The legendary director Robert Wise, who died of heart failure last night at 91, had a career of remarkable achievements and longevity; it began in the editing bay on Citizen Kane (1941) and continued through his direction of the TV movie A Storm in Summer (2000). Over six decades, his work encompassed landmark films in a variety of genres, from musicals (notably, 1961’s West Side Story and 1965’s The Sound of Music, both of which won him directing and producing Oscars) to sci-fi (1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture).
While he’ll be eulogized for those epic films over the coming days, it’s worth remembering that he was an expert on small-scale movies as well, from The Curse of the Cat People (his first directing job, in 1944, and a cult classic sequel to Cat People) to 1949’s The Set-Up (a grimy, unforgettable little boxing drama that takes place in real time) to courtroom noir I Want to Live! (the 1958 docudrama that won Susan Hayward a Best Actress Oscar) to the intimate romance Two for the Seesaw (1962), to the scary original version of The Haunting (1963). It was that versatility that led some auteurist critics to describe Wise as a director who left no personal stamp on his projects. Recall, however, the scandal that erupted two years ago when a publicist-ghostwritten essay that bore Wise’s name became part of the Oscar campaign for his friend Martin Scorsese’s Best Director nomination for Gangs of New York. That Wise’s endorsement could get Academy members so agitated was a backhanded tribute to the esteem in which Hollywood held him to the end of his days.