In a Hitchcock movie, you know you’re going to get suspense, icy blondes, dark humor and a cameo by the director. With a Kubrick film, technical mastery, a pessimistic view of humanity, and classical music soundtrack are the norm. With Tarantino, expect graphic violence, lots of elements lifted from lesser known films, and talky dialogue laden with pop culture references. And with Robert Wise?
Well, you never know what to expect with Robert Wise.
Never a recognized superstar director, he’s nonetheless responsible for some of America’s best-loved movies, including The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), West Side Story (1961), The Haunting (1963), The Sound of Music (1965) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). That he isn’t a recognized name on the level of a Scorsese or Coppola says more about our expectations of what a director should be than the quality of his films.
Born in Winchester, Indiana, Wise first aspired to be a journalist. During the Depression, his family persuaded him to leave school and move to Hollywood, where his brother David was an accountant for RKO pictures. His first job there was as a porter shuttling film between the editing facilities and screening rooms, but he soon moved up to assistant sound and music editor.
His first big Hollywood break could hardly have provided a better learning experience, as he was hired as editor on Citizen Kane (1941). RKO studios would subsequently employ him to re-cut and film new scenes for The Magnificent Ambersons (1942 ) after Welles essentially walked away from the film during post-production.
Impressed with his work, the studio gave him his first shot at directing, letting him take over the reins of the low-budget Val Lewton chiller Curse of the Cat People (1944).
The results were a critical and commercial success, and Wise credited Lewton with imparting a pragmatic approach to production that would remain with him throughout his career. From there, it was off to the races, with Wise directing nine pictures over the next six years, proving adept at any B-movie genre the studio threw at him – horror, suspense, crime, film noir, the Western. His boxing picture, The Set-Up (1949) would be his last and arguably best for RKO, winning the directors prize at the Cannes film festival.
Wise moved on to bigger budgets, making one film for Warner Brothers before signing a six picture deal with Twentieth Century Fox. The best remembered of these today is The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), an atomic age sci-fi classic about a peaceful alien named Klaatu who comes to Earth to warn its inhabitants about the dangers of their warlike ways (he’s not well-received).
That film alone would have been enough to establish Wise as a solid cult director, and had he stuck to sci-fi perhaps he would have been known as film’s answer to TV’s Rod Serling, who managed to implant thought-provoking, humanistic themes into what would otherwise be standard genre fare.
Instead, Wise continued his prolific genre-hopping ways throughout the 1950s, doing a Western, another boxing picture, a submarine action pic, another crime movie, a drama about capital punishment – even a big Cinemascope sword-and-sandal historical epic, Helen of Troy (1955).
His next big leap came with the blockbuster adaptation of Broadway’s West Side Story (1961), which won 10 Academy Awards, a record still standing for any musical. Wise scored two of those as producer and co-director (along with choreographer Jerome Robbins). His next musical, The Sound of Music (1965) would nab Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director and become the first movie to gross over $100 million at the box office.
He’d continue helming high profile pictures throughout the 1960s and 70s and, by the end of a directorial career spanning more than half a decade, had done and done well every kind of film Hollywood had to offer. He won a lifetime achievement award from the American Film Institute, was presented a National Medal of Art by President George H.W. Bush, and is cited by contemporary directors like Martin Scorsese and M. Night Shyamalan as an influence.
So why isn’t he better remembered by the public at large?
His eclecticism likely plays a role, as he never became associated with a single genre in the way that John Ford or Alfred Hitchcock did. He also didn’t enjoy long-running artistic collaborations with big time movie stars, à la Francis Ford Coppola and Marlon Brando, Martin Scorcese and Robert DeNiro (and later Scorcese and Leonardo di Caprio), Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, or Billy Wilder and Jack Lemmon. Neither a self-promoter in the vein of Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith or James Cameron, nor an eccentric recluse like Stanley Kubrick or Terrence Malick, nor just plain oddball like David Lynch or Lars Von Trier, Wise never really conformed to the public’s conception of film director as artist rather than a highly skilled craftsman.
And, arguably, despite all the wonderful movies he left behind, Robert Wise never created any single film universally hailed as a masterpiece, or one that only the unique vision of Robert Wise could have produced.
"People ask me, do I prefer to do musicals to drama or comedy?,” he told an audience in 1980. “I like them all. If it's good, exciting, gripping, original material, that's what's important, what counts."
That’s why people still love Robert Wise movies today, even if they’ve never heard of the man who made them.