The Wide-Ranging Wisdom of Robert Wise

Robert Wise (1914-2005) is one of those major Hollywood directors who seems rarely mentioned in discussions of “Greats” but when you do an inventory of his body of work, you are astounded to find to discover all of the classics his name his attached to (in my case some of my favorite movies) as well as the number of film genres he tackled and conquered. It’s hard to believe it was all done by the same man. Wise has a lot in common with David Lean. Both men started out as editors, and both are associated with epic scale pictures that can be criticized as long and lumbering. Like John Huston, who started out at around the same time, Wise is in the “well made” tradition, but there is a voice to be found there once you bear down on it, and like Huston his career extends from the studio era well into the modern one, bridging the two periods.

Wise was a working class kid from small town Indiana who had one year of college before joining his older brother David in Hollywood. David was an accountant at RKO, and he got Robert a job in the shipping department. This led to work as an apprentice sound editor, which led to editing entire films. Movies Wise cut his teeth on included John Ford’s The Informer (1935), several Fred and Ginger musicals, the 1939 version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and the two Orson Welles classics Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). He won an Oscar for his work on the first one, and was controversially ordered to direct new scenes and recut the second one, both of which increased his standing sufficient that he could move up to directing. The opportunity came with Val Lewton’s Curse of the Cat People (1944), which he followed up with The Body Snatcher (1945). So right away we see he has conquered his first of many screen genres, the horror film. Later he would direct the noisy and nerve-wracking The Haunting (1963), adapted from a Shirley Jackson novel, and oft remade since. He also directed Audrey Rose (1977), which was criticized at the time as a rip-off of The Exorcist.

I thought it would be instructive to break Wise’s career down by genre to show the impact he made on the industry and the scale of his accomplishments…

He co-directed my favorite musical West Side Story (1961) with Jerome Robbins, followed by Rodgers and Hammerstein’s swan song The Sound of Music (1965), winning Best Picture and Best Director Oscars for both films, an astounding achievement. In 1968 he directed Julie Andrews once again in a forgotten film which I really love, Star! a musical bio-pic about Gertrude Lawrence. Naturally his early work on those RKO musicals had prepared him for making these kinds of films, though he did not specialize in them (and it would have been hard for him to in those years of the dying musical). Spielberg obviously studied West Side Story closely for his own recent remake.

Wise also directed to of the best Hollywood boxing pictures The Set-Up (1949) and Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), which Martin Scorsese studied closely and borrowed from for Raging Bull (1980).

Wise also directed two huge tent poles of the science fiction genre, both very different and representative of their own times: the original The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), far and away the best of all “flying saucer visitation” films of the 1950s, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), which revived the then-slumbering franchise, beginning the supernova of spin-offs that continues with ever increasing force to this day.

Wise’s 1971 adaptation of Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain is also technically science fiction, although its premise of a deadly disease poised to cause widespread death and possible human extinctions also puts it in the “superbug” subgenre of disaster movies, which has also flourished in years since in movies like Outbreak, Contagion, and The Stand. Wise also unambiguously conquered the all-star ’70s disaster film as well, for it was Wise who helmed The Hindenburg (1975), which (like The Sound of Music) does admirable double duty as a period piece about Nazi Germany. It is interesting to track Wise’s career alongside Mark Robson’s in this regard. Robson had been Wise’s assistant at RKO, and directed lots of similar movies, including Earthquake, which came out the year before The Hindenburg.

Talk of Nazis prompts us to talk of Wise’s war films like the submarine thriller Run Silent, Run Deep (1958) and The Desert Rats (1953), although the greatest of his films of this type was the ANTI-war picture The Sand Pebbles (1966), about western colonialism in revolutionary China. It was nominated for many Oscars, but didn’t win. Perhaps it was thought that Wise had enough trophies by that point. It has many thing’s in common with Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago, a big sweeping historical epic. In actuality, it is widely regarded as the first anti-Vietnam War film, functioning as a kind of parallel allegory. Its river patrol setting also anticipates Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979).

Wise also directed the 1954 corporate melodrama Executive Suite, also nominated for many Oscars, which is chiefly entertaining to watch now as a kind of precursor to Mad Men.

Of his noir films, the true crime story I Want to Live! (1958) with Susan Hayward is the most highly regard, again nominated for multiple Academy Awards. The anti-heroine at its center, convicted criminal Barbara Graham, also inspired a play by my wife. entitled Die Like a Lady, or What Barbara Got, so it has special cache around our house.

Westerns end to appeal only to a niche constituency nowadays (rather unfairly, I feel) but Wise held the reins on a couple of classics of that genre as well: Two Flags West (1950) and Tribute to a Bad Man (1956), as well as the lesser known Blood on the Moon (1948) with Robert Mitchum.

Wise’s last project is very interesting and, small scale though it is, illuminates all that gone before. The TV movies A Storm in Summer (2000) was based on a 30 year old Rod Serling screenplay about an old man (Peter Falk) who takes in a black kid from the streets (Aaron Meeks). Its sensibility is that of the Civil Rights Era, and thus is a bit of throwback in terms of sensibility, but it does help you get a bead on the types of stories Wise tried to tell regardless of genre. He sympathized with women, minorities and underdogs; he valued reason over violence as a means of solving problems, in the best tradition of Hollywood humanism. Wise was 86 when he made A Storm in Summer. You’ve got to think that he was more than comfortable having that be his last statement.