Wise, Robert

Wise, Robert

▪ American director and producer
born September 10, 1914, Winchester, Indiana, U.S.
died September 14, 2005, Los Angeles, California

      American movie director and producer whose work includes films of nearly every genre.

 Wise grew up in Connersville, Indiana, and in 1931 enrolled at Franklin College to study journalism, but the Depression curtailed his education. In 1933 he went to Hollywood and began working at RKO Studios (RKO Radio Pictures, Inc.) as a sound, music, and special effects editor. He was promoted to film editor in 1939 and coedited Orson Welles (Welles, Orson)'s masterpieces Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). Wise's goal, however, was to direct. While working as editor on the film The Curse of the Cat People (1944), he took over directorial duties when the director, Gunther von Fritsch, was dismissed. Wise went on to direct several more horror and suspense films, most notably The Body Snatcher (1945), which, like most of Wise's films in the genre, relies on understated psychological suspense rather than gratuitous gore and shock for its effect.

      By the late 1940s, Wise had gained a reputation for his insistence upon accuracy and realism. This concern was apparent in the western Blood on the Moon (1948), which featured an exceptionally realistic barroom brawl. With The Set-Up (1949), a grim film about gambling in the world of prizefighting, Wise had his first major critical success. In preparation for the film, Wise frequented shabby fight arenas to photograph and observe boxers and their fans. Shooting the film in real time—the 72-minute running time matches the amount of time that elapses in the film—also added to the sense of authenticity. Despite the later box-office blockbusters for which he is better known, many still consider The Set-Up to be Wise's finest film.

 Wise was well-established as a reliable and competent director by the 1950s. One of his best films of the decade was Executive Suite (1954), the chronicle of a cutthroat power struggle at a furniture company. Featuring a large cast and several subplots, the film was potentially unwieldy, but Wise's shrewd use of intercutting effectively unified it. Wise's other outstanding films of the 1950s include the science-fiction masterpiece The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), the war drama The Desert Rats (1953), the western Tribute to a Bad Man (1956), the biography of boxer Rocky Graziano Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), the submarine thriller Run Silent, Run Deep (1958), and the crime melodrama I Want to Live! (1958), best remembered for its Oscar-winning performance by Susan Hayward.

      In 1960 Wise was chosen, along with choreographer Jerome Robbins (Robbins, Jerome), to codirect the musical West Side Story (1961), even though he had never made a musical. The film was a tremendous critical and commercial success and received 10 Oscars, including best picture and best director. Wise returned to more familiar territory with The Haunting (1963), a suspenseful psychological thriller that has become a cult classic. Wise's greatest success was the screen adaptation of the Rodgers (Rodgers, Richard) and Hammerstein (Hammerstein, Oscar, II) musical The Sound of Music (1965). At the time, it was the most financially successful film in motion-picture history and won five Oscars, including best picture and Wise's second as best director.

      For the remainder of his career, Wise limited the number of films he directed. Notable efforts from his later years include The Sand Pebbles (1966), Star! (1968), The Andromeda Strain (1971), and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). He served as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from 1984 to 1987. Wise was the recipient of numerous awards including the Director's Guild D.W. Griffith Award (1988) and the American Film Institute's Lifetime Achievement Award (1998). At age 84 Wise returned to the director's chair for the first time in more than a decade for the television film A Storm in Summer (2000), starring Peter Falk and Andrew McCarthy.

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Universalium. 2010.

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