I hate to be a kicker
I always long for peace
But the wheel that squeaks the loudest
Is the one that gets the grease
–Josh Billings (1870)
He struck an impressive chord with his designer frames, tailored button up shirts and v-necked sweaters; his slacks sharply creased, his shoes polished new. If he erred, he erred on the side of class. He was even tempered and sported a businessman hair cut.
Robert Wise grew up in small town, middle America. He grew up loving movies. But it was his older brother that made the foray to Hollywood where he landed a big-shot accounting job at RKO studios.
When the Wise family fell on hard times during the Great Depression, Robert quit college where he was studying journalism. He followed his brother to Hollywood and got a job at RKO sweeping floors, changing light bulbs and running errands.
With a good head on his shoulders and a strong work ethic, Wise caught the attention of the sound effects editor who hired him as his first assistant. From there he worked his way into film editing and became the studio’s premier editor editing two Orson Welles masterpieces, Citizen Kane, earning an Oscar nomination for Best Film Editing and The Magnificent Ambersons.
Robert Wise’s first foray in the director’s chair was with The Curse of the Cat People (1944) where he replaced fired Gunther von Fritsch who was behind schedule. Fittingly, this is where J. R. Jordan’s meticulously researched book, Robert Wise The Motion pictures, kicks in.
Jordan goes behind the scenes and takes us into the machinations of the production. We learn that famed RKO horror producer and script writer Val Lewton was a notoriously cheap and demanding task master. Yet, Wise endured himself to Lewton with his artfully concise and understated style. The Curse of the Cat People earned Wise a directing contract with RKO.
Thus began the long and illustrious career of an artist who would rise from the low budget horror basement of RKO where he directed legends Boris Karloff and Bela Lougosi in the eerie adaptation of Robert Lewis Stevenson’s The Body Snatcher (1945) to the terrific, twisty film noir Born to Kill (1947) with Claire Trevor and Lawrence Tierney.
Wise fondly reminisced about RKO as well as Born to Kill’s clever script. “It was just fine working at RKO,” he said. “It was one of the smaller studios, but very good, and they got some good properties. It all depends on the property and that script. If you’ve got the right script and you cast it right, and you get enough time and money to make it, it’ll turn out…Born to Kill was a step up for me; better script, better picture, better cast…everything was considerably up.”Robert Wise The motion pictures – pg. 56
Wise carried this humble understated quality with him to the greener and more prestigious pastures of Twentieth Century Fox where studio head Darryl F. Zanuck personally tapped him to direct The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) which would become one of the most acclaimed and influential science fiction films in cinematic history. J.R. Jordan takes the reader onto the iconic set and into the script with a superb interview with Billy Gray, best known as “Bud” on Father Know’s Best, who played Bobby in the film.
Gray tells of experiences working with Lock Martin, the 7 foot 7 giant (his height is disputed; Wise said he was 7 foot 1) who played the immensely powerful Gort. We learn that in life Martin was, sadly, anything but powerful. (Martin died, probably from Marfan syndrome, in 1959 at age 42.)
“He was a big guy but not a very vital person. Actually he was kind of frail. He could only be in the suit for about ten to fifteen minutes. If conditions ever became too hot, he would then request to be released from the suit. The crew had him on a watch list, so to speak, in order to prevent him from fainting and toppling over.”
Billy Gray pgs. 123-24
Robert Wise would famously go onto to win Oscars for Best Direction and Best Picture twice with the films West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965). West Side story swept the Oscars with eleven nominations and ten wins, captivating critics and fans alike and The Sound of Music would become an American cultural touchstone, bonding generations of fans swept away by Wise’s inspired direction of panoramic spectacle, song, courage and fidelity earning a jaw dropping 2.5 billion dollars world wide when adjusted for inflation.
Perhaps the most astonishing and defining aspect of Wise’s career was his chameleon directorial style in which he produced critically and commercially successful films in every genre save animation. Paradoxically, this characteristic would be used against him by critics who insist that a directors trademark radiate from every frame.
Wise’s trademark–that of devotion to the script, allegiance to the characters and to the actors who portrayed them, along with a commitment to unembellished realism–binds his films together. His Oscar wins, particularly The Sound of Music, are the films that most define his career, yet, they are the least emblematic of his style.
Take the gritty noir boxing melodrama The Set-Up (1949) for example. Wise researched the subject by hanging out in the dressing rooms of a seedy boxing arena where he observed the mannerisms and rituals of its low rung fighters. He absorbed atmosphere of the arena, the grim pageantry of the fight, the sound of gloves hitting sweat soaked skin and social construct of the crowd, even casting famed crime photographer “Weegee” as the time keeper. Then he painstakingly duplicated his observations on screen in what is considered one of the most realistic depictions of boxing in all of cinema while provoking the best performance of character actor Robert Ryan’s career.
Nine years later, Wise took his commitment to realism leaps and bounds further when he attend an execution in California’s gas chamber while researching the script to I Want to Live! autobiographically based on convicted murderer Barbara Graham.
“There’s an outside section where the witnesses sit, and there’s an inside section where the warden and the doctor and the guys who do the acid are. I was inside with the doctor. I didn’t know if I could watch without getting sick. The prisoner was a young man who’d killed two women in Oakland and, like Barbara in her day, he’d run out of appeals.Robert Wise – The Los Angeles Times, February 15, 1998
I Want to Live! (1958) earned Robert Wise an Academy Award nomination for Best Director and under his direction Susan Hayward won the award for Best Actress for her portrayal of the condemned party-girl. The final scenes of the on again off again execution as the lawyers lobby for Graham’s life while she, finally, bravely, resigned to her fate, makes her walk into the chamber only to be hurriedly removed and then brought back again, are agonizingly intense. Her final moments, right before and after the pellets are dropped, are even more so.
“After Barbara gets a whiff of the gas,” Wise says, “you presume she doesn’t feel anything anymore. A couple of times I cut to her hands twitching. But in actuality that twisting and fighting the straps goes on for seven or eight minutes. There are so many systems in the body it takes that long for them all to shut down. Terrible to watch. Terrible. After the young man died, I thought to myself, ‘What the hell good is this doing?’ ”Robert Wise – The Los Angeles Times, February 15, 1998
And yet, for all his success, both commercial and critical, Robert Wise is often herald as the greatest director you’ve never heard of. J.R. Jordan’s compelling filmography, Robert Wise The Motion Pictures, aims to right that miscarriage of anonymity. A must read for the cinematically astute, it is a labor of love, consisting of forty chapters detailing the forty films of a master filmmaker, a humble and elegant artist who approached film-making as a team sport allowing integrity, subtlety and good taste to be his directorial signature.
Robert Wise The Motion Pictures is available for purchase at Amazon.