According to the Associated Press, Oscar-winning producer and director Robert Wise, who turned 91 on September 10, died Wednesday of heart failure.
I grew up and learned to love movies in the '60s and '70s, and as such I came to associate the name Robert Wise with big budgets, big casts and a big scaled, impersonal style. As a kid, when I thought of Robert Wise, I thought of The Sound of Music and West Side Story, big, galumphing, Academy Award-winning musicals that held little interest for me as a budding cinephile. I also thought of "important" pictures like The Sand Pebbles and studio-crippling debacles like Star!, neither of which I have seen to this day-- I just remember seeing the giant ads in the Portland Oregonian (which, in the case of Star! anyway, disappeared rather quickly) and reading about them many years later in film magazines where they were held up as examples of uninspired storytelling or out-and-out misguided spectacle. And the Robert Wise films I did see as a paying moviegoer in the '70s weren't particularly exciting either. The Andromeda Strain is a serious and well-intended adaptation of Michael Chricton's science fiction thriller, though I find it a bit too earnest and dull; The Hindenburg, with its curious mix of Universal stock disaster formula and footage of the actual disaster, plus George C. Scott's anti-Nazi German officer as the film's most empathetic character, ensures its status as about as strange and flat a disaster movie as the genre ever produced; and taken alongside the ill-advisedly poker-faced and drawn-out Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Wise's '70s output linked his name in my mind (I assumed forever) with cinematic bloat. The less said about his last feature, Rooftops, the better-- in it, Wise attempted to revisit West Side Story territory with a lame teen-oriented romance built around a faux warrior dance called "combat," in which dancers try to push each other out of the designated dance ring without actually touching.
Fortunately, when I grew up, I discovered that Robert Wise had a career before West Side Story. He worked his way into RKO Studios in the early '30s and by the end of the decade was one of the studio's most well regarded film editors. His first credit as an editor came on Garson Kanin's delightful and underappreciated screwball comedy Bachelor Mother, starring Ginger Rogers and David Niven-- not exactly an inauspicious start. That same year he edited Gregory La Cava's 5th Ave. Girl, also starring Ginger Rogers, and, perhaps most impressively, William Dieterle's impassioned and heartbreaking version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which features Charles Laughton's memorable turn as Quasimodo and the lovely Maureen O'Hara as Esmeralda. He returned to work for Garson Kanin a year later, cutting Cary Grant and Irene Dunne for the director's My Favorite Wife, as well as a fascinating, nearly forgotten gem for director Dorothy Arzner entitled Dance, Girl, Dance.
He would ensure his place in film history with his next assignment, however. According to Pauline Kael, in her controversial essay "Raising Kane," his bosses at RKO gave him the task of working with upstart director Orson Welles because the two men were the same age, a factor that was presumably likely to make them temperamentally compatible. Robert Wise helped guide Welles through the process of appeasing RKO and the threats (presumed and authentic) of William Randolph Hearst, and ended up helping to create what has been arguably (oh, the arguments) regarded for nearly 50 years of cinema history as perhaps the best movie ever made, Citizen Kane. Welles garnered most of the praise, as well as the catastrophic career fallout, in the wake of Kane. Gregg Toland has been revered for decades for his vivid, pioneering cinematography on the film. But anyone who has seen a movie made in the years between 1942 and the present has felt the influence of Wise's editorial talents as well, as they emanate from his crisp, elegant, graphically potent montage in Kane all the way up through films as diverse as All the King's Men, The Searchers, High and Low, Lawrence of Arabia, A Shot in the Dark and The Godfather, to recent releases such as Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby and even Wes Craven's Red Eye.
Wise would edit six more films, including Dieterle's The Devil and Daniel Webster, Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons, Richard Wallace's Bombardier and Wallace's overlooked gem The Fallen Sparrow, starring John Garfield, Walter Slezak and Maureen O'Hara, before he would finally take the directorial reins himself in 1944.
His first feature, undertaken for producer Val Lewton, and co-directed with the otherwise undistinguished Gunther von Fritsch, was the ostensible sequel to Lewton's Cat People, entitled Curse of the Cat People. Curse, despite being written by DeWitt Bodeen, who wrote the creepy original directed by Jacques Tourneur, is actually neither a true sequel (original catwoman Simone Simon appears only in ghostly dream sequences) nor a horror film. Instead, it's a potent psychological fantasy, veering at times very close to fairy tale territory, in which a young girl is visited by visions of her father's dead wife (Simon). Brooding, atmospheric and subtly chilling, this movie was both a harbinger of some of the great work Wise would do as a director and the antithesis, in scale and attitude, of most of his later films, and I think it's flat-out brilliant.
Wise's directorial credits in the 40s and 50s held delights and treasures which I would only gradually, over the past 15 years, discover, but what delights they held-- the ghastly tug of war at the center of his adaptation (for Lewton) of Robert Louis Stevenson's The Body Snatcher; the murderous Lawrence Tierney haunting Claire Trevor in Born to Kill; the sultry combination of Robert Mitchum and Barbara Bel Geddes in the noir western Blood on the Moon; the almost unbearable tension of The Set-up, told in real time, as on-the-skids boxer Robert Ryan must decide whether to defy a local gangster and not throw a fight; Joseph Cotten, Linda Darnell and Cornel Wilde flying Two Flags West in a sturdy cavalry adventure; James Cagney as a two-fisted horse rancher in Tribute to a Bad Man; and the precursor to Crimson Tide, Burt Lancaster and Clark Gable locking horns in the terrific submarine thriller Run Silent, Run Deep.
Of course, Wise as a director could be as hit-or-miss as his choice of material was varied. Somebody Up There Likes Me has always struck me as a little too earnest and pedestrian to have a subject like Rocky Graziano at its center; Susan Hayward's Oscar-winning turn as a death-row citizen in I Want to Live! is a bit too melodramatic and look-at-me, though Wise's direction does not lack for conviction; and the high gloss trash of Executive Suite seems useful only as far as it provided the template for future TV dramas like Dynasty, Dallas and Falcon Crest. In fact, it actually inspired its own short-lived TV series (1976-77) which, to no one's surprise, is not exactly a heavy presence in the TV Land nostalgia rotation.
But Wise's two best films are be two genre exercises that critics of the day were probably never predisposed to take nearly as seriously as some of his more clearly Oscar-baiting fare. Whisper "Klaatu barada mikto" in a crowded room and see how many people don't immediately recognize you as seriously disturbed. That'll be because they'll know you're speaking the language of The Day The Earth Stood Still which, even before Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers, served as a model of politically aware, socially relevant science fiction. The movie was rediscovered in the '80s by a generation of filmgoers who felt the specter of nuclear war bearing down on them in a very real way that the film was able to articulate and engage, and it remains one of Wise's most elegant, visually fluid and potently economical films.
And for my money, Wise's best film, and easily one of the scariest movies ever made, surely has to be his insinuatingly frightening 1963 classic, the film version of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting, perhaps the only one of his many fine films that I would consider a masterpiece. This is the very essence of how to get completely under an audience's skin-- Wise employs lessons learned at the feet of Val Lewton to spectacular effect here. I've always found it interesting that one of the horror genre's greatest movies would be directed by a man who, with a couple of nods its direction as the exception, never showed much interest in scaring audiences. Yet he does so here masterfully. It's deeply ironic that someone as revered as Steven Spielberg, along with once-promising tyrant Jan de Bont in the director's chair, would produce a remake of this film and stumble into every obvious mistake that Wise so artfully sidesteps in his original. But if you have four hours or so to spare sometime, compare the 1963 version with the 1997 disaster for a quick and eloquent lesson in the value of holding one's cards close to the vest. You'll also see a vivid demonstration of the dire consequences of attempting to illustrate, through CGI means, the worst imaginations of the mind. Wise proves that the dread conjured by the twisted, percolating fears inside a viewer's head far outstrips the power of the ones and zeroes employed to throw it all up there for you on the screen so you don't have to bother getting really involved in the process of a truly good scare. This is the movie where he really proved his mettle as a conjurer of mood, atmosphere and character, and reaffirmed his deft ability with actors-- Julie Harris was probably never better in a film, and Claire Bloom, Russ Tamblyn and Richard Johnson are, in their own ways equally effective. I've witnessed it with my own eyes-- The Haunting is capable of scaring the knickers off of even the most jaded viewer; if he'd never done anything else, I'd always be grateful to Wise for unleashing this one, right after West Side Story and the innocuous Two for the Seesaw, on a unsuspecting public.
Wise was active in the film community up until his death, working for film preservation and restoration causes and providing up-to-date DVD commentary on many of his most respected works (his presence on the DVD of The Set-up is invaluable and very informative). Even if you have troubles with much of his output, particularly late in his career, it seems necessary and respectful to acknowledge the very good work that he has contributed to the history of cinema. He was not a great stylist, but he was, as an editor, innovative and brilliant, and a solid craftsman as a director, one who made many wonderful films which serve, for viewers like myself anyway, to offset the effects and experience of some of his later, more popular, Oscar-winning work. He will be missed, but, fortunately for us, those films will not.