In the horror field, Robert Wise gave the world the (still) finest and scariest haunted house movie ever made, 1963's The Haunting. In 1977, he presented Audrey Rose, a sensitive horror picture blending courtroom drama and supernatural themes, a precursor to the similarly named and themed number #1 box office attraction from last weekend, The Exorcism of Emily Rose. William K. Everson, writing in Films in Review, Volume XXVIII, Number 6, June-July 1977, wrote that Wise's film was made "with such taste and pride in craftsmanship," and indeed, those could very well be the hallmarks and legacy of Mr. Wise.
Mr. Wise also gave the world a number of fine science fiction films, from The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) starring Michael Rennie and featuring Gort the Robot, to 1971's The Andromeda Strain, based on the novel by Michael Crichton, to the vastly underrated and superior Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979. A hallmark of all these films is their bent for realism; their concentration on technology; their absolute believability. Writing about The Andromeda Strain, a 1970s classic, critic and historian Jeff Rovin comments (in A Pictorial History of Science Fiction Films, Citadel Press, 1975, page 93) that Wise "didn't miss a trick," and noted that the film is "gripping, intelligent and frightening." This is how I describe the director's handiwork in one critical Andromeda Strain moment in my book, Horror Films of the 1970s (McFarland, 2002):
"The Andromeda Strain works so well as an indictment of man, and as a horror film, because Robert Wise is a splendid visual storyteller. Early in the film, there is a striking scene that establishes just how lethal Andromeda is. In their protective suits, Stone and Hall scan the carnage in Piedmont. These towns-people, cut down in mid-stride, are revealed dead in shot after disturbing shot. In fact, Wise provides a kind of rapid-fire montage of the carnage, showing corpse after corpse in a series of split screens. The searchers are depicted in the left frame, the dead in the right, and a kind of seer/seen dynamic is established. It is a striking and horrific scene that shows, straight-faced, how a new "bug" or virus could threaten our population."
In addition to editing two landmark Orson Welles films, Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Robert Wise has been celebrated for his work in the movie musical genre, in particular, his two blockbusters: West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965). In an age where the movie musical was losing its popularity, Wise re-ignited the moribund genre with increased naturalism, utilizing real locations (rather than studio lots...) to make the format feel more immediate and less theatrical or artificial. The efficacy of his technique is immediately apparent in West Side Story, with an overhead shot peering directly down into New York City and its landmarks, or in Sound of Music, where the camera swoops down below the clouds, onto a hill, to find Julie Andrews spinning and singing "the Hills are alive...."
Regarding the first famous shot of West Side Story, Robert Wise told interviewer Harry Kreisler at UC Berkley in 1998 that he "knew he had to deliver New York some way...And I started to wonder what the city would look like from a helicopter just straight down." What he discovered from that vantage point was a brilliant visualization, as I write in my new release from Applause, Singing a New Tune: The Re-Birth of the Modern Film Musical, From Evita to De-Lovely and Beyond:
"Wise's curiosity resulted in the film's famous opening sequence of New York's urban landscape, and served as the realistic preamble before a full-on leap into musical convention, with tough gang members strutting their stuff at street level. The first five minutes of the film are quite extraordinary as, for the first time in history, the musical format blends with graffiti, alleys, fire escapes and other settings that would not have been utilized in the 1930s...The effect is a total immersion in this new world."
The list of Robert Wise achievements just goes on and on. He also directed the riveting submarine drama Run Silent Run Deep (1954); he also has the distinction of being the only director who was able to grant a Star Trek movie a genuine sense of cinematic scope (remember that prologue in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, with those three Klingon cruisers bearing down on the V'ger Cloud?). Robert Wise provided the world with hours of cinematic joy, and was a true master. The film genre will miss him for his skill and taste; the movie viewer will miss his craft and intelligence, and I grieve with his family for the loss of this humble but incredibly talented artist.