When You Get Really Close to a Movie Screen, Film Emulsion Looks like…
Boiling Sand
“The Executive Suite Set Up Is So Big, I Want to Live in a House on Telegraph Hill Until They Sail”

This post is part of the Robert Wise Blog-a-Thon that Josh at the Octopus Cinema blogsite is hosting during the first week of September.


I’ve had a long time to think about how to articulate my admiration for Robert Wise:  I worked in the same building as Wise when I got my first temp job in L.A. and thought so many times of the elevator-speech I’d give if I ever ran into him.

The speech was hard to compose:  how to pick a theme, a moment, a genre from the most total body of work ever accumulated by a movie director?  For me, there was no way to break the ice by mentioning one work I particularly admired.  As opposed to auteurs for whom you appreciate how they hit a certain hot spot every time, with Wise you’re grateful for the flat-out abundance of full-spectrum cinema moments.

I think one reason Robert Wise is not venerated as he should be is that the vocabulary that describes his artistic legacy (“universal”, “unobtrusive”, “sturdy”, “varied”) usually denotes a dilution of talent.  The qualities of Wise are the same as those of the most gifted actors of cinema:  the ones who could equally excel at Shakespearean tragedy, slapstick, song-and-dance, etc.  Those actors are called consummate artists, while a movie man who consistently delivers top-of-the-line epics, film noirs, sci-fi, and women’s pictures is called a workhorse or gun for hire.  In classic and post-classic Hollywood some guys made Westerns, some made musicals, but Robert Wise didn’t ‘make’, he ‘was.’  He was — purely, professionally and sincerely — a film director.

Take for example the three films he made with the same actress, Patricia Neal, within a two year period:  THREE SECRETS (1950), THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951), and SOMETHING FOR THE BIRDS (1952).  The first was a ‘women’s picture’ of three women who gave their babies up for adoption; the second was pioneering science fiction; the last was a surprisingly contemporary comedy about environmentalists fighting an energy company’s lobbying machine in Washington.  In watching these, there’s no sense that his dedication vacillated from project to project:  all are scrupulously planned, intelligently thought out, professionally crafted, giving the audience a unique emotional experience in each film.  He never was clueless as to how to approach a movie; he always was on top of his game — more importantly he was committed with his artistic gifts, never directing a movie (as Abel Gance called it) “with his eyes closed.” Examine this sublime body of work and you’ll see that he never threw the audience a generic, “couldn’t-think-of-anything-better” shot.

As a creative in the Industry, he did have signature talents:  like the people who populate the films of non-writing auteur George Cukor, his characters are self-possessed and self-directed.  Some characters may come to unhappy endings but are not imagined as victims because in Wise’s films, characters manifest a will to go forward with their lives.  Persons and objects are balanced in his shots.  In non-musical sequences, Wise’s characters are not placed in pared-down environments where gestures and blocking sculpt the space but are situated within a utilitarian universe of objects — objects that function for characters but never cross the line of importance (as with some directors) where they signify or symbolize or fetishize. 

I did finally see Robert Wise around 1981 at a screening of THE HAUNTING in a revival theatre around the corner from MacArthur Park in downtown L.A.  He did Q&A after the show. The guy introducing Wise started to go down the list of his films, but when he got to Wise’s most recent work, STAR TREK:  THE MOTION PICTURE, a smartass fanboy in front of me made a very audible snarky sound.  I couldn’t believe it:  after sitting through THE HAUNTING, how can you feel nothing but awe for a man who made such an intense, effective film?  But Wise blew it off:  he had four Oscars, so what did he care?

If I had to choose one movie by Robert Wise, it would be TWO FOR THE SEESAW. I don’t choose it because I think it’s his “best” or because it’s my “favorite” — but because his talents on that film created a rite of passage for me.  The Saturday night I sat down and watched this movie on TV as a pre-adolescent was my introduction to the world of Adult Cinema.  Before TWO FOR THE SEESAW my movie tastes ran towards James Bond or Godzilla, but that all changed the night I saw this.  Wise’s images (burnished by Ted McCord’s cinematography), his pacing, his grounding of actors in a location, all helped guide me through my first movie that had no monsters, no rayguns.  Despite the fact I barely knew that sexual relationships existed, I actually understood where the characters were coming from, cared about them, and felt sad for them at the end.  Robert Wise taught me that watching movies could be a lot more than waiting around for something cool to happen onscreen.  I learned how to read a character’s face and understand pauses.  I saw a movie’s texture for the first time.  I noticed the film’s ordinary things — a bedside lamp, a hat on a table — and saw them as fragments of a larger vision on the screen.  Through Robert Wise’s lucid craft, I began to mature.

Doug / PoMo Joan

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1 Comment to ““The Executive Suite Set Up Is So Big, I Want to Live in a House on Telegraph Hill Until They Sail””

  1. Joshua W says:

    Great post, and Two for the Seesaw is incredibly powerful. I’ve never understood the derision it’s received, but reading your story I’m a little more certain that my high opinion of it is justified.

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