Philip French pays tribute to Robert Wise

Philip French salutes the West Side Story director and film editor of Citizen Kane

Rober Wise, who has died at the age of 91, was one of Hollywood's great genre directors. Most famously, he directed two sensationally popular musicals, West Side Story and The Sound of Music. But his serious, enduring reputation rests on the subtler, more modest pictures - horror flicks, westerns, thrillers, melodramas, sci-fi - he made in the 1940s and 1950s, and on his role as editor on Welles's Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons.

Like his contemporary, Don Siegel, he broke into movies at the height of the Depression in 1933. Both used family connections to become assistant editors, Siegel at Warner, Wise at RKO, and assisted on big movies before getting their directorial breaks in their studios' low-budget section. Wise joined Val Lewton's fastidious horror unit, making Curse of the Cat People and The Body Snatchers.

He rapidly moved up the RKO chain as a specialist in film noir, making a succession of impressive pictures, most significantly the noir western Blood on the Moon (1948) and the greatest of all boxing movies, The Set-Up (1949). He left RKO for Fox and MGM, where his films were more expensive, but often intense and powerful, especially his first SF movie, the anti-Cold War fable, The Day the Earth Stood Still, that sharp look at corporate life, Executive Suite, the Rocky Graziano biopic, Somebody up There Likes Me, which made Paul Newman a star, and the anti-capital punishment story, I Want to Live.

I met him in 1991 when I was in Hollywood gathering material for a 50th anniversary BBC programme on Citizen Kane. Quietly dressed, bespectacled, softly spoken, he created the impression of a Midwestern bank manager (he was born in Indiana, the very heartland of the United States). Though surrounded in his office by framed posters of his greatest hits, he wasn't exactly a typical smalltown burgher.

When the recording ended, he remarked slightly sourly: 'I think that's the last time I'm ever going to talk about Citizen Kane.' I told him, quite sincerely, that I'd rather have been talking to him about his own work. I said that, as a schoolboy, I'd travelled from Bristol to Bath to catch The Set-Up in 1949, a big step for me, a small one for a resident of Los Angeles, and that I thought Odds Against Tomorrow was perhaps the great film noir of the postwar period.

Then I mentioned that in 1966 I'd written a piece proclaiming his allegorical naval movie, The Sand Pebbles, the most significant picture to emerge so far from the Vietnam experience and how undervalued it still was. 'You liked that movie?' he asked. His eyes lit up and for a moment the shadow of Citizen Kane was lifted.


Philip French

The GuardianTramp

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