that means also financial) economy of the film.'
It was a privilege for me to have worked in the same studio at the same time as Beck, and to have travelled with him daily from Waterloo to Shepperton in the summer of 1966.
Reginald Beck gave life to Modesty Blaise, caused Steve McQueen to send for Peter Yates after Robbery and imbued Losey's adaptations of Brecht, Ibsen and Tennessee Williams with life. But, above all, it is for his immense contributions to Henry V and Hamlet that the British film industry is forever in his debt.
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