Directors Who Dominate: Robert Wise
You can’t tell a Robert Wise (1914-2005) picture by looking at it. You can’t tell by the themes. You can’t even get a hint from your own reactions. Some of his movies may be just up your alley, and some you may find intolerable. Wise was a chameleon. He not only moved between different filmic environments — sci-fi and musical, apocalyptic disaster and character study, horror, and adventure — with ease, he adopted their visual language and made it his own. If Wise disappeared into the films, foregoing the obvious signatures of an auteur like Kubrick‘s symmetry and Scorsese‘s tracking shots, it was an active disappearance. He framed his shots at distances and angles that made sense for the stories (and fit his budgets): close-in and steeply angled for a claustrophobic psychological thriller, vast 70-millimeter panoramas for a wartime epic.
Unlike a dilettante, who might have hopped between genres searching for a niche, Wise always seemed completely at home and unable to fail. By the middle of his career, seemingly every movie he helmed resonated with critics and audiences. The Academy gave him Best Director and Best Picture twice, and twice his films broke box office records.
Movie-lovers still love Wise. Flickcharters place four of his films in the global top 1000, and there are more worth seeing further down the list. Here are the top five Robert Wise movies according to the global chart:
1. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
Film historians and political historians alike point to The Day the Earth Stood Still as one of the most quintessential Cold War movies. Yet its overt subjects are not spies or missiles or submarines, but a UFO and a robot and a man from another planet. The space-man, Klaatu (Michael Rennie), and his robot bodyguard Gort have a message for Earth’s leaders, an urgent warning to put an end to violence lest the world be destroyed. Klaatu runs into ignorance and superstition and stubbornness among the myopic Earthlings, but his charisma and self-sacrifice (he is a thinly-disguised Christ figure) win over a wholesome suburban mother and son. A lot about the story is cheesy and predictable, but production elements like Bernard Herrmann’s theramin score and the simple design of Klaatu’s flying saucer have become iconic. The tone Wise strikes, in-the-know yet apprehensive, allows him to articulate the apocalyptic fears of the era while situating them in a larger spatial and temporal context.
- Global rank: 356
- Wins 45% of matchups
- 4 users have it at #1
- 135 users have it in their top 20
2. The Haunting (1963)
The phrase “psychological horror” is a redundancy. Yes, there are horror movies that foreground shock and gore at the expense of creepy characterizations. But even those are only compelling and frightening if they get into your head, if they make you want to turn on the lights and look over your shoulder for Michael Myers. In any case, the phrase “psychological horror” exists, and it exists because of movies like The Haunting. It’s the kind of film where not much happens, and you certainly don’t see anything, but by the climax the tension has become so unbearable that you may jump at nothing. Wise deftly manages his ensemble cast: the not-quite-normal protagonist (Julie Harris), the lesbian spiritualist (Claire Bloom), the professor (Richard Johnson), the non-believer (Russ Tamblyn). Directing choices create the film’s atmosphere, with the most remarkable sequence coming early on, as Bloom and Harris cling to each other in a room that seems to breathe in and out. Wise draws us in with zooms and odd angles that help make the viewing space feel almost as haunted.
- Global rank: 638
- Wins 56% of matchups
- 1 users have it at #1
- 32 users have it in their top 20
3. The Sound of Music (1965)
The Sound of Music has remarkable interior and exterior visuals, all captured on 70-mm super-widescreen film. Most exteriors were shot in Salzburg, Austria; the cast went there as well, but also spent a lot of time in studios. Many directors would have dispatched a second unit to handle the overseas part of the production, but not Wise. He was well-traveled, often did his own location scouting, and managed the Salzburg scenes as well as the studio scenes. There is no credited second unit director on The Sound of Music, which is unusual for a production of such scale, but the person quietly filling that role was Maurice Zuberano. Zuberano, who storyboarded as well, also worked with Wise on the next two films on this list, suggesting a strong partnership comparable to that which many auteurs enjoy with their cinematographers. Wise’s gorgeous adaptation of the Rogers & Hammerstein stage musical smashed all box office records, won a load of awards, and is lauded by the American Film Institute as the 40th greatest American movie ever made.
- Global rank: 744
- Wins 38 % of matchups
- 314 users have it at #1
- 5630 users have it in their top 20
4. West Side Story (1961)
By the time he did The Sound of Music, Wise was an old hand at movie musicals. Four years earlier he had headed up the film version of Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. Yet Wise had no experience directing Broadway-style song and dance numbers, so Jerome Robbins, director of the stage play, came in to direct those key scenes. Robbins and Wise share the by-line for West Side Story, but Robbins did not enjoy working on the movie and was released before shooting wrapped. Wise, acting also as producer, exerted a great deal of control over aspects like casting, selecting, for example, the young Russ Tamblyn (see The Haunting above) for the part of the Jets gang leader. (Wise’s tendency to take charge of every aspect of a production would serve him well in later years when he resisted Ted Turner’s attempt to colorize The Haunting.) The place West Side Story occupies in film history is hardly less than The Sound of Music‘s; both 70-mm classics received multiple Oscars and are preserved in the National Film Registry.
- Global rank: 785
- Wins 39% of matchups
- 17 users have it at #1
- 354 users have it in their top 20
5. Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
The first feature-length Star Trek film occupies a curious place in the history of that franchise. It is widely criticized even by some Trekkies as a ponderous pastiche of ideas left over from the 1960s television show. As director, Wise was returning to pure science fiction for the first time since 1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still, while creative mastermind Gene Roddenberry had been trying for several years to get a new Star Trek project off the ground. In the meantime, something had changed about the genre: Star Wars (1977) had redefined space — vast, empty space — as a place packed with action and excitement. By 1979, even Star Trek fans, accustomed to cerebral sci-fi storytelling, were now bored by Wise’s Kubrick-esque journey through ambient light and sound. To be fair, it’s no 2001: A Space Odyssey; the womb and birth symbolism in The Motion Picture is too obvious, and the special effects pale next to Star Wars. Though The Motion Picture set a new record for a weekend box office take, Wise was disappointed by the finished product. A careful manager of his films right up to the end, he oversaw an improved director’s cut edition of The Motion Picture in 2001, four years before his death at the age of 91.
- Global rank: 1807
- Wins 34% of matchups
- 4 users have it at #1
- 103 users have it in their top 20
People looking to delve deeper into Wise’s filmography should move to the next entry on his global chart, 1949‘s The Set-Up, a boxing movie, and noir that plays with chronology. Much further down the list but still essential is Run Silent, Run Deep (1958), a submarine movie classic starring Burt Lancaster and, of all people, Don Rickles.
The diversity of Wise’s output is matched by few directors, and even fewer have rivaled his critical and box office successes. His recurring appearance in the Flickchart top 1000 speaks to the enduring power of his work and makes him one of our Directors who Dominate.