Though best known for his two enormously successful musicals The Sound of Music and West Side Story, the four-time Oscar-winner Robert Wise directed classic films in several genres, including sci-fi (The Day the Earth Stood Still), mystery (The Curse of the Cat People), horror (The Haunting) and soap opera (Until They Sail). Starting his film career as an editor (notably on Orson Welles's Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons), he first worked as a director on low-budget "B" movies produced by Val Lewton. "I always want my films to have a comment to make," he said:
However, the comment should be made by the story itself, the development of the plot and the interplay of the characters, without having the characters say it in so many words.
Born in 1914 in Indiana, the youngest of three brothers, he was studying at Franklin College and planning to be a journalist when, just three months before he became 18, his parents told him that because of the Depression they were unable to keep him at college and he would have to leave and find a job. His elder brother, David, was working as an accountant at the film studio RKO, and got him a job as a "film porter", carrying prints from editing room to projection booth. After learning sound and music editing, he graduated to assistant editor, and by 1939 he was co-editing, with William Hamilton, such prestigious movies as the excellent Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musical The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, and the classic version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame starring Charles Laughton. The following year he gained his first solo editing credits, on Dorothy Arzner's Dance, Girl, Dance and Garson Kanin's My Favourite Wife.
When Orson Welles, who had started to make his first film, Citizen Kane, was unhappy with the editor assigned by the studio and wanted someone "young and uninfluenced by tradition", he was introduced to Wise and put him in charge of the editing. The two men got along well, and Wise received an Oscar nomination for his work:
Welles was, I think, as close to a genius as anyone I ever met. There are a few things I'm sure I learned from him. One was to try and keep the energy level high, the movement forward in the telling of the story. Another was the use of deep-focus photography. I've shot many of my films, particularly in black-and-white, with wide-angle lenses, so we could have somebody close in the foreground and still have things in the background in focus.
Welles's The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) proved less satisfying for Wise, for after the completion of shooting Welles left for Brazil prior to the film's first preview, which proved disastrous. The studio ordered severe cutting plus the shooting of new bridging material (including a scene shot by Wise himself). Wise, who trimmed nearly an hour from the print, said,
As a work of art and a cinematic achievement, it was undoubtedly a better film in its original length, but it just didn't play . . . I think the fact that it has come down through the years as a classic in its own right means that we didn't destroy everything that Orson did.
Wise also directed a scene in another film he edited, The Fallen Sparrow (1943), in the absence of the director Richard Wallace, so he was eager for a directorial assignment when the director of The Curse of the Cat People, Gunther von Fritsch, failed to meet the production schedule. The producer Val Lewton asked Wise to take over, and he completed the film in 10 days. It proved a minor classic, and a fine example of the Lewton group's facility for taking an exploitable title forced on them by the studio and producing an exceptional, literate work, in this case a haunting psychological melodrama that skilfully evoked the inner world of a lonely child. "It's a very sensitive tale," said Wise, "not a scary one."
He then directed an unusual (for Lewton) project, a screen version of two stories by Guy de Maupassant, Mademoiselle Fifi (1944), the story of a courageous laundress (Simone Simon) in Prussian-occupied France of 1870. Though serviceable, it was not as good as his next film, The Body Snatchers (1945), a superbly macabre thriller with a persuasive period atmosphere and great performances from Boris Karloff and Henry Daniell as grave-robbers in 1860s Edinburgh. Daniell's final coach ride during a ferocious storm, as he imagines that Karloff's corpse is beside him, is one of the most chilling sequences on film.
More good "B" movies followed - The Game of Death (1945), a brisk remake of The Most Dangerous Game, Criminal Court (1946), a taut courtroom drama, and a powerful thriller, Born to Kill (1947), starring Claire Trevor as one of film noir's most duplicitous and ruthless femmes fatales, with Wise eliciting fine performances from a great cast including Walter Slezak, Elisha Cook and Esther Howard. Though criticised at the time for its amoral characters, sordid atmosphere and brutality, it is now a highly regarded work:
It got pretty badly attacked at the time, but by today's standards it is very mild. In terms of the dynamism of the story, it holds up very well.
Wise described the film's leading man, Lawrence Tierney, who many years later was featured in Reservoir Dogs, as a very interesting guy. You always felt a little edgy about him, and that quality came off on the screen.
Wise's first "A" film was the moody noir western Blood on the Moon (1948), starring Robert Mitchum, which was followed by a critically acclaimed gem, The Set-Up (1949). Based on a blank-verse poem written in the 1920s by Joseph Moncure March, it was one of Hollywood's best boxing films, a gritty, brutal and uncompromising tale set in real time. "That was an innovative idea," said Wise:
The film opens with an establishing shot of a clock in the street, and 70 minutes later we end on a shot of the clock showing that 70 minutes have passed . . . The fighter in the poem was black, but we cast Robert Ryan, who had been a boxer in college.
Ryan, who played an over-the-hill boxer who refuses to deliberately lose a match, always cited the film, which won the critics' prize at the Cannes Film Festival, as his favourite. The script, a terse, subtle condemnation of boxing, was written by Art Cohn, a former sportswriter. "He really knew the fight game," said Wise:
This was his first screenplay. Several years later, he was killed with Mike Todd when Todd's plane crashed.
The film was Wise's last at RKO:
I went over to 20th Century-Fox, where one day I ran into Billy Wilder. He told me, "If The Set-Up had been made in Italy or France, it would have been a sensation."
The melodrama Three Secrets (1950), starring Eleanor Parker, Patricia Neal and Ruth Roman as three women who all gave up babies for adoption, and converge at a mountainside when it is revealed that the sole survivor of a plane crash is a five-year-old boy who might be the son of one of them, could have been tritely sentimental, but was intelligently handled by Wise:
I realised it was soap opera, but I liked the idea, and was intrigued by working with the three actresses.
The following year he worked with Neal again on a film considered one of the most distinguished of sci-fi tales, The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). With its alien protagonist a friendly visitor who pleas for peaceful coexistence, the film had a startlingly different approach to the genre and the alien's words of peace, "Klaatu Barada Nikto", have become something of a catch-phrase. Released at the time of the Korean War, it was denied cooperation by the army:
They wouldn't give us an OK for the equipment we needed because they didn't like the theme of our picture. We went to the National Guard and they had no problems.
The film's story, of a visitor from space who tries to promote peace and is killed, has been perceived in recent years as having religious overtones, but Wise says that aspect did not occur to him:
I think the casting had quite a bit to do with it - Michael Rennie was rather tall and thin, and rather aesthetic-looking. And of course in the film he is resurrected. And he takes the name Carpenter. Maybe I was just dumb enough that I didn't catch it.
Wise personally selected the film's composer, Bernard Herrmann, who had written the scores for the Welles films:
His use of the theramin in The Day the Earth Stood Still was simply marvellous. I don't think I ever had another picture for which I felt the score added quite so much.
Wise told the historian Kevin G. Shinnick in 1997,
I've done 39 films in my career - the two best-known being West Side Story and The Sound of Music - but The Day the Earth Stood Still is the third best-known, both here and abroad.
Further displaying his versatility, Wise worked with Neal again on the political comedy Something for the Birds (1952), then made two action movies set during the Second World War, Destination Gobi (1953) starring Richard Widmark, and The Desert Rats (1953), an exciting tale of war in the desert starring Richard Burton and, as Rommel, James Mason. Executive Suite (1954) was a strong drama of struggles for power in big business, with Wise getting fine performances from a starry cast headed by William Holden, June Allyson, Barbara Stanwyck and Fredric March, but the epic Helen of Troy (1955) was one of his few total failures, a flat and uninteresting pageant.
He then made another excellent film with a boxing background, Somebody Up There Likes Me (1957), the biography of Rocky Graziano. The leading role, originally scheduled for James Dean before his death, was taken by Paul Newman, whose sympathetic performance made him a major star. This Could Be the Night (1957) was an amusing comedy in which a schoolteacher (Jean Simmons) takes an evening job as a secretary in a New York night-club.
Wise then teamed Simmons and Newman in the superior melodrama Until They Sail (1957), based on James Michener's story of four sisters in New Zealand during the Second World War, and how the arrival of American servicemen affects them. Joan Fontaine, Piper Laurie and Sandra Dee were the other sisters, but the main love story was that of the recently widowed Simmons and the cynical Newman, who observes the casual affairs and infidelities that proliferate. Both players were at their finest, and Wise commented,
Jean is one of the best actresses I worked with. I don't think she was ever given enough credit for the quality of her acting.
He received his first Oscar nomination as Best Director for his handling of the explosive true-life tale of the prostitute Barbara Graham, I Want to Live! (1958). Susan Hayward won an Oscar for her uncompromising performance as the hard-boiled Graham who was sentenced to death for a murder which it is questionable that she committed. The film's final sequences of preparation and execution attracted particular comment (and were partly cut by British censors). Wise said that he was at first unsure how to structure the film's final scenes, then he talked to the priest who was present:
During the course of our conversation he told me, "You don't have any idea of the terrible atmosphere that permeates a prison the day before, the night and the morning of an execution. The whole prison knows that an execution is coming up, they know all the steps that are being taken to take a human life." The minute he said that, a light-bulb lit above my head. I went to the prison and said, "Show me everything that goes on from the moment you start to prepare for an execution until it's over - all the details, every routine you go through." That gave me the spine around which to hook the last act.
Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) was another effectively stark tale, starring Robert Ryan as a racist bank-robber, then Wise was assigned to co-direct, with Jerome Robbins, West Side Story (1961), the screen version of the Broadway musical by Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. At first, Wise was wary of working with Robbins:
It was soul-searching on both our parts. After a period of several months, we came to a meeting of the minds. Jerry would be the prime director on all the musical aspects - I would be there to help him whenever I could. I would be the director on all the book sections. He would, once again, be around to contribute when he could.
The two agreed that the opening should be filmed on the actual streets of New York, and it was Wise's idea to open with aerial shots of the city:
I didn't want that same shot, across the river, the bridge and the skyline that had been shot to death. I wanted a different look to the city, almost an abstract one. I wanted to put the audience in a frame of mind to accept the kids dancing in the streets without feeling that twinge of embarrassment.
Though Wise said he and Robbins worked together "pretty well", the studio felt that the collaboration was slowing things up, and, just after midway through shooting, Robbins was taken off the film. "It was a very uncomfortable, emotional and difficult time for everybody." The film won the pair Oscars for Best Direction.
Wise then did another stage adaptation, Two for the Seesaw (1962), starring Robert Mitchum and Shirley MacLaine in what on stage had been a two-character piece, then made another of his masterworks, The Haunting (1963), which is regarded (with Jack Clayton's The Innocents) as being one of the two best ghost stories of the Sixties. It is, in fact, one of the best ghost stories ever, beautifully directed by Wise with no ghosts or apparitions actually seen but a tremendous sense of terror conveyed by sudden shocks, an imaginative use of sound and infra-red photography ("When you shoot skies in infra-red, it makes the sky go black and the clouds go white").
Next came the greatest commercial success of Wise's career, the screen version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music (1965). Considering the saccharine nature of much of the original stage piece, it is hard to imagine any team making a better film version than Wise, his co-producer Saul Chaplin, and screenwriter Ernest Lehman. In his screenplay for West Side Story, Lehman had skilfully switched the placing of the songs "Cool" and "Gee, Officer Krupke", and in The Sound of Music he and Wise made even more telling adjustments. "My Favourite Things", originally sung as a duet between the novice Maria and the Mother Superior, was moved to become the number with which Maria comforts the children during a thunderstorm, making its questionable lyrics more palatable, and the song originally in that spot, "The Lonely Goatherd", became a puppet show put on for guests by the children. Wise said,
I'll never forget the first time Julie Andrews came over to have lunch in the dining room at Fox. Just as we sat down, she leaned over to me and said, "How are we going to cut down all the sweetness that's in this piece?" I grabbed her hand and said, "All I can tell you is that we're talking the same language."
The Sound of Music won Wise two more Oscars for production and direction, and remains one of the biggest grossing films of all time, but Wise's subsequent movies were inferior to his earlier work. His next film, The Sand Pebbles (1966), also won an Oscar nomination, but was hampered by the sort of over-inflation that had started to affect Hollywood's more important films, and a reunion with Julie Andrews on Star! (1968), a biography of the legendary stage star Gertrude Lawrence, was a sad failure that Wise was to describe as "my biggest disappointment, and more of an achievement than was acknowledged by mass audiences".
The Andromeda Strain (1971) was fair science-fiction marred by overlength, and The Hindenburg (1975) was described by one critic as "a disastrous disaster film", but Audrey Rose (1977) was a moderately effective thriller about reincarnation. Wise himself confessed dissatisfaction with the script of Star Trek - The Motion Picture (1979), saying, "The actors were fine but we were re-writing the script all the way to the last day of shooting."
It was 10 years before his next film, Rooftops (1989), a tale of homeless youths, which evoked West Side Story with its mixture of dance and drama, but failed to find an audience. His final film was a television movie about racial intolerance, A Storm in Summer (2000).
In 1988 he was awarded the coveted D.W. Griffith Award by the Directors' Guild, and in 1998 he was given the Film Academy's Life Achievement Award.
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