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Book Review: "Robert Wise: The Motion Pictures" By Joe Jordan


For a film director with such an iconic resume, there’s a surprising scarcity of scholarly books devoted to Robert Wise, the man who directed such classics as "West Side Story" (1961), "The Haunting" (1963), “The Sound of Music” (1965), “The Curse of the Cat People” (1944), “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951), “The Sand Pebbles” (1966) and many other critical and commercial successes. To say nothing of his stature as the man who edited “Citizen Kane” (1941) and “The Magnificent Ambersons” (1942) before taking up decades-long residence in the director’s chair.

Wise brought a self-effacing approach to directing, one that never drew attention to itself. He may have had the most “invisible” style of all the major directors from Hollywood’s Golden Era, which no doubt helps explain why he never had the auteur imprimatur conferred upon him by French critics who swooned over Welles’ baroque visuals, Douglas Sirk’s melodramatic excess, and Howard Hawks’ male-bonding thematic.

The identifiable characteristics of a Wise film were subtler, if no less crucial: the ability to advance the narrative through visuals, seamless editing, an unfailing command of pace, the ability to draw consistent performances from his casts. His adaptability and mastery of all aspects of filmmaking helped him excel across every genre. Noir, sci-fi, horror, westerns, musicals, romances—Wise made outstanding films in each of these categories.

In what is surely good news for fans of Robert Wise and classic films in general, Joe Jordan, film historian and author of “Showmanship: The Cinema of William Castle,” has filled an important gap in film scholarship with his new book, “Robert Wise: The Motion Pictures.” As the title implies, this is not a biography, but an in-depth study of Wise’s films. The book’s length, 500 pages, testifies to the prodigious research Jordan conducted on his subject.

Jordan’s approach is rather unique. He provides an extended synopsis and assessment of each film, bookended by contextual information relating to pre- and post-production issues and interspersed with relevant dialog exchanges and copious film stills. These analytical synopses, for want of a better term, are so lengthy and detailed that readers are likely to find themselves running the films through their heads as Jordan provides his own running commentary on how Wise achieved certain effects through camera setups, staging of action, direction of actors, attention to sound, and so on. Even if one has an intimate familiarity with Wise’s films, Jordan continually surprises with his insight and observations, and makes one want to watch them all over again.

Another highlight of the book are the personal recollections from many of the actors and actresses who performed in Wise’s films. These oral histories, some of which run to several pages, are also deftly woven into the overall narrative. The contributors are an interesting bunch. None of them are superstars per se (not all are actors, either), and while some names are more familiar than others, all are extremely talented professionals who made significant contributions to Wise’s films. It’s refreshing to read fresh perspectives from personalities not often heard from. There’s an unassuming tone to each of their recollections, which is fitting, given the modest, self-effacing nature of the man they’re discussing. Their memories are informative and entertaining, all of them linked by the greatest respect for their subject.

Stunt man Jack Young recalls doubling for James Cagney on “Tribute to a Bad Man” (1956), and being impressed by the relaxed yet professional atmosphere on Wise’s set—a recurring claim made by everyone who worked on his films. Young offers a superbly concise description of Wise as “a good director who cracked a soft whip.” He also reveals some interesting facts about the nature of his profession in the 1940s and ’50s, when stunt men also served as stand-ins and lighting doubles for actors, a practice no longer allowed.

Neile Adams relates a revealing anecdote about her soon-to-be-husband Steve McQueen during an early morning location scene on “Somebody Up There Likes Me” (1956). McQueen, then an uncredited extra, hopped into leading lady Pier Angeli’s limousine to get out of the cold and started reading her newspaper. When Angeli’s husband, singer Vic Damone, told McQueen he couldn’t stay in his wife’s car, the young unknown actor responded with the attitude of the megastar he knew he would someday become. “Steve casually put down the newspaper and replied, ‘No shit?’ Then, without another word, he picked up the paper and resumed reading with no intention of leaving the limo.” Adams also has interesting things to say about the Taiwan location filming of “The Sand Pebbles” (1966).

Gavin MacLeod, who also appeared in “Pebbles,” describes the day he, Candice Bergen and Joe Di Reda hired a car to visit an old friend of his working as a Catholic nun in the country. “We … made arrangements for our driver to take us to the hospital, but he ran out of gas. And we suddenly found ourselves surrounded by Taiwanese soldiers. Their guns were pointed directly at us. We were subsequently placed in a holding area, and part of me figured it was the end.” Although nothing happened to them, an edict was subsequently issued preventing anyone from leaving the location without permission. (MacLeod also wrote the book’s heartfelt foreword.)

Actress and author Sandra de Bruin, who had her first film role in The Andromeda Strain (1971) and later established a close friendship with Wise, talks about his composure and control on the set. “As a director, Bob was tenacious, loyal, methodical, patient, and very detailed right down to his storyboards…. On the set, Bob was patient but insisted that everyone follow his direction. He would say to his performers, ‘Let’s just follow the storyboard and hit the marker.’ His editing background was very evident when he was directing actors.”

Similar remembrances come courtesy of Jacqueline White on “Mystery in Mexico” (1948), Billy Gray on “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951), Eddie Foy III on 1958’s “Run Silent, Run Deep,” George Chakiris on “West Side Story” (1961), Alan Oppenheimer on “The Star” (1968) and “The Hindenburg” (1975), Marsha Mason on “Audrey Rose” (1977) and Alan Dean Foster on “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” (1979), and about a half-dozen others.

Jordan has done an exceptional job of balancing the various components of his book into a cohesive and meaningful whole. Those familiar with Wise’s filmography will come away with an enhanced understanding and appreciation of his unique body of work. Film fans who may have seen only a few of Wise’s films will doubtless be intrigued to seek out more. It’s a safe bet that everyone who reads this book will come away impressed by Jordan’s passion for his subject, his prodigious scholarship and his ability to communicate in highly readable prose just what makes these films so special. “Robert Wise: The Motion Pictures” should become an essential addition to any self-respecting film library. It stands as a long-overdue testament to a director who exemplified on a consistent basis his clarity of vision, fidelity to story and respect for his audience.
Tags: 1961 film, books, reviews, robert wise

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