Walter Murch is an editor. He combines images and sounds. Michael Ondaatje has called him the “invisible” man, because he exercises an invisible art. Murch has won three Oscars – one for the sound in Coppola’s APOCALYPSE NOW and one each for the sound and film editing in THE ENGLISH PATIENT – and he has been a reliable companion to NEW HOLLYWOOD’s directors and films.
When he was a student at USC In Los Angeles in the Sixties Walter Murch met Francis Ford Coppola. Murch actually wanted to be an director but he had very eclectic interests, which often had little to do with film and more to do with philosophy. Coppola recommended him as co-writer to George Lucas, and together they wrote the screenplay for the science fiction film THX 1138, which Lucas shot in 1970. Then Coppola took him along when he was shooting what was perhaps the first American road movie: THE RAIN PEOPLE. Murch also took charge of the sound editing and mixing on the film.
Murch started out as a sound engineer, then worked as a sound editor and only ended up via this route working as a film editor. An unusual route, but one typical of Murch. He invented the term “sound designer” to circumvent trade union restrictions and worked in this capacity on Coppola’s GODFATHER films, later on APOCALYPSE NOW, and above all on THE CONVERSATION – a film with the most musical and beautiful sound editing in the history of modern cinema: when Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) listens in on his victims, a unique symphony of sounds and noises comes into being. The film’s score blends with these fragments of speech, creating an organic whole. This was only possible because Murch was involved in this project right from the outset, made proposals on the script, helped to develop ideas and worked in a true partnership with the director.
Murch’s influence on the American art of montage is overwhelming, also because Murch reflects on and writes about his profession? Why do you edit when? Where are the concealed structures, the true strengths of particular material? What do I need to leave out to show more, where is what is left unspoken more eloquent than dialogue?
You only have to listen to the street sounds accompanying Michael’s (Al Pacino) first murder in THE GODFATHER, the silence in the restaurant, the plop of the cork when the waiter opens a wine bottle, to the (unsubtitled) Italian dialogue between Michael and Solozzo (Al Lettieri) as well as the exaggeratedly loud squeak of the subway shortly before the two shots ring out, the silence that then unfurls and the music that begins very, very late. The sounds are what colour the scene; everything is boiled down to the absolute essentials. “Just let your hand drop to your side and letthegun slip out , everbody will still think you’ve got it ”, Clemenza (Richard Castellano) had urged him, and with Micheal we all throw the pistol into the corner of the restaurant. A minor masterpiece of sound editing long before Surround Sound and Dolby 7.1 were invented.
Murch manages something akin to this as a film editor: condensing images to the absolute essentials, which at the same time leads to an emotional climax. In Philip Kaufman’s THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING there is a short montage of historical footage from August 1968 at the centre of the film: the Russians in Prague. Usually it is fatal to edit documentary material into a work of fiction, The documentary footage always proves to be more powerful and shatters the fiction. Here that is not the case: the staged sections and the 16-mm material fit together almost effortlessly to form a whole, creating twelve minutes of film that narrate the decisive days for a nation and the decisive moments of a great love.
Murch edited Coppola’s APOCALYPSE NOW and 25 years later edited the long version of the same film. He worked with Anthony Minghella on THE ENGLISH PATIENT and THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY and reconstructed a version/print of TOUCH OF EVIL to look the way Welles may have dreamt of it. Alongside this, he also directed a film of his own, RETURN TO OZ, a sequel to the American classic THE WIZARD OF OZ. And he reflected on his profession in wonderful books.
His masterpiece of film and sound editing may well be THE ENGLISH PATIENT. A virtuouso and simultaneously seamlessly woven narrative, a gem of montage. More than forty cuts übergänge between the different locations and time frames are to be found in THE ENGLISH PATIENT, and Murch transposes the novel’s fragmentary structure to the screen with an apparently effortless ease. You only have to consider the way Count Almasy (Ralph Fiennes) looks at himself over the years, the way Kathrin’s (Kristin Scott Thomas) hand strokes his burnt face or the way a piece of music, a sound carries us over into the next sequence. The structure of the film was not laid out like this in the screenplay, but came into being in the editing studio, where a film, as Bresson said, after being written and shot, is born a third time.
For editing is the real invention of the cinema: montieren of images, placing them in a sequence, combining them with sounds and music. It is an invisible art; you do not see it, you do not hear it. Walter Murch is one of its great artists, the invisible man, who ultimately makes the invisible visible, and above all – tangible.
Walter Murch, film editor, sound designer, scriptwriter; born in 1943 in New York City. Attended John Hopkins University in Baltimore, studied film at the University of Southern California (USC). He met George Lucas at USC, together they wrote the screenplay for Lucas’ first feature film, THX 1138; Murch was also the sound editor for the film. A stable and creative phase of work with Francis Ford Coppola began while they were shooting THE RAIN PEOPLE: Murch was on board as sound designer for THE GODFATHER (all three parts), THE CONVERSATION and APOCALYPSE NOW. In the Nineties he entered into a creative partnership with Anthony Minghella and was film editor and sound designer for both THE ENGLISH PATIENT and THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY. Murch had his directorial debut in 1985 with RETURN TO OZ, a sequel to the classic THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939). Walter Murch has notched up eight Oscar nominations, including a nomination for Best Film Editing in 1977 for Fred Zinnemann’s JULIA, and has been awarded three Oscars: 1980 for APOCALYPSE NOW (Best Sound) and 1997 for THE ENGLISH PATIENT (Best Film Editing and Best Sound).