2020 Summer Reading Challenge: Robert Wise: The Motion Pictures (Revised Edition, 2020) J. R. Jordan
Updated: Jul 29
Robert Wise: The Motion Pictures (Revised Edition, 2020) J. R. Jordan
Paperback, 480 pages
Includes Table of Contents, Foreword (Gavin MacLeod), Introduction (Douglas E. Wise), photos, Bibliography, Index
(I was provided a copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review.)
Most classic movie fans remember Robert Wise (1914-2005) primarily as the director of two blockbuster classics, West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965), but they may not realize that Wise also directed The Set-Up (1949), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Run Silent, Run Deep (1958), The Sand Pebbles (1966), The Andromeda Strain (1971), Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), and many, many others. Oh, and Wise also edited a little film you may have heard about called Citizen Kane (1941). Other than Michael Curtiz, it would be difficult to name another director not generally considered an auteur who made so many good (and several great) pictures in so many different genres. Wise’s filmography certainly deserves a comprehensive treatment. Thanks to J. R. Jordan, we have one.
With each chapter, Jordan examines all 40 of Wise’s directorial efforts including synopses, production notes, memories and anecdotes from cast and crew, and the audience/critical reception for each title. These chapters make for compelling reading, and Jordan often adds snatches of dialogue from the films to highlight character and thematic elements from each work.
All of this is wonderful, yet readers may feel they’re missing something. That something is a deeper, more comprehensive look into Robert Wise himself. Yet what we have to remember is that Robert Wise: The Motion Pictures is just that: an examination of Wise’s work, not a biography. The first chapter examining Wise’s first directorial effort, The Curse of the Cat People (1944), touches briefly on his employment at RKO, especially his work with Orson Welles on Citizen Kane (1941). It is here (and on Welles’s next film released the following year, The Magnificent Ambersons) that we learn of Wise’s uncompromising work ethic and total professionalism. After Gunther von Fritsch fell behind schedule directing The Curse of the Cat People, producer Val Lewton chose Wise to finish the film, and an astounding career was launched.
While the information in each chapter is quite good, I wanted to know more about Wise himself, his commitment to excellence, his drive and motivation and how all of those factors influenced his directorial decisions. We do learn in may cases of Wise’s respect for the script and source material, his professional demeanor on the set, and more. No one interviewed in the book (and perhaps in the entire motion picture industry) had anything negative to say about Wise. On page after page, cast and crew members consistently heap glowing praise upon Wise and his treatment of the people he worked with. (Gavin MacLeod’s foreword in particular is a tremendous, heartfelt tribute to the director.) Wise didn’t bring attention to himself, wasn’t involved in underhanded dealings or scandals, and never cut corners. Readers looking for salacious behind-the-scenes shenanigans will have to pick up a book on a different director. Again, this is not a biography, so most of what we learn about Wise is found in the films themselves.
Still, we’re faced with many general accounts of Wise that I wish had been more fleshed out. In preparation for The Set-Up (1949), Jordan tells the reader, “Wise spent some time in the dressing rooms and took note of how the fighters composed themselves prior to entering the ring. He also discerned the manner in which they returned, win or lose, and on October 13, 1948, a day that marked the beginning of principal photography, a confident Wise reported to the set to begin work on his ninth motion picture.” (p. 76) What exactly did Wise learn? How did it affect the way he looked at his characters, how he shot the film? Later in this chapter, Jordan provides some welcome information on several camera placement challenges and solutions, but follows this with general statements that could’ve used more elaboration, such as “Nevertheless, the production was not without its challenges. Rehearsals became necessary.” Perhaps Wise did not leave a wealth of notes or reflections on each film, but in many cases, I wished for more specifics.
However, the chapter on The House on Telegraph Hill (1951) is spectacular, delivering a good synopsis, dialogue from the film that gives insight to the characters, anecdotes from cast member Gordon Gebert, and a more in-depth look at Wise at work. Jordan also does a fine job of capturing Wise’s interest in eliciting an excellent performance from Valentina Cortese and developing the talent of the 10-year-old Gebert. The book is filled with many such chapters.
Once again, we have to remember that we’re here for the films themselves, and each title is treated with both admiration and respect, and for good reason: Wise is the extremely rare Hollywood director who was ready to take on any challenge, any project, any genre. His range is astounding, and so is his success rate. Readers will no doubt finish each chapter, adding yet another Robert Wise film to their watchlists. Although readers can easily go to online sources such as IMDb, it would have been nice if the book had included a list of Wise’s filmography with credits, production information, and running times.
Someone once said that a good documentary should make the viewer want to know more about its subject. The same can be said of a book chronicling a director’s work. Robert Wise: The Motion Pictures certainly does that, and at the same time celebrates one of cinema’s greatest talents. It is a valuable book that all fans of classic cinema will want to own.
NOTE: Robert Wise: The Motion Pictures is dedicated to J. R. Jordan's father, who passed away last week. Mr. Jordan's father was able to enjoy his son's book and its dedication in this revised edition prior to his passing.
This review is part of the 2020 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge. You can (and should!) sign up here and be a part of the challenge, telling others about the classic film books you're reading, and getting suggestions for your own reading. Enjoy!
Photo: BearManor Media, Out of the Past: A Classic Film Blog