Many, if not most, moviegoers could name a thousand actors - including dozens with no discernible talent - but would struggle to name more than a handful of directors.

Pity then, the poor film editor: how many punters at the multiplex have heard of Thelma Schoonmaker or Dede Allen or Anne Coates? Or Walter Murch?

In a 35-year career Murch has cut - a misleading word since editing is pre-eminently a process of assembly - some of the masterpieces of modern cinema, mostly for Francis Ford Coppola (he did both versions of Apocalypse Now and the mesmerising The Conversation).

The importance of the editor to the film-making process can be expressed numerically (on average less than 2 per cent of the footage shot makes it into the final picture) but Orson Welles put it better: "Editing," he told the journal Cahiers du Cinema, "is not simply one aspect [of the cinema]; it's the aspect. The notion of directing a film is the invention of critics - the whole eloquence of cinema is achieved in the editing room."

The mistaken notion of the editor as a lowly cut-and-splice technician is addressed in this beautiful book which records five long conversations between master editor Murch and the Canadian novelist Michael Ondaatje, who met on the set of the Oscar-winning The English Patient, based on Ondaatje's novel.

The writer is an enthusiastic and thoughtful interlocutor and Murch - who also translates Italian literature - a literate and interesting subject.

The conversations - to call them interviews is to minimise Ondaatje's contributions - do more than simply explicate the technicalities of film editing, though they do that brilliantly and teach the reader plenty about sound mixing, another Murch specialty. They get to grips with cinema as an art form and the nature of perception. Murch talks eloquently of the contribution of Flaubert and Beethoven to the cinema - the first because he legitimised the idea of realism, the second because he unleashed human passion as a mode of expression.

The book is a fascinating insight into the art of the men and women who literally make the movies and yet remain invisible (Murch's name is absent from Halliwell's Filmgoer's Companion, for example). For those who notice the editor only when a drink changes hands or a button gets undone between cuts (an error the editor never creates but sometimes simply cannot erase), it will be an eye-opener.

It's also an engrossing read which will change the way you watch movies.



* Peter Calder is a Weekend Herald film critic.