Sometimes opportunities come up that are almost a crime to pass up (and y’all know my head is in crime right now with the launch of my Paper Chase Mysteries this year). When author and film historian J. R. Jordan contacted me and asked me to review the revised edition of his book, Robert Wise: The Motion Pictures (Revised Edition), I jumped at the chance.
As many of you know, my first love is classic literature, but I have an equal passion for classic film. I have my favorite classic film directors. Robert Wise is on the top of that list as well. Wise was one of those down-to-earth Hollywood figures who didn’t create a lot of unnecessary drama on the film set. As his nephew, Douglas E. Wise says in the introduction,
“As a director, Uncle Bob’s demeanor and personality were quite even. There was no temper. There was no ego. There was no flexing of power or anything else. He was simply a nice guy and everybody, cast and drew alike, admired him.” (Location 111)
Jordan matches Wise’s personality as a film director with the tone and voice of this book. He writes a no-nonsense, comprehensive guide to forty of Wise’s films, showing the impressive array of genres and approaches to story that made Wise such a talented and respected director. As a historical fiction author and history lover, I especially appreciate how Jordan contextualizes many of the films within the psyche of the moviegoers at the time.
For example, Jordan explains how Wise’s decision to direct Mademoiselle Fifi (1944) was a controversial one because of the film’s subject matter and timing. The film takes place during the war between Prussia (a kingdom of German until the end of World War I) and France in the 19th century and portrays the Prussians as victorious over the French. As Jordan points out, when the film was made, “much of France was under Nazi occupation [and resentment] of the German government grew stronger with each day that passed..” (Location 328). In this atmosphere, producers were nervous that a film showing the triumph of Germany over France might not go over well with the public. Wise’s solution was to emphasize the patriotism of the film’s plot and the main character so that, although the “enemy” won the war historically, they lost morally and emotionally.
What really struck me about the book was how its well-researched discussions of Wise’s films really showed the eclectic nature of his career. In his sixty-odd year career, Wise seems to have directed every film genre out there: horror, drama, film noir, musicals, sci-fi, and everything in between. Having said that, the book makes clear Wise did have certain periods in his life where he directed films in one genre more than in others. For example, the 1940s saw horror films such as The Curse of the Cat People and 1945’s The Body Snatchers (one of my personal favorites). The late 1940s and 1950s were the golden eras of film noir, and Wise made his share, including The Set-Up (1949) and The House on Telegraph Hill (1951). And no one can forget Wise directed two of the most iconic and unforgettable blockbuster musicals of our time in the 1960s: West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965). Later in his career, science fiction films came into the Wise catalog with films like The Andromeda Strain (1971) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1978).
The book Robert Wise: The Movies (Revised Edition) does exactly what the title implies — it gives readers an understanding and appreciation of the films of one of America’s greatest and sadly overlooked directors. It’s a great book for any classic film lover, not just for fans of Robert Wise and his films.
Jordan, J. R. Robert Wise: The Motion Pictures (Revised Edition). BearManor Media. 2020. Kindle digital file.