Book Review: Robert Wise - The Motion Pictures by Joe Jordan

Film buffs may not know the name Robert Wise, but they are very likely to know at least some of his movies. Because in a career spanning five decades Wise directed many memorable films, including the seminal sci-fi drama The Day the Earth Stood Still, classic ghost story The Haunting, the Steve McQueen epic The Sand Pebbles and two 1960s Best Picture Oscar winners, West Side Story and The Sound of Music.

To those films can be added a handful of notable film noirs, cult sci-fi The Andromeda Strain, the war film Run Silent Run Deep and even Star Trek: The Motion Picture. And if that isn't enough, Robert Wise originally got his start in the editing room, where he worked on Orson Welles' masterpiece Citizen Kane, often claimed to be the greatest film ever made.

Perhaps surprisingly then, Robert Wise is not that celebrated a director now, and has been oddly neglected, despite his impressive list of credits. Joe Jordan, the author of Showmanship: The Cinema of William Castle, seeks to put that right with his book Robert Wise: The Motion Pictures, which is published in a revised and updated form in 2020.

Robert Wise got his break as a director at RKO, after gaining experience in the editing room, a favoured route to the director's chair in the studio era. His directorial debut was The Curse of the Cat People, for legendary horror producer Val Lewton, in 1944. He followed up with another film for Lewton, The Body Snatcher, starring two iconic horror stars, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, a year later.

Wise continued working at RKO in the late 1940s, making crime films and westerns, including Blood on the Moon, Two Flags WestThe Set Up, and Game of Death, one of the many remakes of The Most Dangerous Game.

He moved to Twentieth Century Fox in the early 1950s, where he made the sci-fi classic The Day the Earth Stood Still and the war movies The Desert Rats and Destination Gobi. As the studio system began to break down, Wise worked for Warner, MGM and others on films including Executive Suite, Helen of Troy, the Rocky Graziano biopic Somebody Up There Likes Me, true life crime drama I Want to Live! and submarine thriller Run Silent Run Deep.

His 1960s films are covered in a chapter titled "Primetime" and include the aforementioned Oscar winners West Side Story and The Sound of Music, as well as Two for the Seesaw, The Haunting and The Sand Pebbles. Wise's career then stumbled a little with the flop Star! in 1968, a biopic of Gertrude Lawrence starring Julie Andrews.

Wise's career began to wind down in the 1970s with the understated thrillers The Andromeda Strain and Audrey Rose and the disaster movie The Hindenburg. Among his last films was one from the early days of modern sequel-driven blockbuster cinema, Star Trek: The Motion Picture. A troubled production, the film was critically mauled, but did well enough at the box office because of its close proximity to Star Wars. Wise's last feature film was Rooftops in 1989, although Joe Jordan rounds off the book with a look at his 2000 Hallmark TV movie A Storm in Summer.
As the title suggests, Robert Wise: The Motion Pictures is not a biography of Robert Wise. The focus is kept instead specifically on the forty films that he directed in just over half a century from 1944 to 2000. For each film, the author provides a plot summary, some background and analysis, and some information on its making.

Each chapter opens with an apposite quote, not necessarily from the film in question, and most of the chapters are accompanied by interviews with one or two people who worked on the particular film. These include George Chakiris (West Side Story), Lindsay Wagner (Two People), Rene Auberjonois (The Hindenburg) and Marsha Mason (Audrey Rose).

Although the author has clearly done his research and studied Robert Wise's films quite closely, his analysis of the films themselves focuses heavily on plot, character interactions and dialogue. This includes sometimes detailed comparisons between the films and their original source material, such as the stage version of West Side Story and the novels that served as the basis for The Haunting and The Andromeda Strain. There is also quite a lot of quoted dialogue, not all of it strictly necessary, and the book does sometimes get bogged down in the detail of individual film plots.

This is a particular weakness when discussing a film like The Haunting, one of Wise's most visually interesting films. Wise's directorial style here, his careful development of an unsettling and unnerving atmosphere, his notable use of depth of field, and what seems like the deliberately off-kilter geography of Hill House are all aspects worthy of exploration. But the author is only really interested in discussing the film's storyline.

I would like to have learned more about the story behind this film. Like why Robert Wise as producer decided to make it in England despite the story's American setting, the thinking behind the design of the sets for Hill House, the techniques Wise employed to develop an atmosphere of tension and unease, and whether the director was influenced by Jack Clayton's contemporary haunted house film The Innocents.

Julie Harris in The Haunting
Depth of field in "The Haunting"

Where there is interesting detail, the author doesn't always follow up, sometimes teasing us with information that is not elaborated upon. On the western Two Flags West, for example, the author states that Fox studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck conferred with Wise on how to make the film more appealing to audiences, but we're not told if changes were subsequently made to the film or if this was simply a question of deciding how to market it.

The author also tells us that Run Silent Run Deep was "reportedly" re-edited by producers Burt Lancaster and James Hill. This is quite a big deal, but we don't know how Wise felt about this, what changes were made to the film or why.

The box office failure of Star!, meanwhile, and its re-editing and re-release under a different title (Those Were the Happy Times), is relegated to a footnote. Jordan notes that Wise had his name removed from the credits of this version, but this must have been a difficult experience for a director who had previously been riding so high. Did the film's box office failure have a negative impact on his career or influence his choices of future film projects?

Earlier in his career, Wise had been involved in the editing and re-shoots on Orson Welles' second feature The Magnificent Ambersons, a film that was subjected to an infamous studio butchering while the director was out of the country. Joe Jordan informs us that Robert Wise shot new material for the film, but we don't know how he felt about this or if he had any qualms about what was done to Welles' film. This tends to reinforce the impression that Wise was a compliant studio guy who was reluctant to rock the boat. Orson Welles certainly doesn't seem to have forgiven or forgotten Wise for what he did to his film.

The author's prose is not free from cliché and there is some occasional awkward phrasing and over-statement. Jordan also sometimes resorts to generalisations, and there is little in the book on the technical aspects of film making. The book remains uncritical of Robert Wise or his films throughout - regardless of their actual quality - making this more of an uncritical appreciation than a critical analysis.

I would have welcomed the inclusion of a filmography for Wise as a director, editor and producer, but I accept that not every reader will regard that as an essential in the internet age. I did appreciate the fact that the footnotes appear on the bottom of the page, instead of buried in a separate section at the back of the book, as is often the case.

The most interesting part of the book are the interviews with the personnel involved in making the films. These include some familiar names like George Chakiris and Lindsay Wagner, but there are also child actors, stunt performers and supporting players.

Some of these didn't necessarily work that closely with Robert Wise or with the film's principal players, which can sometimes give these recollections a slight Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead quality. But that unusual perspective on a familiar story can sometimes prove unexpectedly interesting.

Some of the recollections are mundane, but that in itself can be revealing about the reality of working day to day on a film project. For many it was just another job, sometimes working abroad in an interesting, exotic or occasionally frightening country. But in many cases those involved probably wouldn't have guessed that the films would be watched, studied and written about decades later.

Janette Scott's memories of filming Helen of Troy in Italy as a teenager are amusing, while the experience of making The Sand Pebbles in Taiwan, as recounted by Gavin MacLeod and Steve McQueen's ex-wife Neile Adams, was particularly memorable and disturbing. The author's interviewee for Star Trek: The Motion Picture is original story author Alan Dean Foster, who still has a few things he wants to say about the experience.

Many of the actors interviewed note that Wise employed a hands-off directorial style and often didn't give specific instruction on their performances, trusting instead in his instincts in casting the right people to begin with.

Some of the interviewees are more interesting and revealing than others, but Joe Jordan is to be congratulated for rounding up such a varied selection of personnel on films dating back, in some cases, more than 70 years.

Ultimately Robert Wise comes across in this book as a likeable, considerate and modest man, but also a professional dedicated to his craft. The author doesn't find any particular connecting threads in Wise's career, no recurring themes, preoccupations or interests, and not even much in the way of stylistic trademarks. Like some other film makers of his generation, he thrived in the studio era, and in his case in the early years following its break up, but struggled in the post-studio environment of the 1970s and beyond.

As George Chakiris says in his interview:

"Bob didn't try to put a style or a stamp on the movies that he directed. He just made each movie the way it simply needed to be made. With some directors, you can recognize their style. With Bob, his style, if that word applies, was just to do that particular film the way it should be made."

Robert Wise emerges then as a skilled craftsman, one who employed his skills in the service of the story and the script, rather than moulding the script to his own tastes and interests. While those types of film makers have often been looked down upon or dismissed in critical circles, Joe Jordan's book suggests that Robert Wise's type of old-fashioned craftsmanship is worth recognising and celebrating too.

Robert Wise - The Motion Pictures, by Joe Jordan, is published in a revised and updated edition by Bearmanor Media.


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