Of course, the person I’m referring to is the late director-producer Robert Wise (1914 – 2005). It was Wise’s adaptation of the Broadway musical The Sound of Music (1965) that rescued 20th Century Fox from the threat of Cleopatra (1963)-induced bankruptcy. It was Wise who, at the ripe old age of 26, edited the Orson Welles masterpiece Citizen Kane (1941) and received his first Oscar nomination. (Wise was also the person controversially tasked with whittling/butchering Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) down to 88 minutes from its original 148-minute running time.) And in 1962 and 1966, it was Robert Wise who each year took home Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director in recognition for his work on West Side Story and The Sound of Music respectively.
Having directed some 40 motion pictures throughout his six-decade career—several now regarded as contemporary classics—Wise is hardly an unknown in film circles. Similarly, given the many positions of honor he held in his lifetime (president of both the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and The Director’s Guild) and the number of industry trophies bestowed upon him (the aforementioned four Academy Awards, The Irving G Thalberg Memorial Award, The Director’s Guild D.W. Griffith Award, and The AFI Life Achievement Award), Wise isn’t even a filmmaker about whom it can be said had a career that went unrewarded.
|Two for the Seesaw|
Wise uses space to dramatize the isolation of characters played by Shirley MacLaine & Robert Mitchum
The boon and bane of Robert Wise’s career has always been his versatility and disinterest in imposing a defining “A film by Robert Wise” signature on his movie.
The range of genres Wise worked in is staggering. Film-Noir: Born to Kill (1947) / Western: Blood on the Moon (1948) / Sports: The Set-up (1949) / Comedy: Something for the Birds (1952) / War: Destination Gobi (1953) / Bio: I Want to Live (1958) / Crime: Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) / Romance: Two for the Seesaw (1962) / Adventure: The Sand Pebbles (1966) / Musical: - Star! (1968) / Horror: The Haunting (1963) / and Sci-Fi: Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979).
Suspicious-looking onlooker Roy Thinnes skulks behind Colonel George C. Scott and Countess Anne Bancroft, whose opium addiction has her airborne long before the dirigible ever leaves the ground.
And while Robert Wise may not have been the most hands-on director, his films led many a performer to Oscar wins and nominations (Steve McQueen received his only Oscar nomination for The Sand Pebbles).
|The Day the Earth Stood Still|
Michael Rennie (left) no doubt feeling ill.
Historically speaking, if Wise suffers from anything, it's from a lack of legacy. He's a director with no visibility (there aren't any Alfred Hitchcock-like walk-ons in a Robert Wise movie); no public persona (he didn't make the talk-show circuit like Otto Preminger); no mystique (there are no juicy anecdotes detailing displays artistic temperament); and impossible to "type" (versatility resists branding). When film enthusiasts and scholars talk about the directors of the studio system era, the name Robert Wise is conspicuous in its absence. Underrated and overlooked in comparison to his peers, Robert Wise is the Jan Brady of film directors. The Rodney Dangerfield of Cinema.
Hoping to rectify this is the book— Robert Wise: The Motion Pictures by J.R. Jordan, originally published in 2017 and now available in a revised and updated edition. Robert Wise: The Motion Pictures is a well-researched, sizable volume (506 pages) that takes a comprehensive, chronological look at the full body of Robert Wise's career output as a director. All 40 of Wise’s feature films are highlighted, including his last, a TV-movie filmed when the director was 85-years-old.
RKO Pictures – B-movies under the tutelage of horror master Val Lewton.
The Fifties – His most prolific period.
Primetime – The ‘60s, his most successful decade.
The Science and Surrealism of the Seventies – Big budgets & modest returns.
Twilight – His brief return to filmmaking following a 10-year absence.
My favorite Robert Wise film is also one of the most effective haunted house films I've ever seen
When it came to Wise's return to the musical genre, three failed to be the charm. The expensive, tuneful, and colorful musical biography of Gertrude Lawrence was as big a flop as The Sound of Music was a hit.
|Odds Against Tomorrow|
Produced by Harry Belafonte and credited as the first film-noir to star a Black actor
Marsha Mason and John Beck wonder if the reincarnated can reverse charges
|The Andromeda Strain|
You know it's science fiction when Paula Kelly and James Olson battle an uncontrolled
outbreak of a deadly virus and there's no one around bitching about having to wear a mask.
The author provided a review copy of the book.
All screencaps are from Robert Wise movies in my personal DVD collection.
|Simone Simon and Ann Carter in The Curse of the Cat People (1944)|
Taking over the reins from original director Gunther von Fritsch, this RKO film
produced by Val Lewton marks Robert Wise's debut as a film director.