He never used film to explore his personal obsessions and phobias. He didn’t bare his soul on celluloid.
Instead, Wise was a Hollywood journeyman, a director-for-hire who could tackle just about any subject and come up with the right tone and approach to the material.
Some of his movies are classics. Very few are bad.
Wise gained Tinseltown immortality for his helming of two of the most beloved film musicals of the last 60 years: West Side Story and The Sound of Music. Not to mention The Haunting, possibly the creepiest ghost story ever filmed.
But you couldn’t pigeonhole this Oscar-winner; his resume was all over the map.
He got his start as a sound editor at RKO. But early on Wise was tapped by Orson Welles to cut the “Boy Wonder’s” first film. The result was Citizen Kane, since hailed as the greatest American movie ever made.
As part of that gig Wise witnesses some impressive history. When newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst took umbrage at Kane (which was clearly based on his life) and attempted to buy the film so that it would never be seen by the public, Wise was directed by Welles to personally carry an exhibition print onto an airplane and fly to RKO’s offices in New York.
There, Wise recalled, he screened the masterpiece for a handful of RKO execs. They emerged to find the 25-year-old Welles ready with a fierce defense of his opus, citing the Rights of Man, artistic integrity, the First Amendment and any other landmark that would convince the suits not to sell off his baby.
It was, Wise recalled years later, the greatest performance Orson Welles ever gave...and it was seen by only a half-dozen people.
But it worked. RKO held on to Citizen Kane and the world got a masterpiece.
The editing suite couldn’t hold Robert Wise for long. His view was too broad, his interest in all the nuts and bolts of moviemaking too fierce.
He began directing in and within just a few years was creating his own cinema landmarks:
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951): One of the first “flying saucer” movies and probably the best. An alien (Michael Rennie) lands his spacecraft in a D.C. park and, assuming the guise of mild-mannered “Mr. Carpenter,” walks among us to study mankind. Not only was Day... great science fiction, but it was a brilliant parody of the life of Christ, complete with last-act resurrection.
Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956): In this biopic Wise tackles the life of middleweight champ Rocky Graziano, evoking a gritty world of tenements and city streets and eliciting a star-making performance out of young Paul Newman. Shot on location in NYC.
Tribute to a Bad Man (1956): Here’s an intriguing example of a “psychological Western,” with James Cagney as a megalomaniacal Wyoming rancher who declares himself a one-man judge, jury and executioner for possible rustlers. Greek star Irene Pappas plays his main squeeze...of course there’s a love triangle.
Odds Against Tomorrow (1959): On paper it might seem like a run-of-the-mill crime melodrama. But Wise and a terrific cast elevate this heist flick into something special. Harry Belafonte plays a musician sucked into a big robbery scheme; he’s teamed with a raging racist (Robert Ryan) so desperate for a payday that he’ll force himself to work with a black man. With Ed Begley, Shelley Winters, Gloria Grahame.
Two for the Seesaw (1962): Wise’s film of William Gibson’s hit romance stage play about a Midwestern lawyer (Robert Mitchum) falling for a Greenwich Village bohemian (Shirley MacLaine). Wise wasn’t given a chance to rethink the play for the big screen – the dialogue is pulled directly from the play – but his assured direction and the star turns bring it off.
I Want to Live! (1958): Under Wise’s direction Susan Hayward won a best actress Oscar for her portrayal of the real-life Barbara Graham, a notorious “party girl” convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Her guilt and/or innocence is still a matter of debate.
The Andromeda Strain (1971): A high-tech thriller about a team of scientists sent into a remote desert town where the entire population – save for an infant and an old man – has mysteriously died. Based on Michael Crichton’s best seller.
The Sand Pebbles (1966): The late Steve McQueen was at his charismatic best in this epic-yet-intimate story of American sailors manning a gunboat in revolution-wracked China in the 1920s. With Candice Bergen, Richard Attenborough, Richard Crenna.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He's married to the former Ellen Vaughan; they are the proud parents of LA-based comedian, writer, director and TV personality Blair Butler. He used to be a dog person but now lives with two cats, thus demonstrating the flexibility of the human condition.