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: