The Movie Waffler Beyond <i>THE SOUND OF MUSIC</i>: 10 more essential movies from director Robert Wise | The Movie Waffler

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Beyond THE SOUND OF MUSIC: 10 more essential movies from director Robert Wise

We looked at Robert Wise's work on The Sound of Music here. Now we go beyond his most famous movie to look at 10 more films you need to see from the director.


Words by Eric Hillis

The Sound of Music earned its director, Robert Wise, an Academy Award for Best Director, the second such award received by Wise, following a statuette for helming 1961’s West Side Story. As a recipient of more than one Oscar for directing, Wise is a member of an elite club, standing alongside such acclaimed filmmakers as Billy Wilder, John Ford and Steven Spielberg, yet he’s rarely spoken of with the same reverence afforded to the above.
Perhaps Wise’s versatility means he can’t be easily pigeon-holed; this may explain why he’s been somewhat overlooked whenever the contentious subject of the auteur theory is raised. In a directorial career that ran from 1942 to 2000, Wise worked in close to every genre imaginable, making it difficult to associate him with any particular discipline. While his two most famous works are musicals (The Sound of Music and West Side Story), Wise gave us some of the finest entries in the horror (The Haunting, Curse of the Cat People), war (Run Silent Run Deep, The Sand Pebbles), science fiction (The Day the Earth Stood Still, Star Trek: The Motion Picture), western (Tribute to a Bad Man, Blood on the Moon) and film noir (The Set-Up, The Captive City) genres. Because of this range, it would be all too easy to consider Wise as little more than a very talented journeyman - but what a journey! 
Another possibility as to why Wise hasn't received the critical recognition he deserves could be down to a matter of timing. The peak of his career spanned the '50s and '60s, meaning Wise arrived too late to be considered part of 'Classic' Hollywood, yet too early for the 'New Hollywood' movement of the '70s.
Wise's Hollywood career began in the editing department at RKO, where he cut and spliced what many critics consider cinema's greatest achievement, Orson Welles' 1941 feature debut Citizen Kane. Welles retained Wise's editing services for his troubled sophomore outing, the following year's The Magnificent Ambersons. The RKO studio heads were unhappy with the cut Welles delivered, and asked Wise to not only significantly trim its running time, but to re-shoot the movie's ending. Thus Wise's directorial career began in controversial circumstances. 
While Welles may not have been too happy with the situation, RKO were impressed enough to award Wise with the opportunity to direct his own feature, the 1944 Cat People sequel, Curse of the Cat People (the film's original director, Gunther Von Fritsch, having been kicked off the project after falling behind schedule). Producer Val Lewton was so happy with the movie Wise delivered, he kept him on for two more projects: 1944’s Guy de Maupassant adaptation, Mademoiselle Fifi, and  the 1945 Boris Karloff chiller, The Body Snatcher. The editing bench now left behind him, Wise never looked back, and went on to establish a prolific directorial career over the next six decades.
If all you know of his work is The Sound of Music, here are 10 more essential Robert Wise movies you owe it to yourself to see.

The Curse of the Cat People (1944)
During the '40s, the name of RKO producer Val Lewton became synonymous with a unique brand of horror, one that favored atmosphere over cheap shocks. Lewton's 1942 production, Cat People, helmed by Jacques Tourneur, was a huge hit for RKO, a studio that badly needed one at the time, and so a sequel was commissioned. 
While Cat People was an out and out horror, this sequel strays further into the realm of fairy tale fantasy, focusing on a young girl who conjures up the spirit of Simone Simon's 'Cat Woman' from the original film. Wise did a fantastic job of conveying childlike wonder through his visuals, but the film was a flop, with audiences expecting more traditional horror fare from the movie. Now, however, many critics consider it superior to Tourneur's original, and its influence can be seen in films like 1973's The Spirit of the Beehive and 2006's Pan's Labyrinth.

The Set-Up (1949)
Its premise - Robert Ryan's boxer is asked to take a dive - might be as clich├ęd as they come, but The Set-Up is brought thrillingly to life in its execution. 
In the late '40s, inspired by the Italian Neo-Realist movement, low budget Hollywood productions began to strive for more realism, shooting on location rather than on custom built sets. With The Set-Up, Wise added a further layer of verisimilitude by playing out its narrative in real time and shunning a musical score. The movie's fight scenes are still impressive today, and director Martin Scorsese credits The Set-Up as one of the chief inspirations for Raging Bull's ring action, even teaming up with Wise to record a commentary for the movie's DVD release. 
Boxing and poetry don't often go hand in hand (Muhammad Ali’s lyrical wizardry excepted), but The Set-Up is based on a 1928 poem by Joseph Moncure March.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
With cold war paranoia at its height, the 50s saw an outbreak of lurid sci-fi tales of aliens coming from far off worlds to destroy us. With The Day the Earth Stood Still, Wise gave us one of the earliest installments of this fad, but his aliens were benevolent, bringing a warning to mankind that if we carried on our violent path we would face destruction. The movie set the template for the next decade of sci-fi cinema with its giant indestructible robot, trigger happy military types and flying saucers, but its greatest contribution to the genre is arguably its soundtrack. Using the then new and experimental instrument the Theremin, Bernard Herrmann delivered a score that sounded like nothing before, but was quickly aped, though never as successfully, by a hundred B-Movie producers over the following decade.

Run Silent Run Deep (1958)
Since World War II, we've had numerous submarine set dramas, but Wise's 1958 entry in the sub (no pun intended) genre is the best of them all. Despite its larger wartime scope, the film is essentially a battle of wits between two men - Clarke Gable's submarine caption, whose thirst for vengeance against a Japanese sub is over-clouding his judgment, and Burt Lancaster's rational first officer. The sparks fly in a gripping wartime riff on Moby Dick, and the film was all but remade as 1995's Crimson Tide, with Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington in practically carbon copy roles.

West Side Story (1961)
Wise picked up the first of his two Best Director Awards (shared with choreographer Jerome Robbins) for what would quickly become one of America's most beloved musicals. Opening with a series of atmospheric birds-eye shots of urban New York, Wise zooms down to street level to introduce us to a fantasy world of two rival warring gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, as graceful on their feet as they are blunt with their fists. West Side Story is a stunning achievement of choreography between dancer and camera, with Wise proving himself the equal of more established musical directors like Vincente Minnelli and Stanley Donen. Hollywood spectacle cinema at its finest.

The Haunting (1963)
Having begun his directorial career with Val Lewton's horrors, Wise avoided the genre for two decades before delivering arguably the greatest haunted house tale in cinema history. Wise re-teamed with West Side Story's star Russ Tamblyn, but the two movies couldn't be more different, a perfect example of Wise's chameleon like ability to embrace any subject. No gimmickry is employed here by Wise, who creates a deeply unsettling atmosphere through camera movement, editing and sound. Every haunted house flick to arrive in its wake owes The Haunting a large debt, and it was disastrously remade in 1999. 

The Sand Pebbles (1966)
Following the success of The Sound of Music, Wise undertook the logistically taxing job of directing a large scale adaptation of Richard McKenna's novel, a project he had been attempting to get off the ground for some time. The movie stars Steve McQueen and an American-accented Richard Attenborough as crew members of a US Navy gunboat patrolling the Yangtze river in 1926. Shot on location, it features the sort of grueling, analog filmmaking Hollywood no longer indulges in, and plays out like a more narratively sound (and far less pretentious) Apocalypse Now. Despite its '20s setting, it's impossible not to think of Vietnam when watching the movie now.

The Andromeda Strain (1971)
In today's world of Ebola scares and biological warfare, Wise's 1971 thriller feels a lot more plausible now than at the time of its release. Adapted from Michael Crichton's debut novel, The Andromeda Strain features a race against time to stop a virus from outer space taking hold on Earth and wiping out the planet's population. It's the sort of premise made popular at the time by ABC's Movie of the Week series, but Wise turns it into a tense, cinematic experience. The employment of split-screen to juggle plot strands was surely an influence on the creators of TV's 24.

Audrey Rose (1977)
Late in his career, Wise returned to his Lewton-esque roots with this adaptation of Frank De Felitta's novel. Anthony Hopkins is at turns both melancholic and creepy as an obsessed man who believes young Susan Swift is the reincarnation of his dead daughter. Upon its release, critics unfairly, and unfavorably, compared Audrey Rose to The Exorcist, but it has more in common with the movies Wise directed for Lewton in the infancy of his career, favoring a palpable sense of dread - one that runs throughout the film - over cheap effects-based shocks and jump scares.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
The last major studio picture of his stellar career, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is best filed under 'triumphant failure.' Trek's first big screen installment suffers from an all too humorless script that's short of the thrills fans of the TV show expected, but Wise uses all his experience to give the film a sweeping widescreen grandeur, leaving the cramped and wobbly sets of the small screen well and truly behind. Everything that works about this troublesome film is down to Wise, but sadly the poor reception practically finished him as a Hollywood director.