No ghost picture scared people more than The Haunting, with its doomed house where doors seem to buckle and bulge unnaturally from the inside. The opening of Sound of Music, as a helicopter sweeps down on Julie Andrews, in the Swiss Alps is a visual and musical triumph. Both landmark scenes were the work of one man: Robert Wise. Yet as monumental as they were these scenes were only a fraction of his output. J. R Jordan sets himself to survey all of Wise’s films. It is a massive task as in more than sixty years of ﬁlm making, Robert Wise made forty feature ﬁlms, in all types of genres, from science fiction through to horror; war through to film noir. Wise was highly versatile, being able to make any type of film – and do it well.
The book promises a lot, but the delivery is another thing. While the book focuses on the films, the biographical detail is just too scant. Wise’s upbringing is dispensed in one paragraph. The reader moves to the editing Citizen Kane is dishedout with the shortest of treatements. Other biographical details are also given short shrift. Robert Wise’s presidency of the guild is given highly superficial treatment. “In June of 1971, Wise was elected as the tenth president of the Directors Guild of America. (413) Wise’s service to the DGA was extraordinary. Jordan fails to mention one achievement during his entire term.
Among other things, Wise was also a founder and chair of the Special Projects Committee for more than a quarter of a century. When Wise was asked to name the Guild contribution of which he was most proud, he would state the Special Projects. In a profession focussed on the individual, he helped build a creative community that continues. As the DGA notes on it wesbite: “Before Special Projects, the DGA had no creative panels or conferences, no professional symposia, and few chances for colleagues to compare notes.” These Guild mainstays are a direct result of Wise’s dedication.” Again Jordan makes one reference to his role. (445)
So the focus is on the films he directed, not his life. The book is written by an enthusiast, who offers some straight forward plot descriptions of the cinema of Robert Wise. Occasionally, he lifts his gaze from the films to its background. In the case of The Haunting, Jordan looks at the original novel as well. He examines the theatrical origins of West Side Story (1961) in some detail. In the main, he simply provides a plot description.
What is omitted from the book is any sense of how Wise directed his films, or his general directorial approach, or even examples of how his directing worked. He barely mentions the impact of Val Lewton, a Russian-American novelist, film producer and screenwriter best known for a string of low-budget horror films he produced for RKO Pictures in the 1940s. Jordan does mention that Wise dedicated The Haunting to Lewton – twice. Lewton had a massive influence on Wise, and it would have been interesting to discuss how his ideas pervade Wise’s work. In Lewton’s films, it is what you do not see that causes fear – the sight of a monster in most horror films was always a letdown. Lewton and Wise use darkness to convey evil. Wise liked to work in black and white, partly for this reason.
His critical stature is not discussed at any length. For example, the impact of the film critic Andrew Sarris, who allocated Robert Wise to the “Strained Seriousness” category in the 1960s is ignored. This key critical verdict helped confine Wise to the margins of film studies. Jordan has little or nothing to say about this or any other school of criticism. Indeed, you will struggle to find the word ‘auteur,’ which is an odd omission for a book that focuses on a director. Jordan confines himself to newspaper reviews, rather than film critics.
Even putting critical discussion aside, iconic visual sequences such as the opening of Sound of Music (1965), or the savage distortion of the door in The Haunting (1963), cries out for some mention. What the reader is subjected to is a constant repeating of film plots. A minor exception is The Set-Up (1949), where there is at least a little discussion – all two sentences of it – of Wise’s directorial craft. This omission of any detailed discussion of Wise’s direction means the book has an aimless structure.
For example, The Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) is an underrated directorial achievement, and the conclusion is filmed brilliantly by Wise. Wise’s use of close-ups and set pieces is astonishing. You can see the sweat on the skin. Jordan could have guided the reader to its many strengths, but decides for a weak discussion: “The narrative, in short, contains many unforgettable scenes, but Wise’s depiction of the film’s beginning and end is especially noteworthy due to the similarities between the two.” (287)
Jordan could also benefit from employing a wider use of sources. Jordan has done some interviews, and they are scattered throughout the book. The interviews provide some insights, but even here, Jordan is just content to let them run, rather than edit them down for the main points, or provide context for their comments. The result is rambling recollections of Wise. Does the reader need to know from the actor Ralph Votrian that working with Robert Wise was great – three times in two pages? The conversation wanders onto Sandra Dee and her early death at 62.
Moreover, the prose needs the hand of a copywriter. Convoluted sentences such as this one on the novelist Shirley Jackson, scream out for editing: “Throughout her career, she frequently refused interviews, steadfastly believing that her work spoke for itself, and over the course of several decades, such a presumption has proved, rather continuously, to be undeniably correct.” (325)
Jordan could have used many other references to build up his book. While Wise is little studied, he has not been ignored. Jordan could have used some of the available sources. Richard C. Keenan’s The Films of Robert Wise, published in 2007, is a solid introduction to the director. Where Jordan is better than Keenan’s work is that his work attempts to cover all the films, including those he edited. Nonetheless, it is a clear lapse that Keenan’s work is not even mentioned in the bibliography. Jordan appears to have either ignored the book or be unaware of it. The underlying research is suspect, as there is no footnoting or discussion of competing claims.
Jordan has put together an introductory book of a still overlooked director. The most impressive aspect of Jordan’s book is that it highlights the incredible contribution of Wise, but it provides little else. If you are looking for an introduction to the films of Robert Wise, it is a weak starting point – at best.
The author provided a review copy of the book.