Robert Wise: 1914—2005
I don’t possess the acumen to distinguish whatever thematic strains may be flowing through the work of Robert Wise, nor can I see any leitmotifs connecting such a disparate bunch as Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), West Side Story (1961), and The Body Snatcher (1945). Good pictures all, those titles are chosen here quite at random—much as it would seem Wise either selected or was hired to direct them. He was a stalwart adherent to ‘the system’ and placated nervous studio heads with the steadfast, controlling manner of a high school principal, forever mindful of schedules, budgets, popular tastes and box office appeal. Not quite an artist, but not quite a bean counter, either.
There’s the inclination to consider Wise a commercial hack, but ultimately that shortcut is untruthful. Yes, he did make a number of ‘big’ movies that are virtually unwatchable today: Helen of Troy (1956), The Andromeda Strain (1971), The Hindenburg (1975), and that psychedelic white elephant, Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). But once we remember that the man rarely stopped working for thirty years, first as an editor in the early ‘40s and directing up until the late ‘80s, allowances should be made.
He’s also played the unenviable role of Orson Welles’s would-be nemesis, the man who supposedly destroyed The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), though Wise was merely a staff editor working on orders from the RKO brass, who were left high and dry by Orson. Welles left for South America to make an extravagant experiment, It’s All True, without a script nor an approved budget and no apparent need to make it in the first place. (It went unfinished.) It was a mess of a time, and I think a lot of reactionary people simply used Wise as a convenient scapegoat when placing blame on Amberson’s failure and Welles’s, uh…comeuppance.
And then there was The Sound of Music (1965). Pauline Kael instigated a long-standing trend of deriding it, especially among people who’d never even seen the film. She castigated not the picture itself so much as for what it represented, the naïve, kind-hearted, perky soul overcoming adversity—in this case, Julie Andrews versus a sourpuss Christopher Plummer and the rise of Nazism. Nor did Kael take time to compare it with some other films based on those syrupy Rodgers & Hammerstein meditations on affluent widowers with packs of kids hooking up with hired nannies and governesses. The Sound of Music is vastly superior to Walter Lang’s The King and I (1956) and Joshua Logan’s dreadful South Pacific (1958); but, more importantly, it contains a strong visual sense (ever mindful of deep soft focus and the Alps) and a prevailing compassion for time, place and character.
On a strictly personal level, I’m not as charitable to West Side Story, which always seemed too aware of the claustrophobia that suffocates the Jets, the Sharks, Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood. I can barely breathe while watching it—which may have been Wise’s intent. Obviously a better picture (and infinitely more stylized) than The Sound of Music, defining Wise’s auteurship becomes a murky task when holding the two up for comparison.
Nor am I a fan of The Haunting (1963), a plodding ghost story (immensely popular in its day) that, in my opinion, ends precisely at the point where it should have begun. But it offers several chilling moments and good performances, Clare Bloom especially, and Julie Harris analyzing that crazy wallpaper is one of the screen’s great points of eerie unrest.
Wise’s best efforts start at the beginning, with The Curse of the Cat People (1944), that strange ode to childhood imagination co-directed with Gunther von Fritsch for producer Val Lewton; The Body Snatcher, which was Robert Louis Stevenson interpreted through Lewton, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Henry Daniell; the tough-as-nails Born to Kill (1947), an archetype of noir and incredibly progressive in tone; and Blood on the Moon (1948), an excellent vehicle for Robert Mitchum. Wise then tried the gimmick of ‘real time’ in The Set Up (1949) to circumvent traditional drama, but the end result felt stagy and portentous.
The Day the Earth Stood Still holds up better than most science fiction of its (or any) time; a sleek, genuinely disturbing reflection on manipulation and consequence, it is a winning combination of spirit and talent. Beautiful, atomic-age noir shot by Leo Tover, with a pulsating Bernard Herrmann score (complete with Theremin) the film is a long-standing classic of the genre and may turn out to be Wise’s finest achievement.
He also encouraged several fine performances: Michael Rennie (inspired casting) in Day the Earth Stood Still; Robert Ryan in The Set Up; Paul Newman in Somebody Up There Likes Me; Mitchum and Shirley MacLaine in Two for the Seesaw (1962)—though from a script better suited to Stanley Donen; and Eleanor Parker, quietly sexual and realizing her advancing age in Sound of Music. There were times when performance threatened to extend beyond the screen, as if Wise had relinquished control as situations became irretrievably humorless: Burt Lancaster and Clark Gable in Run Silent, Run Deep (1958); the ‘chin-up’ self-consciousness of Susan Hayward in I Want to Live! (1958).
This is a strange, long but highly profitable career. Although some of the films tackle controversial issues and stories, Wise surely lacked the necessary temperament and cynicism, and trusted his mannered, conservative instincts. (His handling of racism in Odds Against Tomorrow , for example, is ham-fisted at best.) Nearly a household name during the days of West Side Story and The Sound of Music—their poster graphics were once an inescapable, integral part of ‘60s pop culture—Wise was virtually forgotten a decade later. Whether viewers who are now in their twenties or thirties will ever screen his pictures seems doubtful. Like so much of pre-1980’s American film culture, Robert Wise represents a cinematic language that’s rarely ever spoken anymore.