If ever a film editor deserved public recognition in the 1960s, it was Ferris Webster. Working with such noted directors as John Frankenheimer and John Sturges, he was responsible for making possible dazzling scenes in films like The Manchurian Candidate, The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, and Seconds. As is the case with most editors, however, Webster wasn't very well known to the public. Indeed, the closest that his profession has ever produced to "stars" in the field were David Lean in England in the early '40s (before he turned to directing) and Thelma Schoonmaker, who, through her longtime association with Martin Scorsese, was involved with shaping many of the most acclaimed movies made in America from the 1970s.
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Webster worked in an earlier era in Hollywood, in which most directors were often regarded as little more than hired employees and were seldom known to the public, and few people outside of the filmmaking profession ever thought of editors at all. Born in 1912 in Washington state, he trained in the cutting room and became a full-fledged editor at MGM in 1943, initially working on B-titles and short subjects such as Swing Fever and Rationing. By 1945, he had graduated to better films, including such high-profile features as The Picture of Dorian Gray. Webstermoved to the front rank of his profession by the end of the decade, assigned to such major productions as Madame Bovary (1949), Father of the Bride (1950), Father's Little Dividend (1951), and Lili (1953), in addition to such pop-culture classics as The Long, Long Trailer (1954). Among this group, Madame Bovary is perhaps the most representative of his work; the cutting of the film in the gala ball sequence, in particular, was a marvel of the editor's art in the service of old Hollywood's restrained, elegant storytelling. It was on a very different kind of movie that Webster was first honored by the film world, however, earning his first Oscar nomination for his work on Richard Brooks' harrowing delinquency drama The Blackboard Jungle in 1955. Webster's work of assembling such harrowing sequences as the attempted rape of a teacher and a classroom brawl pointed the way toward his future; it also added an edge to a groundbreaking urban thriller -- one of the studio's biggest hits of the decade.
Webster's late-'50s credits read like an honor role of treasures from the MGM library: Forbidden Planet (1956), Tea and Sympathy (1956), Les Girls (1957), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), and Never So Few (1959), the latter starring Frank Sinatra. The editor closed out his career at the studio with a far-less prestigious production, Phil Karlson's savage crime thriller Key Witness (1960). Webster's next credit, The Magnificent Seven (also 1960), opened a new phase in his career. Made by the independent producers the Mirisch brothers, the movie became a showcase for Webster's art, as the editor sustained the tension and translated director John Sturges' vision into a smooth, sweeping visual arc, pulsing with suspense and menace. Resplendent in the last, idealized gasp of postwar American optimism -- where its two-hour-plus running time and the lingering complexities of the Akira Kurosawa film from which it was drawn could have deadened it -- Webster's work helped turn it into an exceptional piece of action filmmaking and a recognized classic. He later worked on Sturges' sexually-focused drama By Love Possessed (1961) and the director's Sergeants 3 the following year, a remake/rewrite of Gunga Din starring (and produced by) Sinatra. Webster followed that with John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate (1962), another Sinatra vehicle and production, which proved to be the editor's magnum opus. The shooting, cutting, and intercutting of one extended brainwashing sequence, seen from multiple points-of-view, is still striking decades later, and the movie earned Webster his second Academy Award nomination.
Webster bounced between Frankenheimer and Sturges for the next several years, working on such choice films as The Great Escape (1963, his third Oscar nomination), Seven Days in May (1964), and Seconds (1966). Also in this period was the shapeless box-office success Ice Station Zebra (1968) and the high-profile Westerns The Hallelujah Trail (1965) -- which no editing could save -- and Hour of the Gun (1967), and the doomsday thriller The Satan Bug (1965), all directed by Sturges. From a purely editing standpoint, the best of all of those movies was Seconds, and Frankenheimer was always very generous in his praise of Webster's work. In Seven Days in May, he also gave the editor his only acting role, as General Barney Rutkowski (an excellent performance in a small, but key, role). Webster continued working for the Mirisch company (as the scale and significance of their productions declined during the '70s) on movies such as The Organization (1971), and was back with Sturges for his violent Western vehicle Joe Kidd (1972, starring Clint Eastwood). The latter film was the beginning of Webster's last professional relationship, with Eastwood as director, producer, and star, which continued in 1973 with High Plains Drifter (which featured flashback sequences that recalled The Manchurian Candidate), Magnum Force (also 1973), The Eiger Sanction (1975), The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), The Enforcer (1976), The Gauntlet (1977), Every Which Way but Loose (1978), Escape From Alcatraz (1979), Bronco Billy (1980), Any Which Way You Can (1980), and Firefox (1982). Webster retired after working on Honkytonk Man that same year. He died in California in 1989 at the age of 76. ~ Bruce Eder, Rovi