T he ability of the cinema to record movement, to take the action of a story instantaneously from one place to
another, remains one of its main sources of appeal. Many different styles of fi lm-making have been developed
around this central asset. The Western, almost as old as the cinema itself, the tough sociological gangster
cycle of the thirties, the post-war semi-documentary police fi lms, all with their compulsory chase endings, as
well as the more sophisticated thrillers of Lang and Hitchcock, have based their appeal largely on the use of
fast, exciting action scenes. Passages of movement, ghting and action are uniquely presented by the movies
and remain perennially popular.
In the silent cinema the development of the action picture was inextricably bound up with the development
of fi lm editing. Characteristically, the fi rst lms to employ a rudimentary editing technique were Porter’s chase
lms. Griffi th developed the device of cross-cutting and thereby gave his action scenes a further dimension by
timing the confl icting shots he was able to give now the pursuer, now the pursued, the advantage of the chase.
Later, the reaction shot usually a static image of an observer was used to punctuate the moving shots and
to produce the visual contrast which accentuates the effect of movement. All these devices of presentation
have remained essentially unaltered to the present day.
The use of cross-cutting gives the director a unique instrument with which to suggest physical confl ict on
the screen. By alternately cutting from the man chasing to the man being chased, the confl ict is constantly
kept in front of the audience, and the illusion of a continuous scene is preserved. Yet this very asset presents
problems to the editor which are in some ways more diffi cult than those faced in passages of straight story-
telling where each cut merely continues the action of the previous shot. There is fi rst the elementary dif-
culty of keeping the spectator clearly informed of what is going on. Since in many cases the pursuer may
be a long way behind his victim, it may become necessary to cross-cut between two locales which have no
obvious visual connection. In such cases it is all the more important not to confuse the audience about the
geographical relationship between the two parallel streams of action. There may sometimes be a temptation
to cut an action sequence too fast in the attempt to generate greater excitement: if this involves confusing the
spectator about the physical details of the scene, then the editor will have defeated his object.
A further problem is to convey the varying fortunes of the contestants. This is largely a matter of timing:
altering the rate of cutting to refl ect the changing tension, lengthening a cut here or there to switch the
Chapter 3
Action Sequences

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