Robert Wise
The Curse of the Cat People
Born to Kill
The Set-Up
The Day the Earth Stood Still
I Want to Live!
Run Silent, Run Deep
Odds Against Tomorrow
West Side Story
The Haunting
The Sound of Music
The Andromeda Strain
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A Tribute to Robert Wise

Robert Wise is one of the most versatile, successful, yet critically underappreciated of all filmmakers.

editor of Citizen Kane, director of West Side Story, The Haunting, & The Sound of Music

Selected Films by Robert Wise

Robert Wise

This tribute to Robert Wise (September 10, 1914 – September 14, 2005), one of Hollywood’s greatest and most versatile filmmakers, came about when two friends, independently, mentioned that they had discovered a wonderful science fiction thriller, The Andromeda Strain. Warning them that they had just pressed my “Robert Wise Button,” I launched into a speech about both the exceptional quality and diversity of his achievements, which encompass over fifty films (as director, producer, and editor), in almost every genre, made during seven decades. But despite all that, he is critically underappreciated.

Wise has created much more than his two almost universally-beloved, Oscar-winning musicals West Side Story and The Sound of Music. But right there you can see the range of his talent. While the former uses a gritty yet abstract urban dreamscape for its modern updating of Romeo and Juliet, the latter is a glossy, location-shot, feel-good domestic epic. In between those two productions he made what I consider not only one of the greatest films of the 1960s but his personal masterpiece, and the definitive ghost picture, The Haunting (1963).

Although Wise is the only director besides the great James Whale (Bride of Frankenstein, the definitive Show Boat, 1936) to have created genre-defining films in science fiction, horror and the musical, he has also impressively directed many other types of pictures, from action-adventure and war to Westerns to historical pageants to biopix to melodrama to comedy to suspense to sports. For instance, The Set-Up is both a definitive example of film noir and one of the two great boxing films. Raging Bull is of course the other, and its director Martin Scorsese does a wonderful dual commentary track on The Set-Up DVD with Wise, whom he clearly both reveres and likes a lot. The Set-Up is also one of the best paced films I’ve ever seen – flawless momentum – and so reminds us of Wise’s pre-directorial career. He edited William Dieterle’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) and The Devil and Daniel Webster, as well as Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons and, oh yes, Citizen Kane. He was president of both the Directors Guild of America (1971–1975) and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (1985–1988), and received the American Film Institute Life Achievement Award in 1998, among dozens of other honors and awards. Yet for all of his enormous, and deserved, mainstream success – and aside from his relatively “anonymous” movies such as (dare I say) The Sound of Music – Wise’s vision seems remarkably distinctive and strong, across a half century and virtually every genre.

It was difficult whittling down the forty films Wise directed to an introductory list. But the following eleven pictures do suggest the range of his diverse, artful – and unabashedly entertaining – body of work, which could be compared to that of such canonical studio directors as Howard Hawks (Bringing Up Baby, Red River) and Michael Curtiz (Casablanca, Mildred Pierce). Although Wise is often thought of as primarily an ‘actor’s director’ – and he’s worked with many of Hollywood’s most talented performers – he has also created several films which are nothing less than visually stunning (The Set-Up, Odds Against Tomorrow, The Haunting), that ideally balance image, sound, drama, and theme.

Of course, in a career as long-lived as Wise’s not every film is great; and I haven’t yet been able to see all of his ’40s and ’50s “B movies.” But a surprisingly large number of his films are first-rate (including several which didn’t make this eleven-film list); and three or four of the works highlighted here are masterpieces. Following these brief critiques is his complete filmography; I’ve noted each picture’s genre to indicate the range of Wise’s extraordinary gifts.

After first posting this tribute, a decade ago, I was deeply moved to receive a note from Mr. Wise’s personal assistant, who told me that he thought it would have made Bob very happy. I believe that Mr. Wise’s body of work won’t just endure, but will become increasingly acclaimed by new generations of audiences, critics and filmmakers.

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Selected Films Directed by Robert Wise

The Curse of the Cat People poster

1. The Curse of the Cat People

1944 – 70 minutes, black & white, 1.33:1 aspect ratio – Fantasy

Don’t let the lurid title put you off.

The immense success of Cat People (1942) inspired RKO’s executives to saddle the sequel – even before it was written – with a “scary” title they felt sure would guarantee boffo box office. Unfortunately, they were dead wrong about the ticket sales. And some of them might be surprised to learn that this film is now regarded not only as one of legendary producer Val Lewton – and RKO’s – finest pictures, but as a great American fantasy film. And of course, it also signals the start of Robert Wise’s extraordinarily eclectic career as a director.

The Curse of the Cat People (now on DVD, coupled with Cat People) is one of the most probing yet lyrical films about childhood ever made. Unlike its superb predecessor, producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People, this sequel is not at all a horror film. It’s a deeply moving, beautifully yet economically-produced contemporary fantasy about the relationship between a lonely six-year-old girl (Ann Carter) and the ghostly woman she conjures up from an old photograph kept by her father (Kent Smith, reprising his role from the previous film) of his first wife. She is Irena (Simone Simon), the original Cat Woman, whom death has mellowed considerably. This film’s elegiac tone is much closer to a work like Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (1946) than to its own predecessor. And some of the strange fairy tale imagery – although it’s set in 1940s Tarrytown, New York (shades of Washington Irving) – could be described as twisted Disney.

This first directorial effort from Wise – following his stellar career as an editor (Citizen Kane) also at RKO – already feels like a mature film. It began production with a different director, Gunther von Fritsch, whose other credits are mostly in ’50s and ’60s series television. He fell so far behind – at the end of the allotted eighteen-day shooting schedule fully half of the script remained unfilmed – that the editor, Wise, was given the directorial reins. He finished the film both quickly and with great imagination.

Predictably, fans of the original film – which was such a huge financial success that it saved RKO from bankruptcy – were sorely disappointed by the horror-free sequel, as were the money men at RKO. Although a financial flop at the time, it made a strong impression on critics, both now and then. James Agee, before becoming an exceptional novelist (A Death in the Family) and screenwriter (The African Queen, The Night of the Hunter), in his role as reviewer made the dead-on comment that it captured “the poetry and danger of childhood.”

Let me add a note about the screenplay by DeWitt Bodeen (who was gay), who also wrote the original Cat People and The Seventh Victim, as well as the film versions of I Remember Mama and Billy Budd. Although I wish the climactic scenes were a bit more developed, this is one of the most evocative pieces of screenwriting I’ve ever seen. Lewton and Wise would have been, well, wise to follow Bodeen’s original ending, which took the picture fully into the realm of ghostly fantasy. Of course, twenty years after this film, Wise created the greatest ghost, and horror, film: The Haunting, reviewed below. Corny as it may sound, when working on my own scripts, sometimes for inspiration I hang over my desk a page from this beautiful screenplay. Here is a link to a complete copy of Bodeen’s screenplay for The Curse of the Cat People, which differs in some intriguing ways from the finished film.

Lewton was so impressed with Wise’s work on this film that he next hired him to direct the drama Mademoiselle Fifi (1944; I have not seen this rarely-shown work), adapted from two de Maupassant tales, and the chillingly atmospheric The Body Snatcher (1945), based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic about two nineteenth century grave robbers who devise a scheme to provide medical schools with ever-fresher corpses. It provided the final opportunity for Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi to share the screen, and arguably neither actor has ever been better. You can see the range of Wise’s directorial work even at this early stage by comparing the tonally and stylistically diverse but equally powerful The Curse of the Cat People and The Body Snatcher – talk about a great double feature!

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Born to Kill poster

2. Born to Kill

1947 – 92 minutes, black & white, 1.33:1 aspect ratio – Suspense

Call him irresistible…

Sam Wild, that is – the sociopathic main character in Robert Wise’s unjustly neglected 1947 film noir gem, Born to Kill.

Film noir, perhaps the most visually distinctive – not to mention in-your-face existential – tradition in American film, has produced a legion of femmes fatales – woman so breathtakingly beautiful that the mere raising of a plucked eyebrow is enough to get men to do their bidding, which in the noir universe invariably involves stealing and killing, and lots of it. Just recall the titles of some of the genre’s greatest films: Laura, Gilda, The Lady from Shanghai, The Woman in the Window. But director Robert Wise’s Born to Kill is unique among films noir in having at its perversely throbbing center not a femme fatale but an homme fatale. Sam Wild is a guy so popping with raw animal magnetism that both women and men just can’t say no – even when they eventually clue in that he’s a psychopath.

The plot of Born to Kill is for noir fans pure heaven, but for the characters utter hell. Helen Brent (Claire Trevor – Ford’s 1939 Stagecoach, Dmytryk’s 1944 Murder, My Sweet, Anthony Mann’s 1948 Raw Deal, Oscar-winner for Huston’s 1948 Key Largo) cannot resist the square-shouldered yet sensual-lipped allure of the mysterious Sam Wild (Lawrence Tierney – Max Nosseck’s 1945 Dillinger, Tarantino’s 1992 Reservoir Dogs), whom she meets moments after getting a Reno divorce. Wild is quite the ladykiller, literally, as the hapless Laury Palmer (Isabel Jewell – Gone With the Wind) and others find out. While keeping Helen on a string, this serial killer cum social climber sets his sights first on marrying her wealthy foster sister, Georgia Staples (Audrey Long – the “B” 1948 Tchaikovsky biopic, Song of My Heart), then on taking over the family’s corporation. All the while, Wild has at his side his adoring gay partner, Mart Waterman (Elisha Cook, Jr. – in such other noir classics as Huston’s 1941 The Maltese Falcon, Robert Siodmak’s 1944 Phantom Lady, Hawks’s 1946 The Big Sleep, Kubrick’s 1956 The Killing). And in hot pursuit, Wild has the archetypal nosey landlady, Mrs. Kraft (Esther Howard – featured roles in most of Preston Sturges’s comic classics, including 1942’s The Palm Beach Story as the Wienie King’s wife; also played the diner waitress in one of my two or three favorite noirs, Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1945 masterpiece, Detour); the rotund poetry-spouting private eye, Arnett (Walter Slezak – Carl Th. Dreyer’s 1924 Michael, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1944 Lifeboat – Slezak’s Arnett may even be a sly jab at Hitchcock, whom he’s made to resemble); and Helen’s increasingly suspicious fiancé, the dashing steel magnate Fred Grover (Phillip Terry – Wilder’s 1944 The Lost Weekend).

Wise’s film is a visual feast, at once a prime example of noir stylistics – the defining shadows and tortured compositions are all there, yet remarkably fresh – and a sly undercutting of its conventions. Although, as you can see on this Web page, Wise is one of the most brilliantly versatile artists in Hollywood history, he has created three defining works of film noir: this film, the consummate noir – and boxing – masterpiece, The Set-Up, and arguably the first so-called “neo-noir,” Odds Against Tomorrow. In Born to Kill, Wise brilliantly plays a then-unprecedented use of humor against the genre’s already well-known visual and dramatic tropes. Although Wise had only been directing for three years, he already knew the importance of inflection – of exactly how to frame a shot for both emotional and subtle commentative value. (Wise had been Welles’s editor on Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, and directed three pictures for legendary producer Val Lewton, including 1945’s The Body Snatcher, shot by Robert De Grasse, his cinematographer here.)

What also sets Born to Kill apart is that it’s as much an intentional, and blackly hiliarious, comedy – about the postwar über-macho male – as it is a simple thriller. (The screenplay is by Eve Greene and Richard Macaulay, from James Gunn’s novel, Deadlier Than the Male.) In fact, the closer you look at this long-neglected gem the more you see that very little about it is simple. It’s simultaneously a wildly (pun intended) entertaining popcorn movie – Wise was already a master of story construction and pacing – and, from another angle, an examination of the darker currents of American life, of the kind which would soon lead to Senator Joseph McCarthy. (By the way, those anti-Communist witch hunts nabbed only a tiny handful of “reds,” ended the careers of several thousand lesbians and gay men – although J. Edgar Hoover, the closeted homosexual who headed the FBI, protected himself and his boyfriend.)

Despite Lawrence Tierney’s (1919–2002) relative obscurity today, it would be hard to imagine a better Sam Wild. (Happily, some of his major early performances are now on DVD, including his breakthrough role – which took him from anonymous bits at RKO to stardom – in the 1945 sleeper hit, Dillinger, included in a noir box set with Born to Kill; and his memorable, albeit uncredited, performance as a doomed sailor in producer Val Lewton‘s long-unavailable, and remarkably homoerotic, 1943 thriller, The Ghost Ship, directed by Mark Robson.) The Brooklyn-born Tierney lived and loved hard both onscreen and off-; he comes across as a bomb just waiting to go off. His taste for real-life brawling and drinking kept him from getting very many plum roles, as did his unrealistic salary demands. He turned down the Rod Steiger role in On the Waterfront because he wanted more money.

In Born to Kill, Tierney embodies the new postwar masculine ideal. For an example of changing masculine personas in Hollywood, recall how the “soft” prewar Gary Cooper (Capra’s 1936 Mr. Deeds Goes to Town) was transformed during the war years (Hawks’s 1941 Sergeant York) into the macho Gary Cooper (Fred Zinnemann’s 1952 High Noon). There’s a world of difference between Cooper’s sheriff in that film and Tierney’s sociopath here, but not in how maleness is portrayed: the continuum there is all too consistent. Like the countless other “new men” of the era, Tierney is humorless (but never adverse to a little silent sneering), laconic, massive, muscular, always cocked, loaded and ready to shoot; and he always keeps his emotions firmly in check. He is the embodiment of external strength, which some people confuse, to their peril, with emotonal resilience. His rigidity is clearly a mask, but for what? What lies beneath the narcissistically chiseled demeanor? A devouring hunger, for money and sex and power, which can never be satisfied for long. Hence Wild’s violence. And behind that, even more terrifying, there seems to be nothing at all – an emotional and moral abyss. Is it caused by the ultra-rigid gender stereotype? You could always ask, but of course then he’d have to kill you (some questions just make Wild so frustrated). Wise’s brilliance in this film is that he’s able to balance, at all times, the psychological integrity of Tierney’s character with a penetrating commentary on it, and the broader social values it embodies, through increasingly over-the-top plot developments and a visual style to match, simultaneously masterful and ironic.

Wise does not let the women, and men, who (as we would say today) empower Wild off the hook. There is more witty, and on-target, banter in this film than in most noirs. Take the key early scene, in which the snoopy landlady, Mrs. Kraft, and her “tarty” young friend, Laury Palmer, gush in praise of “traditional” men… like Sam Wild. After rhapsodizing about his physique, Laury says, “He’s the quiet sort. And yet you get the feeling that if you stepped out of line, he’d kick your teeth down your throat.” Mrs. Kraft purrs, oblivious to the thornier implications of Laury’s rhapsody (as well as, of course, her own and Laury’s fates), “Isn’t that wonderful?” By the film’s end, Wise has shown us, with wit and horror, the price one pays for blindly getting sucked into any rigid gender stereotype, whether a giggling girl – or the female lead, Helen Brent – or the hard-boiled hunk who sets everything in motion.

Wise adds yet another layer to Wild, not to mention this film – and by extension the noir genre – through his use of gay and bisexual characters. As with so many Hollywood genres, the GLBT characters which populate film noir are there, just waiting to be outed (and, more importantly, put into a historical and social context as a reflection of their audiences’ fears and loathings). It seems no accident that Wise introduces Wild’s adoring partner, Mart Waterman, in his undershirt in a bedroom alone with Wild. And is that expository dialogue or (discreetly filmed) pillow talk, or both? (Of course, Wild’s name recalls the great gay icon, and martyr, Oscar Wilde.)

Mart is played by one of the great noir featured actors, Elisha Cook, Jr., who was himself gay (as we learn in William J. Mann’s indispensable Behind the Screen: How Gays and Lesbians Shaped Hollywood, 1910–1969). He had a key role in what is sometimes considered the first, and still one of the greatest, film noir, The Maltese Falcon. Some people may be puzzled when private eye Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) sneeringly refers to the boyishly handsome Wilmer Cook (Elisha Cook, Jr.), the [ahem] protege of the portly bachelor Casper Gutman (Sidney Greenstreet), as a “gunsel.” What’s that? “Gunsel” is Yiddish slang, originally coined in the early twentieth century from another slang term, ‘gendzel’ (“little goose”) for a homosexual youth, which was then combined with the word ‘gun’ to produce “gunsel,” referring to the gay male equivalent of a female “gun moll.” (The queer dimension of John Huston’s film also includes, of course, the slithery Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre).) The larger point here is that GLBT characters are key, if often shadowy, from the beginning of film noir.

Although a comprehensive history of GLBT connections to noir – on both sides of the camera – remains to be written (arguably the “father” of noir literature, Cornell Woolrich, was gay) some of the most notable such GLBT characters include the suave gangster Ballin Mundson (George Macready) and his protege, small-time gambler Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) – who at one points gushes to Mundson, “I was born last night when you met me in that alley” – in Charles Vidor’s 1946 Gilda; criminal kingpin Alec Stiles (Richard Widmark) falling hard for (unknown to him) undercover agent Gene Cordell/George Manly (Mark Stevens – who certainly is “manly” in the role) in William Keighley’s 1948 The Street With No Name (the same homoerotic relationship is seen in Sam Fuller’s 1955 remake, set in Japan and retitled House of Bamboo, between the Robert Ryan and Robert Stack characters); Fante (Lee Van Cleef) and Mingo (Earl Holliman – the archetypal gunsel) are lovers, ‘gangstering’ and relaxing together and even sharing the same bedroom, in Joseph H. Lewis’s 1955 The Big Combo; the classic film noir period ends with Orson Welles’s 1958 Touch of Evil, in which Police Sergeant Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia – a sort of aged gunsel) is in love with his corrupt Captain Hank Quinlan (Welles) – also note that one of the leather-jacketed biker toughs is no man but (lesbian actress) Mercedes McCambridge in the butchest role of her career. Neo-noir, as noted above, may begin with Wise’s Odds Against Tomorrow, but one of its most distinctive, and white-knuckle-inducing works, is the 1996 classic Bound, from the Wachowski brothers (just before they made The Matrix), about two women (one a ganster’s moll) who fall in love and plot to escape the mob, while making off with a pile of money.

Among the film’s men, not only is Mart clearly smitten with Wild, you can also feel the pull he exerts over both Helen’s wealthy fiancé Fred Grover, who can’t seem to take his eyes off Wild, and even the bumbling detective Arnett (Wise may have cast him, in part, because twenty years before a very svelte Slezak had played the ultimate bisexual boy-toy, as the title character in Dreyer’s landmark gay film, Michael). While the surface of the film reflects, with ironic exaggeration, the evolving and rigid heterosexual stereotypes of the day, the film’s deeper layers are more inclusive, pointing up the equally steep price paid by same-sex blind love.

With hapless, head-over-heels Mart, I’m going to divulge, albeit indirectly, his final (not unexpected) plot twist. When it comes time for Wild to do in Mart, how do you think he does it? Hint: imagine the most phallic implement – Robert Wise, tongue in cheek, certainly did – and you’ll be right. Also note the stylized and unmistakably sexual way in which Wise shoots this, as well as the other, murder.

Born to Kill is a film of many perverse pleasures (few films are so very dark yet so funny), and insights both into its own postwar era and, in its penetrating critique of gender roles, today. Although it may not be in the exalted company of such top-tier noir masterpieces as The Maltese Falcon, Hitchcock’s 1943 Shadow of a Doubt, Billy Wilder’s 1944 Double Indemnity, Detour, Robert Aldrich’s 1955 Kiss Me Deadly, The Killing, Touch of Evil – and I’d add Wise’s The Set-Up to the pantheon – Wise’s film is certainly worth (re)discovery. It’s proven one of the most gnawingly memorable films I’ve seen, for the first time, in years (which is why I’m writing about it). And it’s yet further proof of Wise’s versatile and substantive greatness as a filmmaker.

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The Set-Up poster

3) The Set-Up

1949 – 72 minutes, black & white, 1.33:1 aspect ratio – Sports / Suspense

The Set-Up was so powerful and riveting – I had not seen it until its recent DVD release – that it inspired me to create this entire Robert Wise tribute. I was stunned by its flawless momentum – from the amazing camera movements to the staccato editing – as the action unfolds in real time. This is a relentless look at the foul-air venues, savagery both inside and outside the ring (not to mention the bloodied alleyways), and the delusional fantasies of these half-cocked yet strangely moving palookas. All this comes in an ultra-compact 72 minutes, as taut as, well, a boxer’s physique. We know exactly how long both the action and the film run because Wise begins with a looming shot of a clock (gorgeously, creepily composed) which both begins, after the credits sequence, and ends the film.

This picture seems to rank with such acknowledged masterpieces of the genre’s ‘classic period’ as Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, Lang’s The Woman in the Window, Ulmer’s Detour, Hawks’ The Big Sleep, Tourneur’s Out of the Past, Lewis’s Gun Crazy, Ray’s In a Lonely Place, Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly, Welles’ Touch of Evil, and Wise’s later Odds Against Tomorrow, which is sometimes considered the end of the classic noir period – below are examples of neo-noir). It seemed incredible that Wise also directed landmark films in such far-flung genres as science fiction (The Death the Earth Stood Still), horror (1963’s The Haunting), musicals (West Side Story and its polar opposite, The Sound of Music), and more.

Although the bare-bones plot may sound like just another “B” movie, the film’s greatness is in how Wise brings everything rippingly to life. The Set-Up’s Stoker Thompson (Robert Ryan) is, at 35, an over-the-hill boxer on Paradise City’s Wednesday card, fighting well after the main event. He’s been twenty years in the game and he’s sure that he’s just one punch away from a big payday. But there’s something he doesn’t know when he steps into the ring: his manager wants him to take a dive. If he does, humiliation at the hands of a young squirt. If he doesn’t, a local crime boss stands to lose a lot of money on the fixed fight – and that would mean curtains for Stoker. Meanwhile, his long-suffering wife (Audrey Totter) is exhausted from worrying that he’ll be carried out of the ring feet first. She may not even have the stomach to go to tonight’s bout. In a world that wants to bleed them dry, tonight the Thompsons have one last shot at reclaiming their dignity.

Every aspect of this film is dynamic and dead-on. Robert Ryan (Dmytryk’s Crossfire, Ophül’s Caught, Lang’s Clash by Night) gives arguably the performance of his career; it will come as no surprise that earlier he was not only a male model but a professional boxer. And his role as Stoker, which convinced me that even a washed-up fighter could still dredge up the nobility inside himself, could hardly be more different from his radically different later role, in Odds Against Tomorrow. In that other noir masterpiece from Wise, Ryan plays a racist, yet complexly-layered ex-soldier/ex-con; Wise and Ryan make us understand more about that benighted bigot than he does about himself.

Audrey Totter (Lady in the Lake, 1946’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, Alias Nick Beal) is also superb in the smaller but moving role as Stoker’s wife. One of the most perfect scenes I’ve ever seen involves her, standing on a highway overpass, trying to decide whether or not to use her ticket to see her husband fight that night – after she’s begged him, out of love, to give up on the ring and make a solid life with her. Every angle, every cut – to the 1/24th of a second, every tiniest nuance of expression on her face and in her hands clutching the ticket, seems not only flawless but inspired. Not a word is spoken, but Wise knows how to bring together every element of film – image, sound, movement, Totter’s understated performance – and a very specific locale to lay bear the mind and soul of this woman. This is a brief scene, and the images aren’t even that conspicuously showy, but we see not only a life but a turning point in that life revealed. The effect is devastating.

The performances of course gain much of their power from Wise’s confident direction, but the screenplay is also noteworthy. It was written by Art Cohn, co-author of Rossellini’s Stromboli (1950). Cohn died in the same plane crash as Mike Todd (Around the World in 80 Days), whose biography he was writing. This script is actually based on a poem, one of two long 1920s verse narratives by Joseph Moncure March. (Trivia alert: March’s other poem was The Wild Party, which was filmed by Merchant/Ivory in 1975, and recently adapted into two competing Broadway musicals, which opened – and quickly closed – within weeks of each other.)

This film also marks one of the greatest achievements of its cinematographer Milton Krasner (Scarlet Street, All About Eve, An Affair to Remember). He didn’t have the budget of his later “A list” pictures, but the results are breathtaking, from the brilliantly expressive noir shots both in the crowd and behind the scenes (even the shadows have shadows) to maybe the best boxing footage ever seen. In addition to this film’s many other extraordinary qualities, it’s also one of the best sports films, for its portrayal of life both within and beyond the ring. Scorsese admittedly borrowed a lot from this film in the other great boxing film, Raging Bull; in honor of Wise – plus it sounded like they were having a great time together – Scorsese did a dual commentary with Wise on this DVD. (No disrespect to John Schlesinger’s 1975 film of The Day of the Locust, but I wish that Wise and Krasner had filmed that classic 1939 Nathanael West novel, about Hollywood’s down-and-outers, in the same style as The Set-Up: the mind boggles at what they could have achieved.)

This was Wise’s last film under contract at RKO. After the success of The Set-Up, he was ready to become a directorial free agent – and to continue exploring, mastering – and sometimes expanding – still more genres, from science fiction to the musical.

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The Day the Earth Stood Still poster

4) The Day the Earth Stood Still

1951 – 92 minutes, black & white, 1.33:1 aspect ratio – Science Fiction

Although The Day the Earth Stood Still was one of my favorite pictures as a kid, I later went through a (shameful) period when I pooh-poohed Robert Wise’s first extraterrestrial-themed film – about a mysterious, handsome, and messianic alien named Klaatu (Michael Rennie) bringing a message of peace (or else!) to the Earth – despite its exalted spot near the top of almost every ‘greatest Science Fiction films’ list. But now, with this pristinely-restored DVD (which includes a wealth of supplemental features), it’s like seeing it for the first time. I hadn’t expected to be so deeply moved by this picture, and impressed by Wise’s never-flashy but always on-target direction.

Perhaps my renewed admiration also comes, in part, because of its message of understanding, tolerance and peace – which of course is more essential in these volatile times than ever. But Wise saves the film from being just a liberal sermon through his beautifully-restrained direction, and the remarkably subtle performances. Such subtlety was unheard of at the time, and you’ll find almost nothing but histrionics (admittedly fun at times) in Sci-Fi movies, fiction, and comic books of its period.

Part of that admirable restraint is also due to Edmund H. North’s sensitive, well-structured and compact screenplay, which makes scant use of its short story source, Harry Bates’s “Farewell to the Master.” North and Wise know when to bring in, and alternate, suspense, action, romance (there’s real chemistry between Rennie and co-star Patricia Neal). But most difficult of all is that Wise is able to achieve a genuine sense of wonder, both in the large-scale special effects – like the flying saucer landing in the heart of DC and with the giant robot, Gort – and in the moving relationship of Klaatu and the boy (shades of The Curse of the Cat People). The mood is also beautifully enhanced by perhaps the greatest score Bernard Herrmann ever composed for a director other than Hitchcock. True, his use of the eerie, electronic-sounding theremin has long since become a cliche, but in 1951 it was a brilliant innovation (perhaps the most radical yet employed in film scoring). And Wise and Herrmann were shrewd to use the theremin as little, and as potently, as they did.

By the end, with the in-your-face parallels between Klaatu and Jesus (resurrection and all), I’ve come to care so much about the characters, and even believe in their psychological integrity (whether terrestrial or alien), that I swallow the symbolism. And I’m more deeply moved than ever.

If only the real-world forces of ignorance, fear and hate – on which no one culture has a monopoly – could be stopped as easily as the global apocalypse which Gort is climactically about to unleash, by simply uttering three words:

Klaatu barada nikto.

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I Want to Live! poster

5) I Want to Live!

1958 – 120 minutes, black & white, 1.66:1 aspect ratio – Drama

Although I haven’t seen I Want to Live! in several years, I still have visceral memories not only of Susan Hayward’s shattering performance – to say that she deserved her Best Actress Oscar is an understatement – but of how Robert Wise created unbearable suspense. Together they brought out all the layers of the complex – and real-life – Barbara Graham, whose interviews and letters were the source for the screenplay by Nelson Gidding and Don Mankiewicz.

Barbara Graham was, in the words of MGM’s notes, a “prostitute, party girl, perjurer, bad-check passer, petty criminal. She’s all this and more… but is she a murderer?… Arrested for fatally beating an elderly widow, Graham at first goads the police, refusing to answer their questions. But when an alleged accomplice turns state’s evidence, Graham insists that she’s innocent. Condemned by the press and the public, Graham is found guilty of murder and sentenced to die in the gas chamber. But as her execution date nears, Graham desperately attempts to expose the truth and save her life against all odds.”

Can she save her own life?

In addition to Ms. Hayward’s award, the film received Oscar nominations for Best Director, Screenplay Adaptation, Cinematography, Editing , and Sound.

Wise rarely centers a film on a single character; more often he employs two equally-strong people in conflict, as in Run Silent, Run Deep, Odds Against Tomorrow, or The Sound of Music. But when he does focus on one central character, as here or in The Set-Up, the result can be absolutely electrifying. Perhaps Wise’s genius at working with actors has obscured, for some viewers, his equally great achievements as a cinematic artist who, early in his directorial career, mastered the use of image, sound and movement.

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Run Silent, Run Deep poster

6) Run Silent, Run Deep

1958 – 93 minutes, black & white, 1.85:1 aspect ratio – Action-Adventure / War

Run Silent, Run Deep remains one of the two best films in what you might call the submarine subgenre. The other is Wolfgang Petersen’s masterpiece, Das Boot (1981). That is a very different film, with an almost documentary-like depiction of everyday life on a German World War II U-boat, but it clearly drew much of its inspiration from Robert Wise’s film. In fact, Wise’s film is the most often-imitated submarine film, from good “homages” like Tony Scott’s very similar Crimson Tide to drippy rip-offs like the recent U-571. David Twohy managed to make his entertaining haunted submarine movie Below (2002) an eclectic combination of two Wise films, Run Silent, Run Deep and The Haunting (with the 1963 Twilight Zone episode “The Thirty-Fathom Grave” thrown in for ballast). But Wise’s film holds up supremely well on its own, as I discovered to my delight when re-watching it a few months ago. It was also a major commercial and critical success on its release in 1958.

Wise is brilliant at keeping the adrenalin pumping even as he creates what is essentially a dual character study. “Rich” Richardson (Clark Gable, in one of his last and best performances) is a dedicated but overbearing submarine captain with a single-minded purpose: seek out and obliterate the Japanese destroyer he blames for the deaths of his previous crew. Given a new command with a first officer (Burt Lancaster) who sees their mission very differently, Richardson relentlessly drills his men to the point of mutiny, even as he forces them to scour the Pacific in search of his foe. At last, they find the destroyer. Disobeying orders, Richardson heads straight for his adversary, unaware that an even greater enemy lurks nearby.

John Gay’s tight screenplay, based on a novel by former submarine Captain Edward L. Beach, peels away the self-delusions of the two realistic yet larger-than-life main characters. The script also provides dramatic yet natural opportunities to allow Wise to showcase Gable and Lancaster in their one film together. (Although Lancaster’s company produced the film, he gave Gable top billing.) Run Silent, Run Deep works so well because we understand and respect both men – as they do each other – although they have diametrically opposed views on how best to run the ship and keep their men safe. And increasingly, we see Gable’s character fall into the trap of Moby-Dick’s Captain Ahab, with his monomaniacal pursuit of his nemesis. Melodramatic sparks fly, along with plenty of literal ones in this film which boasts some extraordinarily authentic World War II action sequences. As a consultant Wise hired former Navy Rear Admiral Rob Roy McGregor, whose World War II combat experiences earned him three Silver Stars.

As with his later film, The Andromeda Strain, Wise is brilliant at using the claustrophobic environment to heighten the drama, even as his compositions and camera movements keep a steady, but unobtrusive, level of cinematic interest. He emotionally anchors the film with top-notch performances from his uniformly excellent supporting cast, which includes Jack Warden and a very effectively deployed Don Rickles.

Wise made several war pictures throughout his career, including The Desert Rats and The Sand Pebbles, but this is arguably the best – and certainly the most influential.

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Odds Against Tomorrow poster

7) Odds Against Tomorrow

Also Producer – 1959 – 96 minutes, black & white, 1.33:1 aspect ratio – Suspense

Odds Against Tomorrow is not only one of Wise’s greatest films, it’s also one of the best films of its time and arguably the pivotal film noir. Some people view it as the last classic noir (coming a year after Touch of Evil), with its brilliantly utilized dramatic and visual motifs from the subgenre (corruption, treachery, angsty existenialism, tense compositions, striated shadows – a world of literal and moral darkness; you can find examples of classic noir above in my Set-Up review).

Others look at how Wise expands the themes (racism, even homophobia), psychological depth of characters, and socioeconomic scope, even as he employs a unique but still noirish visual style both more abstract and more documentary-like than earlier films. As such it’s seen as the first neo-noir, a still-thriving outgrowth which includes such diverse pictures as, spanning the early ’60s to today, Fuller’s The Naked Kiss, Godard’s Band of Outsiders, Boorman’s Point Blank, Fassbinder’s Gods of the Plague, Polanski’s Chinatown, Woo’s The Killer, Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, Fincher’s Se7en, Wong Kar-Wai’s Fallen Angels, and Lynch’s Mulholland Dr.

Classic or neo-, Odds Against Tomorrow is a genre-expanding thriller with a deep emotional and thematic reach – and another Wise masterpiece. Wise – the first time serving as both producer and director – and screenwriters Abraham Polonsky (Body and Soul, Force of Evil) and Nelson Gidding (Wise’s The Haunting) weave together nerve-snapping suspense, gritty style and an unsparing look at racial tension. Wise also uses John Lewis’s brilliantly unsettling jazz score to powerful effect. Its scale is small, but its emotions – and implications – are not.

It all begins when a former crooked cop named Burke (Ed Begley) finds out about one hundred and fifty thousand dollars, ready for the taking at a little bank in the upstate New York burg of Melton. It’s too much to resist for bigoted ex-serviceman/ex-con from Oklahoma, Earl Slater (Robert Ryan – in a role far removed from his noble boxer in The Set-Up), who’s more broke than ever now that he has a full-time girlfriend (Shelley Winters) – although he’s being lusted after by his faded femme fatale neighbor (Gloria Grahame). He agrees to take part in the robbery (“I’ve been waitin’ all my life… It’s now or never.”), but hesitates when he finds out that one of the three partners, jazz singer Johnny Ingram (Belafonte), is black. Ingram is even more desperate for money than Slater, since he’s been losing steadily at the race track for a month – he just can’t seem to stop playing the ponies – and now hitmen, from the crime boss he’s indebted to, are ominously hanging around his ex-wife and young daughter. As tensions mount and the men get closer to the biggest score – of their small lives – Slater’s hatred erupts, resulting in violent consequences for the heist and all three men.

The film’s idiosyncratic nature, and depth, is also indicated by its fans. One of the greatest was German wunderkind Rainer Werner Fassbinder (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, The Marriage of Maria Braun), who was clearly inspired by this film when creating his own revisionist noir trilogy: Love is Colder Than Death (his first feature), Gods of the Plague, and The American Soldier. Fassbinder was deeply concerned about racism and homophobia – another theme which Wise introduces in his film.

This is not a standard crime caper. It explores, in sometimes excruciating depth, what drives each man – what unique pressures each one is under, including how their past lives impacts on that (such as Slater’s coming from a dirt-poor Oklahoma family, drifting from the military into petty crime). Then, with remarkable psychological and sociological insight, Wise weaves together their differences and similarities. What emerges are anything but stereotypes. Slater, Ingram, and Burke, and to a lesser extent the women in their lives (who have only minimal screen time), emerge as flesh and blood, with all of the fears, contradictions – and psychological complexity – of real people.

What marks this as a genre-expanding film noir is not only the depth with which it explores a new social reality for noir (although not for society) – racism – but with how Wise never allows the characters or plot to degenerate into some mere Issue Movie, which were common in the ’50s and ’60s but which now are usually relegated to TV movies of the week. I happen to like Stanley Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, but imagine how phony this film would be if Belafonte played Ingram as nobly one-dimensional as Sidney Poitier in that movie. Also Belafonte proves himself not only a great singer (yes, there are a couple of musical number – shrewdly and effectively worked into the narrative) but a terrific actor. His production company, HarBel, also bankrolled this picture, and hence gave Wise his first opportunity to produce as well as direct.

This film never backs down from the exploring the many dimensions, some subtle and some horrifically overt, of racism. The very first line of dialogue, when Slater gets out of his beat-up car and pats a cute-but-realistic young black girl on the head, sweetly referring to her as a “pickaninny.” Her genuine smile in accepting the “compliment” is almost as unsettling as Slater’s unthinkingly dehumanizing way of categorizing her. The film continues to explore, and dramatize, racism in many, often unexpected, ways – until the absolutely unforgettable climax. Its remarkable how completely integrated (no pun intended) this theme is into the characters, narrative, and even the visual style of the entire picture.

Some of the film’s most then-radical insights are about another pernicious form of bigotry: homophobia. There’s an openly gay character, part of the “crime family,” who appears throughout the film (we first see him sitting on a bench in Central Park). He looks like a sort of used Russ Tamblyn (West Side Story, The Haunting); and people familiar with Fassbinder’s films will immediately notice his uncanny resemblance to actor/writer/designer Kurt Raab. His name is never mentioned, but he’s sometimes referred to as a “pretty boy.”

This bit part is actually one of the more authentic openly gay portrayals of that time. (As we’ll see in Wise’s handling of the two women in The Haunting – Claire Bloom plays a fully-developed lesbian, and Julie Harris a confused young woman who is either bisexual or lesbian – is a landmark in the cinematic depiction of non-stereotyped same-sex characters.) “Pretty boy” openly hits on Ingram (“I’d like to buy you a shiny new car”), who in turn brushes him off – not with a baseball bat (still the custom in many places) but with a little jest.

Yet another gay-related aspect of the film concerns Slater. Although an unregenerate redneck, when he encounters a macho military guy (in the screen debut of none other than Wayne Rogers, later of TV’s M*A*S*H) who is engaging in homophobic behavior – ostensibly to woo a young woman – which might be too much even for the today’s armed forces, Slater takes up the young guy’s challenge and knocks him out cold (shades of The Set-Up). In other words, Slater is a racist swine, but his one noble act is beating up a homophobe. That gives you some idea of the moral complexity, and confusion, in this noirish world.

This is also one of Wise’s most visually extraordinary, and meticulously composed, films. Although at first it may seem much “glossier” than his earlier noir masterwork, The Set-Up (I wish I’d been able to see all of his “B” thrillers from the ’40s and ’50s), the pretty surfaces are deceptive. The visual/narrative point of view of this film has a very strange “eye” indeed. We may suspect that the picture is fold from Ingram’s point of view (we could make the connection between his jazz singing and the propulsive jazz score), but ultimately the film’s perspective seems even stranger than that. For instance, the quaint hamlet of Melton, which you’d expect to be an icon of homespun American values, is visually even creepier than Manhattan. It’s there that Wise unleashes his many brief zoom shots, which are the most tense and creepy I know – and, of course, that’s exactly what the film needs, as the escalating racial hatred between Slater and Ingram becomes ever more open.

One of the most unnerving, but brief, moments comes in the supposedly playful banter of two young boys, with toy guns, who happen to be playing near the scene of the imminent bank robbery. The boys pretend-shoot at passersby. One says that he got a girl “in the eye;” the other says – and I admit to being truly shocked – “I shot her in the navel.” I suspect this dialogue was ad-libbed by real “natives” of the location town where it was shot. That, of course, just compounds my extreme unease. Maybe those two tykes could team up with the sweetly demonic little brother and sister in Turn of the Screw, or the kids burning alive the scorpions in the opening scene of The Wild Bunch: they’d all definitely hit it off. In any event, Wise has found a brillaint way to sum up the core values of the noir universe, which infect even the young.

This small moment also reminds us that this is one of Wise’s most brilliantly visual and aural films. In virtually ever scene, his subtle interplay of narrative, performance, image, sound and idea repay the closest viewing and listening. What keeps the picture from becoming a flat-out art film are the extraordinarily-nuanced performances of the main characters, as well as the increasingly unbearable suspense of the narrative.

Although I’m not going to reveal anything more about the dramatic climax, let me close with the final lines. Even ripped out of context, they point up the stupidly arbitrary nature of discrimination in any of its many forms:

“Which is which?”

“Take your pick.”

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West Side Story poster

8) West Side Story

Also Producer – 1961 – 151 minutes, color, 2.20:1 aspect ratio – Musical

West Side Story is a film of many “bests” – with Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director (Robert Wise shared the honor with co-director and legendary choreographer Jerome Robbins) and eight more, many other US and international awards for Best Picture (it was a smash hit around the world; it played continuously for almost five years in Paris, where it even influenced such New Wave filmmakers as Godard), its enduring status as one of the universally-acknowledged best film musicals (let alone one of the very few which has the unique energy of a live Broadway performance). I think it’s also one of the best films of its era, musical or otherwise. In its new DVD incarnation it looked and sounded better than ever – although it really does look its (yes) best on the big screen, where its tear-up-the-streets dances have the intended larger-than-life scale.

West Side Story is a brilliantly-realized update of Romeo and Juliet, with the feuding nobles of Verona transformed into rival, and equally racist, 1950s street gangs – the Polish-American Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks– on the mean streets of Manhattan’s Upper West Side. (Its theme recalls Wise’s stunning previous film, Odds Against Tomorrow, which explored racism not through song and dance but, almost as radically, by expanding the boundaries film noir.) Into this volatile mess comes the innocent teenager Maria (Natalie Wood), newly arrived from Puerto Rico to live with her brother Bernardo (George Chakiris – who won an Oscar for this role) who leads the Sharks. Maria works with his fiery girlfriend Anita (Rita Moreno – who won an Oscar for this role) in a dress-making shop. At a youth dance, Maria falls in love with a sweet-natured Polish boy named Tony (Richard Beymer). He used to be the Jets’ leader but he’s grown tired of their violent pranks and turned the gang over to his pal Riff (Russ Tamblyn), who runs it with his “lieutenant” Ice (Tucker Smith). When Maria learns of the escalating turf war between the gangs, to climax in a violent “rumble,” she begs Tony to intervene. He goes to stop the fight, but a series of accidents bring about tragically unexpected results, which continue to escalate until the shocking finale.
As it moves between sometimes grittily realistic, other times beautifully abstract, settings, this film is a visual, as well as a musical and dramatic, masterpiece.

Wise’s contribution to the film is immense, although he shared the director’s credit with Jerome Robbins. Robbins, one of America’s greatest classical and Broadway choreographers, drew on both traditions to create a startlingly new style of movement for this work. Dance grows organically out of the characters, but then Robbins makes it more angular, more extreme, until it embodies their fears, anger, and unique beauty – as well as the propulsive rhythms of Bernstein’s score. This is also movement radically conceived in three dimensions, as the dancers leap out at us until sometimes Wise’s fluid camera seems barely able to keep up, let alone contain them within the frame.

Although Robbins – solo – conceived, choreographed and directed the original Broadway production, on the film his perfectionism made the production go so drastically over schedule and budget that he was soon barred from the set (I have more on Robbins below). That left Wise responsible, in his dual role as director and producer, not only for the unique look and feel of this unprecedented film but for much of the logistics too. Wise’s success is nothing less than extraordinary in its integrity and sheer imaginative force.

Although the film’s style has been copied countless times, there is nothing like the original for sheer in-your-face audacity. To say that there had never been any musical like this before is an understatement. True, there had been some astonishingly inventive dance films (like The Red Shoes) and musicals (many directed by Vincente Minnelli). But in those pictures the ‘wild parts’ were contained within discrete, although sometimes lengthy, musical numbers, which were further removed from the main action as dream sequences, as in Minnelli’s An American in Paris or the climactic “Gotta Dance” number in Kelly and Donen’s sublime Singin’ in the Rain. But in West Side Story, the most startlingly vivid dance numbers yet put on film jump out at you from the very real streets of the Upper West Side. As in the original stage version, this film is not afraid to give you a new musical number every seven or so minutes (sorry, I counted). Most “musical” films jettison all but the most popular songs from the original score, then dole out a song maybe once every fifteen or twenty minutes (the economics of that stinginess are self-evident, but the adaptation from Broadway to Hollywood always suffer). Not so here. Wise and Robbins keep the entire score. This film isn’t just filled with musical numbers it lives and breathes and kicks them up like few others.

The screenplay by Ernest Lehman (Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I, Sweet Smell of Success, Wise’s Executive Suite, Somebody Up There Likes Me and The Sound of Music) makes a few minor rearrangements of scenes from the Broadway version, but otherwise follows Arthur Laurents’s original libretto closely. (Lehman’s Best Screenplay nomination was the only Oscar this film did not win in its sweep of the awards.) I’d like to point up a couple of in-jokes which will likely only be of interest to people who can’t get enough Robert Wise/Ernest Lehman trivia (you know who you are). In Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959), for which Lehman was writing the brilliantly original screenplay just before this film, when Cary Grant is being abducted early on he tells the hitmen that he can’t go with them because he has tickets that night for a show at the Winter Garden Theatre. Guess what was playing there? West Side Story. In Odds Against Tomorrow – filmed at that same time – Wise has Gloria Grahame (in a meaty bit) try to seduce Robert Ryan by offering to take him to a show that night. I wonder what gritty urban musical would most appeal to those two noir stars (as an added twist, Grahame is also famous as the brassy Ado Annie in the film version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! – their final show together was The Sound of Music.) As I near the end of this trivia jag, I can’t help but wonder if Wise and Lehman were swapping in-jokes, in their respective 1959 pictures, about the project they would next work on together: West Side Story.

Perhaps one reason why this film continues to feel so alive can be seen in a couple of the minor characters. With all of the macho posturing among the guys (perhaps as much inspired by the 100-movie Leo Gorcey/Huntz Hall Bowery Boys series as by real street gangs), it’s refreshing to see one character, Baby John (Eliot Feld, who became one of the US’s most respected choreographers and dance teachers), refreshingly break out of that rigid mold by being able to cry, even if only in the presence of his best friend (the nose-wiping scene is a gem). Today some people will see the tomboy Anybodys (Sue Oakes) as, and I of course use the term respectfully and affectionately, a “baby dyke.” She presents an interesting contrast to the most famous tomboy in any Wise film – Maria (Julie Andrews) in The Sound of Music – who, unlike Anybodys, leaves her ‘masculine’ ways behind.

West Side Story is also a visual feast, with a breathtakingly vivid and original use of color. Eye-popping reds and blues. And just when you think you’re squarely in a realistic environment, bam! Wise brings in some incredibly dynamic composition, or a burst of obviously abstract but dead-on primary color. Look at how he uses the stained-glass French door in Maria’s room, with its rainbow of colors, behind the young lovers. Or the scalding pools of light during the furiously intercut musical scenes, both the Sharks and the Jets and their women, leading up to the big rumble. Or the pitch-black shadows whose reach seems to grow as the violence increasingly spirals out of control: a reminder of Wise’s earlier noir masterpieces like The Set-Up and Odds Against Tomorrow.

The film was designed by Boris Leven (Giant; most of Wise’s films between West Side Story and The Andromeda Strain; most of Scorsese’s films between The Last Waltz and The Color of Money) and shot by Daniel L. Fapp (The Big Clock, The Great Escape, The Unsinkable Molly Brown). Both Leven and Fapp won richly-deserved Oscars for their work.
No less astonishing is the editing, for which Thomas Stanford – who had previously only cut Suddenly, Last Summer – also won an Oscar. But with no disrespect to Mr. Stanford, one suspects that the erstwhile editor of Citizen Kane had a lot to do with the propulsive yet carefully modulated rhythms here. In fact, I’d be surprised to learn that Wise didn’t take a hands-on approach in editing all of his films (although after becoming a director he never again took an editorial credit).

One reason the editing is so sharp is because it riffs, in its own way, on the landmark score by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. Although the original stage production of West Side Story (1957) was critically lauded, it was overshadowed by – and even lost the Tony Award to – The Music Man. Not even the original Broadway cast recording of the Bernstein/Sondheim score sold spectacularly, and that was at a time when show albums were still greatly outselling everything, even now-classic rock and roll. All of that was to change with the film. This soundtrack became the single best-selling album of its day, and everywhere everyone was hearing these songs, whether in their original forms or in countless arrangements, from jazz to the proto-Muzak of “101 strings.” Sales aside, West Side Story is not only one of just four turning points in the entire history of musical theatre – the others are Kern and Hammerstein’s Show Boat (1926; based on Edna Ferber’s novel), Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! (1943; adapted from gay African-American dramatist Lynn Riggs’s 1931 play, Green Grow the Lilacs), and Sondheim’s Follies (1971; original libretto by James Goldman) – it is also, quite simply, a consummate work of theatrical songwriting.

Every number reveals a character (although Sondheim was later a bit critical of his giving Maria some words more befitting, say, Sir Noel Coward than a teenage immigrant, as in “I Feel Pretty” when she sings, “It’s alarming how charming I feel”). And every song advances the story, even as they delight (“America,” “Gee, Officer Krupke”) or move (“Maria,” “Tonight,” “One Hand, One Heart”) or shock us (“The Rumble,” “Cool,” “A Boy Like That”). As someone who loves musical theatre (at least until Andrew Lloyd Webber ran it into the ground with his monotonous, droning tunes), I’ve listened to this score countless times, and it moved me deeply as a kid – and it moves me even more profoundly now, not least when I hear and see it in this astonishing film.

Although Wise’s contributions are of the greatest importance to this film, as we’ve seen, I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge the four gay artists who originally created West Side Story:

Arthur Laurents (1918–2011), who wrote the original book (or script and spoken dialogue) for West Side Story, is a distinguished playwright (Home of the Brave, the musical Gypsy), the screenwriter of Max Ophüls’s Caught, Hitchcock’s Rope, David Lean’s Summertime (from Laurents’ original play The Time of the Cuckoo), The Way We Were, and The Turning Point, and the director of the long-running Broadway musical La Cage aux Folles.

Stephen Sondheim (born 1930), who wrote the lyrics for West Side Story (and Gypsy), is without question the preeminent composer-lyricist of the past half century. Some of his greatest shows (for all of which he wrote both music and lyrics) include A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park With George, Into the Woods, and Assassins.

Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990), who wrote the music for West Side Story, also composed such incandescent Broadway shows as On the Town, Wonderful Town, and Candide, the score for the film On the Waterfront, and several classical pieces, including three symphonies, the gorgeous Chichester Psalms, the ballets Fancy Free and The Dybbuk, a controversial Mass setting (commissioned to open DC’s John F. Kennedy Center), and the opera A Quiet Place. For the last thirty years of his life, he focused on conducting some of the world’s greatest symphony and opera orchestras.

Jerome Robbins (1918–1998), who conceived/directed/choreographed the original Broadway West Side Story and co-directed/choreographed the film version, was one of the most important American choreographers (often working through the prestigious New York City Ballet), as well one of the most influential directors/choreographers in Broadway history. He created the choreography for The King and I (both the 1951 Broadway original and the 1956 film), and both directed and choreographed such enduring musicals as The Pajama Game, Peter Pan (1954; and the 1960 TV version, both with Mary Martin), Bells Are Ringing, Gypsy, Fiddler on the Roof and of course West Side Story, his most celebrated work on both stage and screen. Robbins not only provided direction and dance, but nurtured it through its turbulent gestation, which took over a decade from his initial concept until its Broadway opening.
I’d like to end this review by paying tribute to the performer I’ve always found the most electrifying in this film: Tucker Smith as Ice, Riff’s second-in-command (not to mention Riff’s uncredited singing voice).

Tucker Smith

Tucker Smith was so riveting in that number that, in writing this review, I tried to learn more about him. Who was this charismatic, supremely talented young actor/singer/dancer? Why did he all but disappear after his unforgettable debut in this film? I uncovered many more questions than facts.

The Internet Movie Database (IMDb) records that he was born (April 24, 1936) and died of “throat cancer” (December 22, 1988), both in Philadelphia. He appeared, uncredited, as a dancer in three other movies (all in the late ’60s): How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, The Producers, and Hello, Dolly!; and had named roles in two others, 1975’s Hearts of the West (as “Noodle in Pith Helmet”) and 1983’s To Be or Not to Be (as “Klotskis Klowns”). The Internet Broadway Database (IBDB) shows that Tucker Smith appeared in only two productions: as a “replacement dancer” in the original West Side Story and as “one of the boys” in Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim’s musical Anyone Can Whistle (a truly great score, but its entire run was April 4 – 11, 1964: nine performances). Neither source managed to include a photo.

While Googling his name, I came across an intriguing reference in David Ehrenstein’s Advocate review of the West Side Story DVD. He writes that “Great things were predicted for Smith. But as he wasn’t inclined to be closeted, he drifted out of Hollywood and back to Broadway as a dancer, not a lead, until his death… in 1988.” If you have more information, let me know. Several years after posting this review, I received the following response…

Tucker Smith with Fan Club (photo courtesy Richard Kilroy)

UPDATE March 7, 2014: Deep thanks to Tucker’s nephew, Richard Kilroy, for giving permission to share his reminiscence of his uncle, both in the wonderful photo showing Tucker at the premiere of West Side Story with the enthusiastic Tucker Smith Fan Club, and in his March 1, 2014 email that follows:

I was looking up something on my uncle, Tucker Smith, and I discovered your wonderful website. I see that you were given information regarding Tucker’s career and death that is a little off base. Tucker did try to make a go of it in Hollywood as an actor but he was always most comfortable as a dancer/singer which is why theater called more often than cinema. He was considered for a lead in The Idol [1966] but lost out. He spent a few years in Japan in television and then returned to Hollywood. (Hollywood musicals were waning at a time when Tucker arrived and so getting work that played to his strengths was not simple) Also, he did not die of AIDS although that’s been suggested and reported in the past. While there is no reason in my mind to say he died of something other than AIDS if he had died of that — he in fact died of cancer. (I have his death certificate.) Our family has been plagued by cancer and [other family members have] died from this at nearly his same young age…. Because Tucker was gay and the era in which he passed away led some to connect the dots but in truth, it was cancer. I only point this out because there seems to be a faction that think the family is protecting Tucker from the perceived stigma of AIDS. To honor Tucker and his hard-fought honesty, if he had in fact passed away from AIDS, I’d say that as fact. It just isn’t true. In any case, he is missed, he suffered and died way too young. Thank you for your lovely comments about my uncle and your consideration of his work in the arts. We still love him so.

Tucker Smith reminds us that even in an immensely popular film like West Side Story, there are so many people, even some this strikingly gifted, who – all too quickly – go unsung.

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The Haunting poster

9) The Haunting

Also Producer – 1963 – 112 minutes, black & white, 2.35:1 aspect ratio – Horror

I know of no genre, or more precisely subgenre, which is so completely overshadowed by one film as the ghost movie is by Robert Wise’s 1963 masterpiece, The Haunting, about a small team of paranormal investigators who try to fathom the mysteries of the ultimate haunted house. This is also the single greatest horror film that I have seen, briliantly uniting – into a unique personal vision of the genre – such diverse traditions as German Expressionism, the tortured baroque stylistics of Welles in Citizen Kane (that Wise edited), and the unnerving menace of the landmark thrillers produced by Val Lewton (who gave Wise his start as a director).

There have been many beautifully-made and memorable pictures of this type, ranging from classic Hollywood fare like The Uninvited (1944) to Mizoguchi’s exquisite Ugetsu (1953) to such problematic fantasies (or are they?) as Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961) and Ozon’s Under the Sand (2000). Of course there are legions of ludicrous ghost movies, among the worst of which is the abysmal 1999 remake of The Haunting (although its director Jan de Bont also made the exceptional action film Speed, and he was cinematographer on many of Paul Verhoeven’s finest pictures).

Robert Wise’s definitive adaptation of The Haunting is also one of the most visually ravishing and dramatically intense – not to mention (literally) spine-tingling – films I have seen, as well as a subtle landmark in the history of portraying complex lesbian and bisexual characters onscreen (which is why I also include this film among 50 Outstanding GLBT Films.)

Although Wise is not GLBT-identified, at least two of his greatest films have strong connections to GLBT cinema. We’ll look at The Haunting in a moment, but it should be noted that he co-directed one of the great screen musicals, West Side Story (1961), with the influential gay theatre director and choreographer Jermone Robbins, who conceived the show in its Broadway incarnation in collaboration with several other great talents, all of whom were gay or bisexual: composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, and librettist Arthur Laurents. There is also an intriguing minor gay male character in Wise’s Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), which is not only one of the greatest films noir but a complex film about racism (and to a lesser extent homophobia) which fully integrates its social analysis into multi-layered characters and pulse-pounding action.

The Haunting is arguably Wise’s greatest work, in its brilliant meshing of visual and editorial design with emotional subtext. It is a close, but not slavish, adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s classic The Haunting of Hill House (1959), which is often considered the second greatest ghost novel, after Henry James’s enigmatic The Turn of the Screw [free online] (1898). Wise shrewdly omits Jackson’s oafish character who bears an uncanny resemblance to Colonel Pickering in the then-recent musical My Fair Lady (1956), and tightens the narrative – most of the plot is the same in both novel and film – until it almost bursts with suspense, even as it provides ample opportunities for character development.

The Haunting is one of the most visually astonishing films I have seen. Like the vast, labyrinthine mansion which Jackson describes, and which Wise brings to life, there are no straight lines anywhere to be seen. Everything is slightly, or more than slightly, off-kilter, both in the set design and, even more subtly, in the intricate widescreen compositions. Wise shrewdly shot the film in black and white, allowing the fullest interplay of light and shadow – lots and lots of shadows. (The film was made on a surprisingly small budget: despite the smash hit status of the Oscar-winning West Side Story, MGM had only minimal faith in this, Wise’s latest – and radically different – project.) You can see the influence of Citizen Kane in several shots – there is more than a little of Kane’s towering castle, Xanadu, in Hill House – yet overall this is a startlingly original vision of what, in earlier films, had long since descended into the hoary clichess of ‘the haunted house movie.’ Part of the film’s originality, which in turn accounts for its extraordinary influence on all later films of the type, comes from Wise revealing Hill House’s unique, and for some seductive, form of beauty. Even the faces, hidden within the swirling patterns of the wallpaper, are as lyrical as they are unnerving.

What anchors the film emotionally are the people. There are only four or five major characters (one appears unexpectedly, late in the film), and each is finely-etched, from the somewhat arch minor character of the housekeeper (who may have learned her trade from Hitchcock’s Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca) to the four investigators, including two women with psychic abilities. They are Claire Bloom as the (for its day) openly lesbian character Theodora, and Julie Harris as Eleanor, who may also be lesbian or bisexual. The growing relationship between these two women, as in Jackson’s novel, forms the emotional core of the story. It may have been very moving, especially in 1963 with so few lesbian characters, to learn that, despite Theo’s flirtations with Eleanor (and I believe that she is trying to help Eleanor realize some long-buried truths about her nature), she has a woman waiting for her back home. In other words, Theo is not yet another lonely, tormented lesbian; she is at once incisive, witty, and nurturing, and she ‘has a life’ too.

Unlike the novel, Wise presents his film explicitly from Eleanor’s point of view; he even includes a judicious use of voice-over by Ms. Harris. (Ms. Harris is a great actress on both stage – the most honored performer in the history of Broadway’s Tony Awards – and film, including her breakthrough role in The Member of the Wedding; friends tell me she’s also regarded as a “lesbian icon,” although I do not know the facts of her personal life.) Although I realize that this interpretation may be a stretch for some people, I think that the ghosts of Hill House – which reflect the self-loathing of the sadistic and puritanical man who built it (his last name, Crain, means “fear” in French) – are also reflections of Eleanor’s own self-consuming repression. On yet another level, Hill House, and the film itself, gain much of their power from the increasing disintegration between the boundaries of external and internal, which is brilliantly, and subtly, embodied in Eleanor’s progression (or degeneration) throughout the tale.

There are many more layers, both emotional and thematic, in both the novel and film. But on at least one level Eleanor’s fate reflects her relentless insistence on not looking into her own heart. As she increasingly pulls away from Theo she grows ever more connected to the house, relishes becoming a ‘member’ of it. Ultimately the film shows us the steep price one pays for self-blindness – whether it’s Hugh Crain or his doomed descendents or, now, Eleanor:

“Whatever walked there, walked alone.”

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The Sound of Music poster

10) The Sound of Music

Also Producer – 1965 – 174 minutes, color, 2.20:1 aspect ratio – Musical

I’m including The Sound of Music, loosely based on the real-life experiences of Austria’s Von Trapp family at the start of World War II, not because I think it’s one of Wise’s ten best films but because it remains his most popular. The most successful movie of its day – it saved Twentieth Century-Fox from the financial debacle of the mega-flop Cleopatra which had turned the studio into a ghost town – it also boasts one of the most charismatic performances in any of his films: Julie Andrews.

Here are what I see as the looming problems in the film – although the gorgeous scenery, infectious musical numbers by the great Rodgers and Hammerstein (“Do Re Mi,” “My Favorite Things,” “Climb Every Mountain”), and outstanding cast offer more than adequate compensation for many viewers. First, the final third of the film is almost a dramatic black hole, since the main character conflict has already been resolved. The heart of the story is the evolving relationship of two (too) clearly-defined opposites, the rigid Captain Von Trapp (Christopher Plummer) and the free-spirited Maria (Julie Andrews). The chemistry between them is exciting, in a repressed sort of way (perhaps that emotional “safety” is another reason why the picture was such a hit). But after they finally, and generically, come together and are married at the two-thirds point, the long final section seems, at best, anticlimactic. A film with a similar structure – the leads getting married at the two-thirds point – is Gone With the Wind (1939), but there marriage is just another stage in the ongoing love and conflict between Scarlett and Rhett, and the film’s dramatic momentum, and interest, continues unabated. Not so here.

Also, the Nazis – who come center stage (at times literally) in the final third – are almost cartoonish villains. They come nowhere near providing an alternative to the vastly more powerful conflict which earlier was tightly focused on the Captain and Maria. What made the tension between them even more powerful was that so much of it was internal. Maria is torn between her desire to become a (celibate) nun and her palpable desire for the Captain, while he is torn between his need to maintain his hyper-rigid, hyper-militaristic, hyper-masculine facade in the face of the “feminizing” influence of the beguiling Maria. The Nazis just can’t compete.

To see how a similar two-person conflict can be sustained brilliantly in a musical, look at Rodgers and Hammerstein dramatically (and musically) superior The King and I (1956; also adapted by screenwriter Ernest Lehman, the picture is very similar to the Broadway original). There the relationship between two “opposite” characters – yet another headstrong-but-compassionate teacher (Deborah Kerr) and patriarchal tyrant (Yul Brynner) – continues to grow until the deeply poignant final moments. For the record, in the film of The Sound of Music screenwriter Ernest Lehman (North by Northwest, West Side Story) makes many structural changes from the original stage version – Oscar Hammerstein II was too ill to write it himself, and atypically contributed only the lyrics – and all of them are improvements. But Lehmann is still not able to make the final section compelling. Perhaps that’s why, among the avalanche of Oscars this movie received, he alone was shut out, not even receiving a nomination.

Another problem I have is that the film’s visual splendor comes from what is photographed – like the sweeping mountain vistas of the opening aerial shots, climaxing as we single out Maria, twirling around and singing the glorious title tune – but not from how it’s photographed, that is, from the expressive power of design and composition. In all of the other films on this list, Wise shows his mastery of using image to communicate mood, even theme; some of them, like The Set-Up and The Haunting, are visual/dramatic masterpieces. But not so here. I don’t mean to sound like some cinema snob, but although this movie is often pretty to look at it – because of the scenic locations and appealing cast – it is almost never interesting to think about visually in terms of how line, shape, color and movement enhance the drama. As we’ve seen with his other films profiled here, Wise can be a master of image and sound – when he wants to. But here he downplayed composition for scenery. This movie feels flat.

Of course, its immense popular, critical, and financial success are nothing to sneeze it. And for all my carping I admit to having seen it more than a few times. I’m a big Julie Andrews fan and, at least for me, this is her greatest performance.

Fox has done an excellent job with their DVD release; although I recommend getting the two-disc widescreen edition. The first disc includes the film, plus the option to listen to Wise’s commentary. The second disc contains a treasure trove of bonus material about the film.

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The Andromeda Strain poster

11) The Andromeda Strain

Also Producer – 1971 – 131 minutes, color, 2.35:1 aspect ratio – Science Fiction

I like The Andromeda Strain a lot. Even thirty years into the Digital Special Effects era, it remains my favorite techno-thriller.

First, about the techno part. Some people fault its science, both for accuracy (it was made forty years ago) and for slowing down the action. But I think Wise brilliantly balances the demands of this tale. His inspired precision, throughout this film, is as clinical as it is aesthetic.

The story is about an isolated group of scientific researchers (as in The Haunting), in a top-secret underground installation, racing to uncover how an intergalactic virus managed to kill off an entire town – except for a cantankerous old Sterno-drinker and a newborn baby. You see, the virus is spreading fast, and it threatens to kill – you guessed it – all life on earth. To ratchet up the suspense, if the virus breaks the many containment levels within the facility – and if you think it won’t come to that you’ve obviously never seen a techno-thriller before – a nuclear device will detonate.

Even in 1971 virological apocalypse was a hoary old Science Fiction premise. If anything, today – thanks to non-fiction books like The Hot Zone and news about biological super-weapons – such a catastrophe seems even more terrifyingly plausible. But Michael Crichton’s 1969 novel – his first published under his own name, written while he was a medical student at Harvard – and Wise’s film bring everything cracklingly to life. I like the fact that Wise keeps the melodrama to a minimum but the suspense to the maximum. How? The real excitement in this film, unlike virtually all of the countless other techno-thrillers (such as Michael Bay’s Armageddon or the 2003 movie of Crichton’s own Timeline), comes from the science, in using reason to understand what the hell is going on and to try to find a solution.

I also think this remains the best Michael Crichton adaptation, and I’ve seen them all. Many people would nominate Jurassic Park instead, but the first half is too monotonously expository. Not so The Andromeda Strain, in which Wise shrewdly uses a double dramatic strategy.

On the one hand, he gives us a wealth of authentic-seeming details, from architecture to gadgets to uniforms. Some people, such as critic Pauline Kael, accuse Wise of having gone to fanatical lengths in his quest for verisimilitude. A hack editor would have chopped out the many “boring” parts in which the various apparatus are described, but that would have sabotaged the all-essential realism. Plus producer Wise has the final say in those matters, even as director Wise knows how to give visual punch even to blank walls and relentlessly claustrophobic space. He employs some striking cinematographic effects, such as a judicious use of split screen. For me, this provides just enough conspicuous – but never gratuitous – artisty. The plot may have seemed tailor-made for TV, but Wise’s vision is genuinely cinematic.

Bringing the film to life is one of Wise’s best, although not well-known, ensemble casts: Arthur Hill, David Wayne, James Olson, Kate Reid, and Paula Kelly. There are no star turns, but every actor gets a chance to shine at least a few times – but always within the reality of their character and the story. And as the pressure builds, and their nerves fray ever more quickly, what will happen between them becomes as suspenseful as what will happen with the mutating virus.

Although I’ve seen this film several times, including recently – and have always known how it ends (I’d read the novel beforehand) – Wise’s brilliant work as a filmmaker keeps it consistently gripping. This is a taut, edge-of-your-seat, classic thriller which – although some of the technology may be dated – still seems, horrifyingly, like it could happen tomorrow.

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Robert Wise

Robert Wise’s Complete Filmography

Here are all of Robert Wise’s credits arranged chronologically, with genres noted, from the dozen films he edited to the forty films he directed; after 1958 he often produced them too. In addition to the popularity of his work, Mr. Wise has also received dozens of awards and nominations, including several Oscars and the American Film Institute’s 1998 Life Achievement Award.

1939–1943 — Editor (each film’s director follows title)

  • 1939
    • Bachelor Mother (Garson Kanin) — Comedy — editor
    • Fifth Avenue Girl (Gregory La Cava) — Comedy — editor
    • The Hunchback of Notre Dame (William Dieterle) — Historical Drama — editor
  • 1940
    • Dance, Girl, Dance (Dorothy Arzner) — Musical — editor
    • My Favorite Wife (Garson Kanin) — Comedy — editor
  • 1941
    • Citizen Kane (Orson Welles) — Drama — editor
    • The Devil and Daniel Webster (aka All That Money Can Buy) (William Dieterle) — Fantasy — editor
  • 1942
    • The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles) — Drama — editor
    • Seven Days’ Leave (Tim Whelan) — Musical Comedy — editor
  • 1943
    • Bombardier (Richard Wallace) — Action-Adventure / War — editor
    • The Fallen Sparrow (Richard Wallace) — Suspense — editor
    • The Iron Major (Ray Enright) — Sports / Biography — editor

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1944–1958 — Director

  • 1944
    • The Curse of the Cat People (co-director Gunther von Fritsch) — Fantasy — director
    • Mademoiselle Fifi — Historical Drama — director
  • 1945
    • The Body Snatcher — Suspense / Horror — director
  • 1946
    • Criminal Court — Suspense — director
    • A Game of Death — Action-Adventure (remake of The Most Dangerous Game) — director
  • 1947
  • 1948
    • Blood on the Moon — Western — director
    • Mystery in Mexico — Suspense — director
  • 1949
  • 1950
    • Three Secrets — Drama — director
    • Two Flags West — Western — director
  • 1951
  • 1952
    • The Captive City — Suspense — director
    • Something for the Birds — Comedy — director
  • 1953
    • The Desert Rats — Action-Adventure / War — director
    • Destination Gobi — Action-Adventure / War — director
    • So Big — Drama — director
  • 1954
    • Executive Suite — Drama — director
  • 1955
    • Helen of Troy — Historical Drama — director
  • 1956
    • Somebody Up There Likes Me — Sports / Biography — director
    • Tribute to a Bad Man — Western — director
  • 1957
    • This Could Be the Night — Musical Comedy — director
    • Until They Sail — Drama / War — director
  • 1958

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1959–2000 — Director & Often Producer

  • 1959
  • 1961
    • West Side Story (co-director Jerome Robbins) — Musical Drama — director, producer
  • 1962
    • Two For the Seesaw — Comedy / Drama — director
  • 1963
  • 1965
  • 1966
    • The Sand Pebbles — Action-Adventure / War — director, producer
  • 1968
    • Star! — Musical / Biography — director, producer
  • 1971
  • 1973
    • Two People — Drama — director, producer
  • 1975
    • The Hindenburg — Action-Adventure — director, producer
  • 1977
    • Audrey Rose — Horror — director
  • 1979
    • Star Trek: The Motion Picture — Science Fiction — director
  • 1989
    • Rooftops — Musical — director
  • 2000
    • A Storm in Summer (TV) — Drama — director
Jim's Film Website

Posted March 8, 2014 / Revised April 12, 2021

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