Wise's filmography is studded with classics


September 17, 2005|By Michael Wilmington | Michael Wilmington,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Robert Wise, the Oscar-winning director-producer of West Side Story and The Sound of Music - and the master of many movie genres in a career that spanned over half a century - died Wednesday of heart failure at 91.

The filmmaker whom Martin Scorsese once called "the Steven Spielberg of his generation," Mr. Wise was a solid, often ingenious craftsman/artist admired and revered among his colleagues for his ability to serve a movie's material rather than flaunt his personality. But that seemingly self-effacing attitude produced an unusual number of movie classics.

In his 56-year directorial career, which started in 1944 with producer Val Lewton's The Curse of the Cat People, Mr. Wise showed mastery in almost every genre but comedy. Whether he was directing a spectacular musical (West Side Story), a science-fiction fable (The Day the Earth Stood Still), a noir heist thriller (Odds Against Tomorrow), a horror film (The Haunting), a war epic (The Desert Rats) or a bio (Somebody Up There Likes Me, I Want to Live!), Mr. Wise invariably gave his audiences strong, intelligent stories with fine casts, made in a style that was flawlessly lucid.

That luminous clarity may owe much to his earlier training as a top film editor. The 26-year-old Wise edited Citizen Kane for 25-year-old writer-director-star Orson Welles. It was his work on Kane, still hailed as among the most brilliantly cut films ever, that helped lead, in 1944, to his stellar directorial career.

Born Sept. 10, 1914, in Winchester, Ind., Mr. Wise was a four-movie-a-week buff in his youth who started as a sportswriter. But forced by the Depression to seek other employment, he wound up in Hollywood at RKO, starting as a film porter, then rising through the ranks to solo editor in 1939.

In the new Hollywood of the '70s, Mr. Wise's films became fewer - and fewer still after the mixed reception for his 1979 Star Trek: The Motion Picture, with the TV show's cast.

Mr. Wise had celebrated his 91st birthday on Saturday. He is survived by his wife Millicent (his first wife was the late Patricia Doyle) and son Robert Wise. Fitting his long, quietly brilliant service to the craft and art he loved, he is mourned by millions of movie-lovers around the world.

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