Obituary: Robert Wise

The world of cinema lost one of its great talents yesterday, when Oscar-winning producer-director Robert Wise died at the age of 91.

Although he will always be most fondly remembered for THE SOUND OF MUSIC and WEST SIDE STORY (both of which made it onto the American Film Institute's list of the 100 Greatest American Movies), his varied career included not only musicals, but also war films and dramas -- and several science-fiction and horror efforts, including at least two certified classics.

Wise worked as an editor for many years (he was nominated for Orson Welles' CITIZEN KANE). He got his start in directing courtesy of Val Lewton, who produced a series of low-budget but effective horror films in the 1940s -- movies that relied on subtlety and suggestion rather than shock, despite the sometimes lurid titles supplied by the studio. The first of these was THE CAT PEOPLE, which was successful enough to warrant a sequel CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE. When the original director fell behind schedule, Wise was promoted from editor to director, seemlessly blending his footage with that already shot. In spite of the title, the film has little to do with curses or cat people; it's more of a Gothic children's fairy tale.

Wise went on to direct another Lewton horror production, THE BODY SNATCHER, an excellent period piece (inspired by a Robert Louis Stevenson story) about grave robbers in Britain. The film is the last to pair horror stars Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi (although Lugosi is in a small supporting role). The film is mostly an effective melodrama about the tense relationship that exists between the upper-class doctor (Henry Daniel) and the working-class murderer (Karloff) who keeps him supplied with dissecting cadavers, but it has a memorably terrifying coach ride at the climax, in whch Daniel's doctor hallucinates that Karloff's character has come back from the grave.

In 1951, Wise directed THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, which remains one of the great science-fiction classics, thanks to its intelligent approach. It's the story of the alien Klatuu (Michael Rennie), who arrives on Earth in his flying saucer, along with an unstoppable robot named Gort, and warns the human population that it must learn to curb its self-destructive ways and surrender its nuclear arsenal to a higher authority of cooperating planets -- an obvious metaphor for the United Nations. It's the archetypal "message movie," but handled in a a convincing way.

Wise's author genre classic is 1963's THE HAUNTING, based on the novel by Shirley Jackson. The story follows a scientific attempt to study the haunting of Hill House, a strange mansion filled with inexplicable phenomena. Although a haunted house movie, there are really no ghosts; it seems the house itself is the source of the unexplained events. Using lessons he had learned with Lewton, Wise shows little more than a creaking door -- bending inward as if with some inexplicable supernatural force pushing from outside; the rest of the horror is conveyed through combination of shadowy lighting, nerve-jangling sound effects, and extreme camera angles. (The dreadful 1999 remake, directed by Jan DeBont is a truly unworthy successor.)

Wise directed a few other interesting genre films, but none of them measure up to this high standard. THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN is a reasonably tense adaptation of the Michael Crichton novel, about a virus from outer space that needs to be contained before it can spread to the rest of Earth. AUDREY ROSE is a tale of reincarnation, based on the Frank DeFelitta novel, with future Hannibal Lecter Anthony Hopkins in a featured role. And the much-maligned STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, despite its pretentious script and lethargic pace, is just about the only entry in the Trek big-screen series that feels like a genuine feature film, not a slavish attempt to recreate a television show.

For his extensive body of work, which also includes THE SAND PEBBLES with Steve McQueen and THE DESERT RATS with James Mason, Wise was the 26th person to recieve the American Film Institute's life achievement award, in 1998, an honor previously bestowed upon such Hollywood luminaries as John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, and Orson Welles.

Wise died of heart failure on Wednesday at the UCLA Medical Center after becoming ill earlier in the day. He had celebreted his 91st birthday on Saturday.