Anne V. Coates, the Orient Express, & the Mostly British Film Festival

Tuesday night, I finally got around to attending the Mostly British Film Festival at the Vogue. How could I miss it? David Thomson would be interviewing the great, British film editor, Anne V. Coates. And after the talk, there would be a screening of Sidney Lumet’s 1974 version of Murder on the Orient Express.

Coates, who turned 91 in December, has one of the longest careers in cinema history. She was a full-fledged film editor in 1952. Her last film (assuming she doesn’t come out of retirement), was 2015’s 50 Shades of Gray. In between, she cut The Horse’s Mouth, Becket, Erin Brokovich, and 50 other films. She won an Oscar for Lawrence of Arabia.

The event started, as these things usually do, with clips from her films. Some of the choices seemed odd. A scene from Tunes of Glory had only two cuts. But the last one, from Out of Sight, truly showed the hands of a brilliant editor.

Then Coates and Thomson came to the front of the theater and had a conversation. Here are some highlights, edited for clarity and brevity:

  • Start a film career in post-war England: You couldn’t work unless you were in the union and you couldn’t get in the union unless you were working.
  • I thought it would be really interesting to tell stories [on film]. I wanted to be a director. But women couldn’t do that back then. The most interesting thing they could do was editing.
  • Why did the industry let women edit? They have more patience. I have a theory: Directors need mothers.
  • I think of myself as an actor’s editor.
  • I never regretted not becoming a director. You have to give up too much of your life. With an editor, if you’re a little late in the morning, it doesn’t really matter.
  • On the transition to digital editing: I did prefer working on film. Somehow, digital was not as peaceful. But one day I realized we’re doing the same thing. Than I was much happier.

After the one-on-one discussion, Thomson turned his microphone over the audience for more Q&A:

  • Has digital technology changed the business of editing? I don’t think it’s different. The speed of cutting is faster, but that’s not necessarily good. You need to stop and think.
  • Did you ever experience discrimination as a woman: I was lucky that way. There were some directors who didn’t want women editors. But other directors wanted them.
  • I was never an editor on The Red Shoes. I was only a Second Assistant.
  • On following other editor’s work: You cut from the heart. I never tried to do what other people did.
  • On actors: Bill Murray is very funny, but he never does the same thing twice. That makes him difficult to cut.
  • Do editors have styles? You have a different style for different pictures. I like to think that I don’t have a style.

After the Q&A and a brief intermission, the festival screened Murder on the Orient Express – edited, of course, by Anne V. Coates.

I didn’t care for it. Overloaded with production values and movie stars, Murder keeps you arm’s length from any emotional reaction. With the familiar faces of Sean Connery, Ingrid Bergman, Tony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, and many more big stars popping up in supporting roles, the movie feels like an expensive casting stunt.

Albert Finney plays the actual lead, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. But he plays the famous detective as a caricature. I’d give the movie a C-.

Not everyone agrees with me. My wife, who loves mystery novels, enjoyed the movie much more than I did.

But I really wasn’t there to see the movie. I was there for Coates. And I wasn’t disappointed.