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From Citizen Kane to The Sound of Music (And Beyond)

You won't find Robert Wise on many lists of the greatest directors, but he's given cinema some of its most memorable moments, stories and images: from singing nuns to giant robots, from knife-fighting dancers to the most sinister of haunted houses and a space probe coming home. From his early work as a film editor for William Dieterle and Orson Welles, to his big-budget 1960s heyday, to the 21st century, his 70 year long career encompasses much of the history of Hollywood.

Wise has turned his hand to almost every genre of cinema: horror, science fiction, musicals, crime, war, western, historical epic. No matter your taste in cinema, it's almost certain you like one of his, whether it's The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Sound of Music, West Side Story, The Andromeda Strain, The Haunting or Somebody Up There Likes Me.


Wise was born on September 10, 1914 in Winchester, Indiana, USA, and grew up in the small town of Connersville, Indiana.

Aged 19 he went out to Hollywood where his older brother worked in RKO's property department. With no vacancies in property, Robert Wise got work at their sound department in 1933, before advancing to become a film editor. In that capacity he worked on such classics as William Dieterle's The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), Garson Kanin's My Favorite Wife (1940), Dieterle's The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), and for Orson Welles, Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942).

The careful, conscientious Wise was impressed but also dismayed by Welles, his junior by 6 months. Wise described:

He could one moment be guilty of behaviour that was so outrageous as to make you want to tell him to go to hell and walk off the picture. And before you could do it, he would come up with some idea so brilliant it would literally have your mouth gaping open. (Thompson 1996, p 184)
Despite his misgivings, Welles allowed the young Wise, along with the rest of Kane's crew, to greatly extend their craft, and Wise gained an Oscar nomination for editing.

Still for Welles, he was put in charge of post-production on The Magnificent Ambersons when Welles headed to Rio de Janeiro on the first of his quixotic film-making quests. Wise was left to follow Welles's instructions while fighting against a growing feeling in the studio that the movie was too long, slow and depressing. Eventually with the absent Welles not getting involved, Wise had to follow the studio bosses' instructions, and he directed a new scene between Georgie and his mother for the reworked, heavily truncated version that was finally released.

First directing work

Soon after, he was able to progress to directing whole pictures, mainly horror and crime B movies. Producer Val Lewton gave him his first directing work with The Curse of the Cat People (1944), a loosely related sequel to Jacques Tourneur's 1942 Cat People, when the original director was falling behind deadlines. Wise also directed Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi in The Body Snatcher (1945), based on Robert Louis Stevenson's tale of grave-robbers and anatomists, and helmed The Game of Death (1945), a poor version of much-filmed people-hunting story The Most Dangerous Game. As well as these, he produced some wartime propaganda with the patriotic French tale Mademoiselle Fifi (1944).

His crime melodrama Born To Kill (1947) starring Laurence Tierney and Claire Trevor is highly praised by critic David Thompson (Thompson 1994 p817), and is perhaps his first really good movie. He followed it up with more low-budget mysteries and thrillers until in 1949 he directed The Set-Up. This story of a boxer who is told by mob bosses to throw a fight but instead decides to win and goes on the run is widely rated a classic, although its quality is due more to Robert Ryan's outstanding central performance than Wise's workmanlike direction.

The 1950s

1951 saw another notable picture from Wise, the much-loved science fiction story The Day The Earth Stood Still. This has aged better than many films from the era, thanks to special effects including a life-size flying saucer replica, and has an interestingly pro-alien plot. But it lacks the excitement of something like Don Siegel's brilliantly paranoid Invasion of the Body Snatchers; it's ironic that a director who showed such skill at horror movies is responsible for two of the nicest, most benevolent extra-terrestrials in film.

He followed that with a series of often unmemorable but bigger pictures: comedies (Something for the Birds, 1952), war movies (The Desert Rats with Richard Burton in 1953, Run Silent Run Deep starring Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster in 1958), crime (Odds Against Tomorrow, 1959, reuniting him with Ryan playing a racist veteran forced into partnership with Harry Belafonte), western (Two Flags West, 1950), epic (Helen of Troy, 1956) and melodrama (So Big, 1953, and Executive Suite, 1954).

I Want To Live! (1958) is based on a true story of Barbara Graham, an ex-prostitute sentenced to death in the gas chamber. It is typical Wise in that it draws much of its strength from the central performance by Susan Hayward, while Wise's direction is efficient, allowing her space to emote, and concerned to show the truth about capital punishment rather than to preach. However, the film is also somewhat typical of Wise in its love of melodrama.

Like I Want To Live!, many of his films reflect Wise's essentially liberal politics, in their treatment of topics such as race, the death penalty, the nature of modern capitalism, and world peace and intergalactic understanding (the War Department refused to lend him tanks for The Day the Earth Stood Still, and he had to borrow them from the Virginian National Guard (Rausch, p1)). He started out wanting to be a journalist (Kreisler p5), and his films show a similar desire to both tell a story and reveal the issues behind the story.

The other film of note from this period is Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), reckoned one of the best boxing movies of all time, with Paul Newman never better as real-life boxer Rocky Graziano. With gorgeous black-and-white photography and a real bleakness in the early poverty scenes to balance the boxer's later success, it set the template for movies like Raging Bull and went a long way to making Newman a star.

The 1960s

In the early 1960s, Robert Wise's career really changed. He had started producing as well as directing as early as 1953, with Return To Paradise, but from Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) he was in charge of most of his pictures. With that added power, and increased Hollywood standing, he was elevated into the noble ranks of Academy Award-winning directors with West Side Story (1961), codirected with theatrical director Jerome Robbins. Based on Leonard Bernstein's musical, one of the finest works of musical theatre of the century, the film retells Romeo and Juliet in the streets of New York with choreographed fights and singing gang members.

From the opening credits (there aren't any images, just Bernstein's overture) onwards, the film has become a classic and a popular favourite. It's attacked by some for its lack of realism - but it's a musical, and those charges are unfair at least for the duration of Gee, Officer Krupke, one of the funniest songs on film. Wise's direction is striking and confident: he's not afraid to keep things stylised, presenting a highly memorable version of a New York of fire escapes, brownstones and empty yards, and he handled the song and dance numbers effortlessly when Robbins was forced to quit midway through filming.

He followed this with a return to black and white in one of the classics of horror, The Haunting (1953). Its set-up: a haunted house, a team of psychic investigators, and their attempt to spend a night there. Perhaps remembering the Cat People movies all those years ago, Wise manages an atmosphere of uncertainty and angst that relies on implication, not monster suits or blood and guts. In truth, the film is a little too silly at times and too uneven to be a really great picture, but compared to the Jan De Bont remake (1999) its many qualities, and Wise's sly direction, are readily apparent.

Next came the big one, one of the most popular movies ever made, a story of a widowed father who won't allow his children to sing, that is played out against the backdrop of Nazism descending over Europe. The Sound of Music (1965) is one of those films that are almost beyond criticism. Admittedly, it is far too long, almost two separate movies stuck together. Oscar Hammerstein's lyrics have never been worse (which is saying something), or Richard Rodgers's music more saccharine. And, in contrast to the many projects he had originated and researched, Wise only got to direct by chance when the production of his planned film The Sand Pebbles was suspended and first-choice director William Wyler squabbled with the studio.

But Julie Andrews has never been better better: you can understand why all the other nuns hate her, but she's still a vivid, life-enhancing figure in the children's lives. And like all the great children's stories, it's not afraid to touch on darkness: the way grief forces Captain von Trapp to suspend his own happiness and deny that of his children, only to be awakened by Julie Andrews's Maria and threatened again by Baroness Elsa (Eleanor Parker). This part of the story is compelling in its fairytale psychology, at least if you have the mentality of a small child (which many of us do).

He reunited with Julie Andrews for Star! in 1968, a biopic of actor Gertrude Lawrence, which proved a massive flop. That decade he also made the stagey Robert Mitchum/Shirley MacLaine drama Two For The See-Saw (1962) and 1920s military story The Sand Pebbles (1966), which Wise has said is in part a Vietnam War allegory (Kreisler p10) and which earned Steve McQueen his only Oscar nomination.

The 1970s and after

Following Star! it didn't seem like Wise would make the same sort of big pictures any more, and by the early 1970s the Hollywood musical was definitively dead (the oddity of Cabaret notwithstanding). He moved from prestige pictures back to the sort of films he had directed in the late 1940s and early 1950s, only with much larger budgets.

The Andromeda Strain is one of the best science fiction movies ever made, despite the fact that nothing much actually happens: it's devoid of spacecraft shooting each other or big chases and explosions, but like The Haunting is a masterpiece of tension. The story, about a group of scientists struggling to isolate an alien virus, was based on a novel by Michael Crichton; the writer has gone on to become the king of film science-based stories with the likes of Westworld, Jurassic Park, Disclosure, Coma, and Sphere, but The Andromeda Strain was the first time one of his books had been filmed. The result, thanks to Wise's slightly bizarre stylings and strong performances from a cast of minor actors remains gripping today.

He worked less in the 1970s, partly due to his presidency of the Directors' Guild of America from 1971 to 1975. There is little to say about Two People (1973), The Hindenberg (1975), which is one of the least memorable of the 1970s cycle of disaster movies, or reincarnation drama Audrey Rose (1977), which is reckoned to be overlong, dull, and over-styled but with a strong emotional core.

Next came his moment of infamy, Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). Wise's attempt to remake a silly adventure series in the style of 2001: A Space Oddysey was perhaps inevitably doomed to failure. Even so, its treatment by fans is somewhat unfair. Compared to later entries in the Trek franchise, it's a masterpiece, and as a piece of cinema it contains some wonderful moments, some very good-looking sequences, and a genuine sense of awe.

In the 1980s he worked even less, whilst still active in the movie industry and film education. It was perhaps in the spirit of education that he acted as executive producer on Emilio Estevez's directorial debut Wisdom. Aside from the curiosity value of an early Danny Elfman soundtrack, the tale of a modern-day Robin Hood has not earned a place in cinematic history.

Following that, Wise's only theatrical picture is Rooftops (1989), returning to West Side Story territory with a strange story about a group of children living in an abandoned water-tower in New York, who settle their differences through 'combat dance' (like capoeira with no touching), accompanied by a soundtrack from Dave Stewart of The Eurythmics. I can't find anybody who regards this as even a kitschy cult classic: the Time Out film guide reckons that the film's villains who try throwing the kids off the rooftops had the right idea (Pym p738).

A Storm in Summer (2000), a TV movie for Showtime, starred the ever-interesting Peter Falk as a New York deli-owner, alongside Nastassja Kinski and Andrew McCarthy. It was based on an old Rod Sterling screenplay with a non-science fiction theme; the film was critically acclaimed and nominated for 3 Emmys. He was in his mid-80s when it was made, and it is not surprising that his workrate is falling, but at time of writing he is still very much alive.

As well as the 5 Oscars listed below (including the Irving J. Thalberg Memorial Award for production), he has won numerous other prizes. These include the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award in 1998, the Directors' Guild of America President's Award in 2001, and the Milestone Award of the Producers' Guild of America in 2002. He gained 3 additional Oscar nominations, 3 nominations for Golden Globes and a nomination for the Golden Lion at Venice for Executive Suite.

Wise was President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from 1985 to 1988, and in recent years he has also taught extensively at the American Film Institute. In 1996 he made his acting debut in John Landis's The Stupids.

Auteur or hack?

So what do we make of the films of Robert Wise? Was he just a journeyman director who had the fortune to work with some great actors and great material? Can you trace a thread through all his pictures, see his authorial imprint, and the constant progression of the same themes through 50 years of movie-making?

Wise has said that the most important thing for him is storytelling, to which all else is secondary:

No matter whether it's a book, a play, or a screenplay, it must grab me up as a reader. Therefore, I take the place of the audience. That's a first consideration, does it grab me? Does it hold my interest? Does it make me want to turn the pages and go on and on? And then second thing that is very important to me is, what does it have to say? Not getting on the soapbox, but what kind of comment? You can't tell any kind of a story without having, between the lines, some kind of comment to make about man and his world, and its problems. (Kreisler p5)
That sets out what makes Wise's films so popular, and also what makes them so interesting. He has touched on topics from the death penalty to the rise of Nazism, from biological warfare to world peace, but he as always tried to tell a story, not just to declaim any particular political point of view.

Furthermore, he has never been one to stay still, churning out the same picture year after year. He has returned to themes: boxing, New York, psychological horror. He has reused actors sometimes, but he has often worked to find the best talent for the role, whether that means Paul Newman, Robert Ryan, Julie Andrews, or Susan Hayward. They have repaid him with performances that have elevated his films.

Wise is not a visionary director with an overarching worldview but he has two main strengths: a real sense of cinematic style, and a desire to get to the emotional heart of a story. He has made many horror and science fiction movies, but they have never been about the special effects. He is sometimes too taken with melodrama, but he is not afraid to work with abstract ideas. At the end of the day, you can attribute his success to his particular gift, which is the ability to engage with an audience, whether to terrify them in The Haunting, excite them in Somebody Up there Likes Me, or enchant them with The Sound of Music.

Oh, how do you judge a craftsman like our Robert? How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand?

Robert Wise died of heart failure in Los Angeles on September 14, 2005.

Filmography as director

  • 1944 - Curse of the Cat People
  • 1944 - Mademoiselle Fifi
  • 1945 - The Body Snatcher
  • 1945 - A Game of Death
  • 1946 - Criminal Court
  • 1947 - Born to Kill (aka Lady of Deceit)
  • 1948 - Mystery in Mexico
  • 1948 - Blood on the Moon
  • 1949 - The Set-Up
  • 1950 - Two Flags West
  • 1950 - Three Secrets
  • 1951 - The House on Telegraph Hill
  • 1951 - The Day the Earth Stood Still
  • 1952 - The Captive City
  • 1952 - Something for the Birds
  • 1953 - The Desert Rats
  • 1953 - Destination Gobi
  • 1953 - So Big
  • 1954 - Executive Suite
  • 1956 - Helen of Troy
  • 1956 - Tribute to a Bad Man
  • 1956 - Somebody Up there Likes Me
  • 1957 - This Could Be the Night
  • 1958 - Run Silent Run Deep
  • 1958 - I Want to Live!
  • 1959 - Odds Against Tomorrow
  • 1961 - West Side Story
  • 1962 - Two for the Seesaw
  • 1963 - The Haunting
  • 1965 - The Sound of Music
  • 1966 - The Sand Pebbles
  • 1968 - Star!
  • 1971 - The Andromeda Strain
  • 1973 - Two People
  • 1975 - The Hindenburg
  • 1977 - Audrey Rose
  • 1979 - Star Trek: The Motion Picture
  • 1989 - Rooftops
  • 2000 - A Storm in Summer (TV movie)


  • 1962 - Best Director (West Side Story)
  • 1962 - Best Picture (West Side Story)
  • 1966 - Best Director (The Sound of Music)
  • 1966 - Best Picture (The Sound of Music)
  • 1967 - Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award

Oscar Nominations

  • 1942 - Best Film Editing (Citizen Kane)
  • 1959 - Best Director (I Want To Live!)
  • 1967 - Best Picture (The Sand Pebbles)


  • DGA Magazine. "President's Award: Robert Wise". DGA Magazine. March 2001. http://www.dga.org/news/v25_6/feat_robertwise.php3 (August 9, 2003)
  • Internet Movie Database. http://www.imdb.com/ (August 9, 2003)
  • Harry Kreisler. "The Wise Touch: Conversations with Robert Wise". Conversations With History. Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley. http://globetrotter.berkeley.edu/conversations/Wise/wise-con0.html (August 9, 2003)
  • John Pym (editor). Time Out Film Guide. Sixth Edition. (London: Penguin. 1998.)
  • David Thompson. A Biographical Dictionary of Film. (London: Andre Deutsch. 1994.)
  • Andrew J Rausch. "This movie master is still busy after all these years". Bright Lights Film Journal. January 2002. http://www.brightlightsfilm.com/35/robertwise1.html (August 9, 2003)
  • David Thompson. Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles. (London: Little, Brown; New York: Alfred A Knopf, Inc, 1996.)

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