Robert Wise is one of my favorite American directors but (as I’ve noted in the past) he rarely receives the kind of critical attention that’s heaped on his peers. Wise was a proud product of the Hollywood studio system and a very private man. Throughout his career, he purposefully avoided the spotlight and regularly praised his colleagues. Producers, writers, set designers, and actors were encouraged to participate in the creative process with Wise and some incredibly smart, entertaining, and nuanced films emerged from these collaborations. Other acclaimed directors from the period worked in a similar fashion but Wise was an extremely humble and discreet individual who rarely boasted of his personal successes. His decision to avoid the spotlight and ability to expertly navigate Hollywood institutions put him at odds with many critics. As a result, his “journeyman” moniker has stuck and there are very few books about the man and his impressive body of work.
Film historian and author J.R. Jordan has helped remedy that with his latest publication Robert Wise: The Motion Pictures. This newly revised and updated volume contains chronological write-ups of all forty of Robert Wise’s films beginning with the RKO thriller The Curse of the Cat People (1940) and ending with the TV production A Storm in Summer (2000). Along with detailed plot descriptions and production details, Jordan’s book includes bits of background information on the director’s personal and professional life as he ascends and descends various career ladders in Hollywood. Wise is quoted often but the most extensive film insights often come from the interviews the author included. Jordan interviewed more than twenty of Robert Wise’s colleagues and incorporates their insights and observations into his film coverage.
At a time when many artists who worked within the classic Hollywood system have aged into retirement or left us altogether, it’s wonderful to be able to read their thoughts on working with Wise. A few of the highlights in Robert Wise: The Motion Pictures include interviews with Billy Gray on The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Neile Adams on This Could Be the Night (1957), George Chakris on West Side Story (1961), Eddie Foy III on Run Silent, Run Deep (1958), Heather Menzies-Urich on The Sound of Music (1965), Sandra De Bruin on The Andromeda Strain (1971), Marsha Mason on Audrey Rose (1977) and Gavin MacLeod on The Sand Pebbles (1966). Gavin MacLeod also wrote the book’s forward while Douglas E. Wise, the director’s nephew, provides the introduction.
Jordan’s book avoids the gossipy as well as the memoir-driven approach typical of too many film-focused tomes these days. Instead, the author is more interested in plotting and the technical aspects of filmmaking. His script descriptions are extensive and his dry approach may put off some readers who enjoy more intimate or scholarly reads. I think the author’s at his best when he explores the obscure aspects of a particular film such as the Francisco Goya painting replica that appears in The Curse of the Cat People (1940) or when he’s noting the similar ways in which some of Wise’s earlier films (Two Flags West , Executive Suite ) foreshadow or mimic scenes in his Oscar-winning prison drama I Want to Live (1958). Observations like these indicate that there’s a lot more depth to the director’s filmmaking waiting to be explored.
Jordan is well-read and makes extensive comparisons between Wise’s films and many of the original texts they’re based on. Sometimes these lengthy comparisons can be enlightening while other times they read a bit like filler. But I appreciate the author’s willingness to compare and contrast aspects of a film that typically go unnoticed by other film historians such as his juxtaposition between Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting with Wise’s brilliant 1963 film adaptation.
The book avoids discussing Robert Wise’s work as a film editor which began at RKO when he was just 20-years-old. Besides editing such highly regarded films as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) and The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), Wise also developed a working relationship with Orson Welles at the studio and edited two of the acclaimed director’s most beloved films, Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). Much has been made of Welles’s falling out with Wise following RKO’s highly questionable (some would say criminal) decision to edit and reshoot large sections of Ambersons without the director’s creative input. As a result, Wise has been blamed for “destroying” Welles’s second film. We now know, thanks to more in-depth scholarly research, that Wise had very little control and involvement in the creative decisions that shaped Ambersons but that controversial aspect of film history has unfairly colored his entire career.
All in all, Robert Wise: The Motion Pictures is a welcome compendium to Wise’s extensive filmography providing some much-needed material for fans and scholars. I also hope the book will encourage readers to explore the more obscure aspects of Wise’s output which include his masterful but often-overlooked contributions to film noir such as The Set-Up (1949), The House on Telegraph Hill (1951) and Odds Against Tomorrow (1959).
You can currently purchase Robert Wise: The Motion Pictures directly from the publisher at Bear Manor Media or from online booksellers including Barnes & Noble and Amazon.
by Kimberly LIndbergs
Note: I was given a copy of the book for an honest review.