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September 15, 2005

Robert Wise

I realize this seems like a wholly contrived coincidence, but last night, my significant other and I were watching the DVD of The Devil and Daniel Webster. I had noted to myself while watching the credits that this was one of several films edited by Robert Wise when he was an editor at RKO. This morning I had checked the various headlines at Yahoo where I first read that Wise had died last night.

While not not all of his films were great or even good, Wise's reputation should not be based strictly on his two Academy Award winning films. While The Sound of Music is admittedly enjoyable fluff, repeated viewings of West Side Story have me convinced that the best parts of that film appear to have been shot by Jerome Robbins. My own favorite Wise films are the more somber works that he shot in black and white.

I did have the opportunity to see Wise in person at the Museum of Modern Art. This was in conjunction with the release of The Hindenburg. The film was one of the last of the so-called disaster films that followed in the success of such films as The Towering Inferno, and Earthquake, directed by Wise's friend from his days at RKO, Mark Robson. Not only did the film depict the historical disaster, but disaster could be applied in describing how the film fared commercially and critically. When I saw Wise, he introduced I Want to Live!, still a valid film in examing the application of the death penalty.

What I found the most interesting about Wise is that he seemed to periodically revisit certain genres, perhaps as a way of reworking ideas from the previous films. One can make the connection from his first directorial effort, Curse of the Cat People, with its emphasis on the suggested and the psychological, to The Haunting, ending with Audrey Rose. While the first and third film are about a young girl, the Julie Harris character in The Haunting is in many ways a child in an adult's body, a woman who has been forced to defer her maturity in order to take care of her mother. In terms of the science fiction genre, one can argue that The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Andromeda Strain, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture were all literal explorations of man's relation with the universe, with fumbled attempts to learn from the unknown and the alien. Rooftops is the grittier version of West Side Story, shot in New York City's lower East Side. His last theatrical film, Rooftops, showed that at the age of 75, Wise still had a youthful, adventurous spirit.

Two films that are among Wise's best are his two boxing films, The Set-Up and Somebody Up There Likes Me. I got to see The Set-Up theatrically a long time ago on the giant screen of the New Yorker Theater in NYC. Told in real time, about a boxer set to take a dive, this is one of the films cited by Martin Scorcese as an influence on Raging Bull. The biography of the young Rocky Graziano, Somebody Up There Likes Me is also famous for its boxing scenes. It's hard for me to watch the film and not wonder what it would have been like had Graziano been played by James Dean instead of Paul Newman. In a small role, Steve McQueen makes his film debut as does George C. Scott. Wise would work with both as stars twenty years later with The Sand Pebbles and The Hindenburg, respectively.

My favorite film by Robert Wise is Odds Against Tomorrow. Co-produced by star Harry Belafonte, with a screenplay by an uncredited Abraham Polonsky and Wise's favorite screenwriter, Nelson Gidding, the film works as the tale of a heist undone by the tensions between the co-conspirators, and as a glance at the racial tensions of the time. Robert Ryan manages to be sympathetic, even when his racist attitudes are clearly not condoned.

In an interview at the Pacific Film Archives, Wise summed up both what he has tried to achieve as well as what he looks for in films: "Films are so universal, you know. I go to see the foreign language film submissions at the Academy. We get films from 42 or 44 different countries on that particular program at the Motion Picture Academy. And so you see films from all these different countries and see different cultures, different lifestyles, different religions. And it's very, very fascinating, very illuminating. At the same time as you're seeing these differences you're seeing how much we all have in common -- love of children, love of family, love of continuity and life. So I think films are a great educational tool to paint all the peoples of the world with their different cultures and different religions, different nationalities, and understand that we have much more in common than we have in disharmony."

Posted by peter at September 15, 2005 12:46 PM