Obituary: Elmo Williams
Film editor, director and producer who won an Oscar for his brilliant work on 'High Noon'
Published 13/12/2015 | 02:30
Elmo Williams, who has died aged 102, was an editor, director and producer noted for his work on High Noon (1952), 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) and The Longest Day (1962).
He made his name - and won an Oscar - for his editing, with Harry Gerstad, of Fred Zinnemann's tense western High Noon, starring Gary Cooper as Will Kane, a town marshal who hands in his badge after marrying Grace Kelly's Quaker, Amy, only to suffer a crisis of conscience when the news reaches him that the outlaw Frank Miller, whom Kane brought to justice, is arriving on the noon train, having sworn to take revenge. Despite Amy's protestations, Kane decides to turn back and face the music.
Elmo Williams described the film as "a folk tale of the West". The events play out virtually in real time, providing a gripping pace for which Williams's brilliant editing was largely responsible. He spliced the film to match Dmitri Tiomkin's insistent, tick-tock score and arranged regular cutaway shots to clocks to emphasise the minute-by-minute sense of foreboding and Kane's mounting desperation as, one by one, the townsfolk seem to desert him and the minutes tick down to 12 o'clock.
"For a motion picture with so little action," a critic noted, "the suspense builds to almost unbearable levels."
James Elmo Williams was born on April 30, 1913 in Lone Wolf, Oklahoma. His parents died when he was a teenager, and growing up as an orphan during the Depression was a struggle. "Oklahoma was a rough place to live," he recalled. "The climate was harsh, money was scarce, jobs hard to find, but there was gold in a lot of the people."
In 1932 he left for California, joining his brother Skeeter as a "carhop" at the Hi Ho drive-in in Long Beach. Williams got his big break when he waited on the Hollywood editor Merrill White, who subsequently offered him a job as his assistant on a shoot in England.
"California sure was a place where things happened fast," Williams said. "In the six weeks since my arrival I'd found a job, enrolled at UCLA, gone through the Long Beach earthquake, and now gotten a chance to go overseas."
Williams began his editing career in his mid-twenties on a series of Anna Neagle features, such as Nurse Edith Cavell (1939) and No, No, Nanette (1940).
After the war he returned to Hollywood, working on several films noirs directed by Richard Fleischer. After winning his Oscar for High Noon Williams briefly turned to directing (one of his films was The Tall Texan, 1953, a western starring Lloyd Bridges).
He returned to cutting duties for Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), which earned him a second Oscar nomination. In 1962 he worked on the mammoth shoot of The Longest Day, produced by Darryl Zanuck.
Williams also produced Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) for Zanuck and for three years from 1971 he was Fox's head of production. Williams's other credits included, as executive producer, The Blue Max (1966), which was made in Dublin and Weston Airport.
Williams retired to Oregon and in 2006 published Elmo Williams: A Hollywood Memoir.
He married his wife Lorraine in 1940. She predeceased him, as did a son and a daughter; he is survived by their other daughter, Stacy.
Elmo Williams died on November 25.