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5 For The Day: Robert Wise

Odie Henderson



5 For The Day: Robert Wise

Robert Wise’s oeuvre is a study in extreme contrasts, a retelling of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde impressed upon the history of the cinema. For every classic he crafted in the many genres he worked, there is an equally hideous companion piece that almost negates it. One could argue that this idea of good and evil was crafted only upon reflection of the director’s full output, but Wise gave us an example of this aspect early in his 60-year career. As an editor at RKO, Wise spliced together a masterpiece called Citizen Kane, then turned his scissors and his viewfinder against its director’s next picture, The Magnificent Ambersons. While Wise cannot take all the blame for Ambersons’ butchering, and the picture that resulted isn’t bad, this early dichotomy was eerily prescient of Wise’s ultimate place in the annals of American film.

Wise’s Robert Louis Stevenson-worthy transformations continued throughout his career. He crafted one of the scariest exercises in the horror subgenre of ghost stories, and one of the worst. He used both capoeira and ballet to depict racial tension. He created a landmark exercise in science fiction, and he rebooted a sci-fi TV franchise that, thirty years later, was again rebooted. He contributed to the end of the all-star disaster pictures of the ‘70s and, with Julie Andrews, he helped destroy the movie musical trend of the ‘60s despite getting two Oscars for directing them. He worked on Orson Welles’ directorial debut, and on a certain Brat Packer-turned-director’s first movie. Wise also had a knack for picking a good, scandalous or controversial story, but no distinct style in depicting it. Such a rich study in contrasts is prime material for a 5 for The Day.

Like Howard Hawks and Alan Parker, Wise worked in almost every genre, though he skews closer to Parker than Hawks in terms of success ratio. Whether that is good or bad, and which films belong in which category, I leave to your discussion. I will state that when Wise was good, he was very, very good. And when he was bad, as the nursery rhyme goes, he was horrid. Herewith, five noteworthy Robert Wise films. I tried to pick a film from each genre, but history forces my hand on one entry: Predictably I must start with:

1. The Sound of Music (1965): Whenever I write about a film, no matter how many times I’ve seen it, I will watch it again to put a fresh image of it in my mind. I confess that I couldn’t get through The Sound of Music again. It didn’t help that Fox makes you sit through a trailer for it AND Julie Andrews’ introduction every time you play the DVD. After 90 minutes of its three hour running time, I eventually bypassed the movie altogether, opting to play the sing-along DVD feature instead. It has all the “money shots” without any of the “drama.” But not even dressing like a nun and playing an acoustic guitar made it easier to get through this treacly material. Being more of a Sondheim man than a Rodgers and Hammerstein guy, you would have thought I’d try to solve a problem like Sondheim’s Maria over this one. However, I danced sequences from West Side Story in the past, and I’m now too old to be jumping around like a Jet. It was easier being Sister Odienator of Our Lady of Perpetual Darkness. Plus, Wise didn’t direct West Side Story alone, so I disqualified it.

I am digressing. My reason for disliking The Sound of Music as much as I do stems from being forced to watch it as a kid. I have seen the film at least twenty times, and once I was taken on a school field trip to see it in a theater on some anniversary of its release. I think this forced repetition is everybody’s problem with the picture, because truth be told, it isn’t that bad. The scenery is gorgeous and Julie Andrews is perfectly cast. Though she’s way too nice to be any nun I’ve ever encountered, Andrews is convincing both in her hints of mischief and her inner conflict regarding the von Trapps versus de Lawd. On the downside, Christopher Plummer looks like he’d rather be elsewhere, and the von Trapp children are so damn cute I wished Maria would go batshit and morph into that nun from The Blues Brothers. Those kids are so sweet they will cause Wilford Brimley to threaten you for not checking your blood sugar.

Wise directs some excellent sequences, including the oft-parodied opening of Julie Andrews spinning around on hills she should be trying to get off of (they’re alive, after all, which means they’re probably hungry). There has always been an undercurrent of B-movie direction in Wise’s work—this is not a criticism—but Wise visually pitches The Sound of Music to us with the assurance of an epic film director. He won the Oscar for directing this, and I can’t say it wasn’t deserved. Ted McCord’s Oscar-nominated cinematography pops off the screen, contributing to the surge in Austria’s tourism. When I was in Munich, I hopped a train to Austria just so I could see if it looked like it does in this picture. I’ll never know, at least not yet, because I accidentally got off the train in Lichtenstein.

This isn’t the musical I alluded to in my introduction. When I said Julie and Bob helped ruin the movie musical, I was talking about Star!, the 1968 musical that almost bankrupted Fox and became one of the final nails in the coffin of the American musical at that time. I just wanted you to think I meant this one.

2. I Want To Live! (1958): In the musical Chicago’s Press Conference Rag, Billy Flynn sings “stay away from jazz and liquor, and the men who play for fun.” Such words of wisdom would have benefited good-time girl Barbara Graham. She was a con-woman, a ho, and a jazz lover, but was she a murderer? Real-life San Francisco Chronicle writer Edward Montgomery (played here by Simon Oakland) seems to think so at first, but as he gets to know Graham, he has a change of heart. Her letters and his articles form the basis of I Want To Live!.

Wise’s bio-pic of Graham is the granddaddy of both sleaze filled tableaux like True Hollywood Story and the chicks-in-chains films of the ‘70s and ‘80s. It opens with a signed statement by Montgomery, telling us that this is a true story. Live! then plunges us into a seedy world where the women’s prison movie clichés made their debut. There’s the lesbian prison guard/warden ogling and hosing down the naked new inmate. There’s the scene that shows just how much of a good time our heroine likes to have. There’s the over-the-top arrest sequence and the collapse on the stand by our “innocent” heroine. Leading us through it all is the star of Valley of the Dolls, five-time Oscar nominee Susan Hayward.

In her films, Hayward has always alternated, with no middle ground, between being too mannered and too emotive; it’s as if she were the love child of Meryl Streep and Joan Crawford. I Want to Live! is the masterpiece of Hayward’s schizo acting style. Wise seems to be yelling from points offscreen ‘OK, Gimme subtle. Now go crazy! Gimme subtle! Now go crazy!’ Hayward’s pose for the San Francisco rags, where she holds up a stuffed tiger and growls after being captured by the police, sums up not only Barbara Graham’s personality but the actress’ oeuvre as well. It’s all a put-on, a knowing wink and nod to her audience. I sat on the edge of my couch, quivering in anticipation of her next freak-out. Hayward had always tried my last nerve in her pictures, but after watching I Want To Live! again, I questioned just how convincing a self-proclaimed lover of trash I could be without giving this devil her due.

Did Graham beat to death a helpless old lady, or was she the fall woman for her all-male team of degenerates? We may never know, but the fact remains that she was convicted of the crime and, on June 3, 1955, was gassed by the California Penal system. Jimmy Cagney ambiguously went to the chair kicking and screaming in Angels With Dirty Faces; Hayward is more restrained yet equally defiant. The sequence where the gas chamber is prepared is accurate, fascinating and horrific, but Hayward’s insistence on wearing a beauty mask and acting like a diva before she gets the Gas Face makes her execution pure camp. Hayward won the Oscar for this, but upstaging even her is the excellent jazz score by M*A*S*H composer Johnny Mandel. Not even Hayward’s jazz dance number, where she shakes her goodies like an epileptic stripper, could get in the way of the music that inspired her.

3. Odds Against Tomorrow (1959): Another Wise production with a superb jazz score (this time by John Lewis and his Modern Jazz Quartet), Odds Against Tomorrow is erroneously tapped as the first noir with an African-American lead (see 1950’s No Way Out for the true heir to this title). Harry Belafonte produces and stars, along with Ed Begley Sr. and Wise regular Robert Ryan. Bleak beyond redemption, Odds is a heist movie crossed with The Defiant Ones: A Black man and a White man must trust each other in order to succeed. It doesn’t help that the White man (Ryan) is an incredible racist (his first line of dialogue, directed at a little Black girl, shocked the normally unflappable me), and the Black man is suspicious of all Caucasians. This can’t end happily, and being a noir it doesn’t. That trust issue is both the team’s undoing and a caustic statement on race relations.

What makes Odds Against Tomorrow one of Wise’s best is just how nasty and subversive it is for 1959. The dialogue is raw and epithet-filled. Belafonte’s nightclub singer is in deep debt to a homosexual mobster named Bacco who sends his flamboyant bodyguard/boyfriend to harass Belafonte. At one point, Bacco literally gives Belafonte a pearl necklace across the face. To get Belafonte to assist him in committing the crime, Begley has Bacco put pressure on Belafonte to get the money he owes. Meanwhile, Ryan joins the heist so that he can make a better life for his girlfriend Shelley Winters. Winters tells Ryan she could care less about being the breadwinner, but Ryan’s machismo won’t let him accept it. Belafonte joins the heist to protect his wife and kids; Ryan joins it to get enough money to run off with Winters. Lest we think Ryan has any redeeming qualities, Wise gives Ryan a seduction scene with Gloria Grahame, Winters’ neighbor and friend who apparently likes it rough.

Belafonte sings here, but Wise places the theme of his film in the mouth of a female jazz singer at the club. As a drunk Belafonte heckles her (and she makes a blooper by calling him by his real name), she sings “my mother gave me warning, and now I know it’s true. She said all men are evil, and daddy, that’s you.” There isn’t one redeemed man in this picture, and though the film isn’t well known, it has its champions. Both novelist James Ellroy and director Jean-Pierre Melville cite it as an influence on their work. (Ellroy calls it “just about the best heist gone wrong movie ever made.”) Scorsese also cites it as one of Wise’s better pictures.

The entire heist depends on a White bank guard’s inability to tell Black people apart. Belafonte’s role is to gain entry by portraying the deliveryman who brings coffee and dinner to the bank’s back door every night after closing. Looking at the two, one can see similarities but they are portrayed by two different actors. Spoilers follow: Belafonte’s part works as planned, but Ryan’s mistrust over a set of keys brings the robbery to a very bad, very violent end. Begley’s character in particular suffers one of the more graphic deaths depicted at this time.

Odds Against Tomorrow’s ending, a blatant rip-off of White Heat, would be silly if it weren’t for the viciously ironic line blacklisted writer Abraham Polonsky gives one of the police officers reporting to the scene of the crime. Looking at the charred bodies of our leads, the cop asks “Which one is which?” Skin color doesn’t much matter when you’re, to quote Richard Pryor, burnt the fuck up.

4. The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951): Klaatu barada nikto! Science fiction has always been the medium for getting away with politically incorrect murder. As The Twilight Zone and other vehicles note, you can get away with making statements against the status quo by wrapping them in allegory; alien pods are alien pods but they’re also statements on McCarthyism, or the Me generation, or the military. The Day The Earth Stood Still takes aim both at war and the American-as-apple-pie suspicion of “the Other.” Said other here is portrayed by Michael Rennie as a creature from another world who has an important message for Earth.

Rennie’s Klaatu arrives in a spaceship which lands in Washington D.C. He is accompanied by Gort, a large robot with a Knight Rider-style scanner on his head and a laser beam that destroys military weapons and vaporizes people. Rennie has a message for Earth, but he wants to deliver it to all the world’s leaders at once. While he waits for this to occur, he has to contend with trigger-happy soldiers, panicked citizens and the precocious little brat of heroine Patricia Neal. Bernard Herrmann and his crazy, hyperactive theremin underscore the proceedings.

Director Wise adds a touch of realism by having the story of Klaatu’s landing reported by actual reporters of the time, but the rest of the film is pure fantasy mixed with social commentary. He directs the material dead-seriously, which keeps it from being as campy as some of the ‘50s sci-fi films would become. His swipes at greed and closed-mindedness play just below the surface of the proceedings. When the aliens arrive, people panic at the sight of something different. Neal’s boyfriend pants at the possible fame and reward for turning in the spaceman, and the military continues to shoot first and ask questions later. At film’s end, Klaatu delivers his message to the denizens of our humble planet: Shape up and stop all the fighting, or Gort will destroy Earth with his regulator-demodulator pistol. People of Earth didn’t listen, which is why Gort is currently destroying the ozone layer and making Al Gore mad.

Not much has changed since 1951 in regard to Americans reacting to something unknown, making this material ripe for a present-day remake. Unfortunately, this remake starred Keanu Reeves. If this weren’t enough humiliation for this classic, the lips from the Dairy Queen commercial sing about this film at the beginning of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

5. The Set-Up (1949): As a former boxer and an all-around loser, I’ve always been a sucker for boxing movies. I identify with the big palooka at the center of them, throwing up his hands to prove his worth and/or to punish himself. There’s a little bit of self-hatred mixed in with the cockiness of a boxer; you put yourself out there with the knowledge that inevitably you’ll be hit. My old coach told me that the goal wasn’t to avoid being hit—that was almost impossible—just to avoid being hit hard enough to “pull the rug of the world from under you.”

Stoker (Robert Ryan) is familiar with the world being pulled from under him. His last fight ended in a loss so brutal that his main girl, Julie (Audrey Totter) won’t go to see his latest. Despite his lousy record, the ring is the only place Stoker feels truly alive and worthy of anything. Stoker needs Julie in the audience, but she refuses to go. As he prepares for his latest bout in a nowhere town called Paradise City, Julie walks around looking at signs of the normal life she’ll never possess so long as Stoker continues being a tomato can.

We spend a lot of time in the locker room waiting for Stoker’s turn in the ring, watching boxers come and go in little, self-contained mini-dramas. We also discover that Stoker’s corner man has made a deal with the local bookie to have Stoker throw the fight. The corner man makes the unwise decision not to tell him. He figures Stoker will go down by nature, as he always does. Unfortunately, Stoker has come to fight for his dignity and his girl tonight.

This simple premise sustains The Set-Up for its short, 72-minute runtime. Wise uses clocks to remind us that we are watching the film in real time, which means the fight we see unfolds just as a real boxing match would. Ryan was a boxing champ at Dartmouth, which frees Wise’s camera to roam anywhere it wants. Fans of Raging Bull will be surprised to find numerous shots from that film in this one, and The Set-Up’s commentary listeners will hear Marty Scorsese point them out. The fight seems to go on forever, and it is attended by some truly bloodthirsty patrons. (One of the attendees is completely blind. “Go for the eyes!” he yells. Another is a woman screaming in extreme close-up for blood.) I was completely invested in the match because Stoker is such a decent guy. His decency is primarily why, despite the corruption plot, the setting and the violence, I wouldn’t consider this a noir.

I’ve seen this film’s influences in numerous others: The brutal, alley-way destruction of the tool of Stoker’s trade has a companion piece in Bleek Gilliam’s trumpet beatdown in Mo’ Better Blues. (Wise even cuts to a wailing trumpet just as the violence is committed.) Both boxers go down, just like in Rocky (or was it Rocky II?). The boxer who refuses to throw the fight and faces down the wrath of a scorned bookie has been done to death, but here it made me think of Butch Coolidge in Pulp Fiction. Wise’s lensing of the boxing match has been emulated in countless boxing pictures that followed, including the director’s own Somebody Up There Likes Me. And Stoker’s unflinching desire to be in the ring, no matter how thankless it may be for him, is the same fire that burns within The Wrestler’s Randy The Ram.

The Set-Up is based on a poem by Joseph Moncure March, who wasn’t pleased with the crucial change Wise made to his story. In the poem, the protagonist is African-American. On The Set-Up’s commentary track, Wise notes that he would have cast an actor of color who could box had one been under contract at RKO. Since one was not available, cinema history could not be made.

For me, this is Wise’s best picture, and the one I’ll always remember him for as a director.

The Odienator has officially retired from blogging, but occasionally pulls a Brett Favre.

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