ROBERT WISE REMEMBERED
He was a director who
mastered all film genres
By RON MILLER
When young people learned that film director Robert Wise had died at age 91 on Sept. 14, a majority probably thought it was truly a sad day for fans of movie musicals. They would be right, of course, because Wise won Oscars directing two of the great all-time musicals--"West Side Story" (1961) and "The Sound of Music" (1965).
But that recognition really robs Bob Wise of a lot of his greatness.
In truth, Wise was the master of all film genres from horror films ("The Curse of the Cat People," 1944; "The Body Snatcher," 1945; "The Haunting," 1963), sci-fi films ("The Day the Earth Stood Still," 1951; "The Andromeda Strain," 1971; "Star Trek: The Motion Picture," 1979) and westerns ("Blood on the Moon," 1948; "Tribute To A Bad Man," 1956) to dramas ("So Big," 1953; "Executive Suite," 1954; "I Want To Live!," 1958), comedies ("Something for the Birds," 1952; "This Could Be the Night," 1957; "Two for the Seesaw," 1962); action pictures ("Destination Gobi," 1952; "The Desert Rats," 1952; "Run Silent, Run Deep," 1958; "The Sand Pebbles," 1966), costume spectacles ("Helen of Troy," 1955) and films noir ("Born to Kill," 1947; "The Set-Up," 1949; "The House on Telegraph Hill," 1951; "Odds Against Tomorrow," 1959).
In fact, Wise achieved a large chunk of greatness in 1941, before he ever directed a film, when he was Oscar-nominated for his work as the film editor on Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane," considered by many to be the greatest of all 20th century movies--and certainly one of the best-edited films of all time.
Julia Dean with imaginative child
Ann Carter in Wise's first film,
1944's 'Curse of the Cat People.'
The giant robot GORT from Wise's
sci-fi classic from 1951,
"The Day the Earth Stood Still.'
If you think of just that one sequence where you watch the disintegration of Kane's marriage over a period of years, shown to us as just quick snapshots at the breakfast table, edited tightly into a brisk montage, you had a major preview of the talent Bob Wise brought to the film world. (He continued to work as Welles' editor and also did the acclaimed follow-up film to "Kane," Welles' "The Magnificent Ambersons.")
Wise earned his first directing credit in 1944 when Gunther von Frisch fell way behind in his direction of the low-budget "Curse of the Cat People" at RKO and producer Val Lewton had to replace him. He chose Wise, who helped hone that cheap sequel to the 1942 box office hit "The Cat People" into a masterful psychological drama, taking us inside the world of a little girl who imagines her dead mother has come back to haunt her. This glorious film is finally out on DVD next month in the Val Lewton Horror package, a boxed set of all prodcuer Lewton's horror pictures from the 1940s, famous for their atmospheric look and gore-free chills.
That same year, Wise directed a marvelous little non-horror film for Lewton called "Mademoiselle Fifi," a period drama about a coach loaded with French nobles, fleeing to safety during the Franco-Prussian War, who are offended that a humble laundress (Simone Simon) has been permitted to ride with them. Based on a story by Guy de Maupassant, the film is reminiscent of John Ford's 1939 "Stagecoach," but contains metaphors for the relations between nations then involved in World War II. For his first full directing job, it was a great start for Wise, who used the same leading lady--French actress Simone Simon--who played his ghostly "cat woman" in his first picture.
Though I think "West Side Story," which Wise co-directed with Jerome Robbins, is one of the all-time great musicals, I don't think his reputation eventually will rest on either that film or the enormously popular "Sound of Music." My favorite among all his films is the 1958 "I Want To Live!," the true story of Barbara Graham, the first woman to be executed in California's gas chamber. Reverting to black and white at a time when most new productions were in color, Wise gave that film a powerfully realistic feeling and the grim documentary style builds and builds the tension until the jolting climax. Susan Hayward gave the best performance of her life under his direction and earned the Best Actress Oscar. The innovative modern jazz musical score by John Mandel is one of the all-time great soundtracks.
The richness of his early noir masterpieces are now being rediscovered, thanks to the boom of interest in that dark genre and the release of the genre classics in DVD sets. You should try to see Wise's "The Set-Up," a stunning prizefight drama, which takes place in real time and features a great performance by Robert Ryan, and "Born to Kill," a really dark film with a searing portrayal by Lawrence Tierney.
In person, Bob Wise was a charming, low-key gentleman of great dignity. I first met him in 1971 when he paid a visit to a student film society sponsored by Stanford University's School of Law. One of the students invited me to attend Wise's session with them and we wound up chatting for quite a long while. He was delighted to know that I was familiar with his early works and didn't know him just from his musicals.
We had occasion to talk several times over the years--especially when he was the president of the Academy for Motion Picture Arts & Sciences--and talked last in 1998. shortly before he was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award of the American Film Institute. He was then 83 and I was planning to retire from my regular job as a syndicated television columnist soon, so I felt I might not ever have a chance to ask him the questions I'd stored up over the years. We sat down together and he cheerfully answered them all.
Right at the top of the list: What was it like to be Orson Welles' film editor? Did the man who seemed to have a hand in everything look over young Wise's shoulder all through the editing of "Citizen Kane"?
"He never came to the editing room," Wise answered, smiling at what I suppose was an expression of sheer surprise on my face. He explained that Welles left him completely alone to do the cutting and assembling of his footage, but would give him a list of changes, if any were needed, after he viewed the edited sequence. "Whatever's finally on the screen was there with his approval," Wise added.
I also wanted to know if working for Val Lewton's low budget horror unit had been a major influence on his career. He said it definitely was. He described Lewton as being a very creative producer with a great deal of imagination. He said he learned how to use light and shadows to create atmosphere instead of pouring millions into building elaborate sets.
"When we made 'The Body Snatcher,'" Wise told me, "he found a piece of the old 'Hunchback of Notre Dame' set at the RKO studio ranch in Encino. They still had a lot of exterior sets out there."
Lewton would have his crew re-dress those expensive old sets, giving his cheap pictures a very rich look.
When he mentioned "The Body Snatcher," it inspired me to go for another pent-up question. That was the final film in which horror superstars Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi appeared together. I asked how the two got along and what it was like working with them.
Wise shook his head and explained that Karloff was a charming, cultured, gentle and cooperative man with no "big star" air about him. He said Karloff felt very sorry for Lugosi, who was already bitter over the fact his star had declined and he had to take a supporting role to Karloff in "The Body Snatcher." He said the two got along fine, but only had a few scenes together. As for Lugosi, Wise said he was already a drug addict and was fading fast physically.
"It was a sad situation," he recalled.
I asked Wise if he'd set out to be a director of all genres in his career, then asked if he thought not being a "specialist" in one genre, like Alfred Hitchcock, had caused critics to take him less seriously than other directors over the years. He said the latter might be true, but he clearly wasn't worried about his place in film history. As for staking out his own path in Hollywood, he said it was all just the way things worked out.
"If you were under contract to a studio," he said, "you took the assignments you were given. If you weren't versatile, then your didn't work as often."
Still, he didn't mind the studio system, even though he didn't earn the right to final cut on his films until "The Andromeda Strain" in the early 1970s.
"But all the other pictures I made before that were released as my versions. I never had a picture taken away from me," he said.
He had lots of experience working with some actors who were thought to be trouble--such as Robert Mitchum, the hard-drinking, pot-smoking hell-raiser, who made two films for Wise. Wise said Mitchum was bright, intelligent and "remarkably articulate" and never caused him any problems except for the time he had to warn the crew not to laugh so hard at the cutting-up that Mitchum and co-star Shirley MacLaine were doing on the set of "Two for the Seesaw."
Said Wise, "They ribbed each other constantly and it was really funny stuff. They were so funny, in fact, that I had to call the crew back from lunch 20 minutes early and tell them we had to stop being such a good audience for those two characters or we'll never get the picture finished."
He also worked with the ultimate Hollywood hell-raiser of his day, Lawrence Tierney, who had roared into Hollywood as the star of "Dillinger" in 1945 and was developing into the screen's hot new tough guy when he starred in Wise's "Born to Kill."
Wise told me, "He was kind of a loose character, a heavy drinker who was in troubled with the cops time and again. He was a real tough guy, who had an edge to him."
Yet Wise and Tierney got along fine and the picture went smoothly.
Ironically, the only time Wise ever had to fire a big star, it turned out to be one of the most respected actors of all time--two-time Oscar winner Spencer Tracy. Hollywood legend had it that Tracy's alcoholism had gotten out of control and Wise had to stop production on MGM's western "Tribute To A Bad Man" and replace Tracy with James Cagney. Wise said the legend wasn't true. He said Tracy was having trouble working at the high altitude where they were filming and asked to be relieved.
Susan Hayward as Barbara Graham
in her Oscar-winning performance
in Wise's 'I Want To Live!'
Julie Andrews in her unforgettable
opening scene in Wise's 1965
'The Sound of Music.'
To bring an even greater sense of realism to his death house drama "I Want To Live!," Wise asked the warden of San Quentin prison for permission to follow a condemned man through his final day and actually witness the execution. Permission was granted and Wise wound up getting much of the nightmare scenario he witnessed on screen.
"I didn't want them to be able to say (the film) was some Hollywood writer's idea of what it's like to go to the gas chamber," Wise told me.
He witnessed the execution of a man who had murdered two women. He said he didn't know if he'd be able to stand watching without turning away, but the man went to his death calmly and Wise watched his final moments through a louvered window. He finally decided not to show the actual death agony, which went on for seven or eight minutes.
"In the picture, I cut to her hands just sort of gripping," he said.
Still, it was an indelible moment of screen history.
When we finally came to "West Side Story," I'd hoped to hear Wise say he was forced to use unknown and ineffecive Richard Beymer as the male lead opposite Natalie Wood, but he wouldn't go there and just let that question fade away. However, he was happy to talk about the controversial firing of Jerome Robbins as his co-director.
Wise explained he didn't want Robbins to co-direct in the first place, but the studio insisted. They felt Robbins was essential to stage the large, complex dance sequences in the film because he'd been the choreographer/director for the hit Broadway show. Since Wise was producing the movie as well as directing it, he knew he couldn't lose Robbins' participation, so he agreed to a deal in which Robbins would share directing credit, but only do the dance sequences.
"That lasted through approximately 60 per cent of the shooting," Wise said. "But we were getting more and more behind schedule and over budget. The company insisted he go off the film. Fortunately for me, he had rehearsed all the other dance sequences that he hadn't shot."
In our final few minutes together, I asked Wise what he thought was the most important thing for a successful film.
"It all starts with the script," he said without hesitation. "That's the beginning, middle and end."
When you look back over his extensive career, it seems clear to me that Wise followed that notion all the way. His films invariably had solid screenplays and I'm sure he worked with his writers to make sure they turned out that way.
Though Bob Wise may not be held with the same regard as the specialist directors like John Ford or Alfred Hitchcock, the people who know filmmaking regard him very highly. His films stand the test of time and he never fell into a rut. His work will only continue to grow in stature as the years roll by.
©2005 by Ron Miller. This column first posted Sept. 28, 2005.
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