Oscar-oriented fans of Robert Wise might think that he's led a secret life. Best-known for producing and co-directing West Side Story and producing and directing The Sound of Music, he's also made a half-dozen or so enduring cult films in disreputable genres like horror and sci-fi and boxing flicks. When I interviewed James Ellroy about L.A. Confidential, he broke into an unsolicited encomium for Wise's Odds Against Tomorrow, the offbeat caper movie slated to be shown at the moviemaker's tribute at the Mill Valley Film Festival next Wednesday. Ellroy said, "I always admire filmmakers who are willing to halt the kinetic flow of action for another little bit of character study. In Odds Against Tomorrow, when the action shifts from New York City to the job the three guys are pulling in this small town up the Hudson, you see scenes of Robert Ryan and Ed Begley and Harry Belafonte sitting alone, stewing in their own thoughts, and you realize that Robert Wise is telling you that these guys have inner lives -- something you don't get when men are pictured in a constant state of connivance."
For all its skill and fascination, Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) isn't my favorite Wise movie; the heavy hand of screenwriter Abraham Polonsky pushes it into strained racial allegory. But it has the combination of tension and texture that distinguishes Wise's best movies and has made them grow in stature over the years. Wise has never been known as a radical experimenter, but he was the lead editor for one of film's towering pioneers, Orson Welles (on both Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons), and he knew how to incorporate formal innovations into solid narrative moviemaking. Wise practiced mixing old and new from his earliest directing days as a low-budget speed-whiz for producer Val Lewton, starting with that acute child-psychology study incongruously called The Curse of the Cat People (1944) and continuing with the stirring anti-Prussian political fable Mademoiselle Fifi (also 1944) and the insidiously creepy The Body Snatcher (1945). According to Wise, Lewton's key insight was that the gravest fear for an audience is "the fear of the unknown" -- something best got at through audio and visual suggestion rather than grotesque, explicit bloodletting. Wise took this tack in The Body Snatcher (based on R.L. Stevenson's story of medical grave-robbing) and 18 years later in his even more delicious fright film, The Haunting (based on Shirley Jackson's novel The Haunting of Hill House). In The Haunting, Claire Bloom underlines Wise's strategy when she says, "Have you noticed how nothing in this house seems to move until you look away, and then you just ... catch something out of the corner of your eye?"
My top two Wise rental picks would be The Set-Up (1949) and The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). In The Set-Up, Robert Ryan, who was a heavyweight boxing champ at Dartmouth, brought his acting and athletic skills together as a declining 35-year-old puncher unwilling to give up the sport until he can buy a stake in an up-and-comer and devote the rest of his years to managing. With its stark depiction of Ryan's rough-hewn integrity pitted against dirty money and pipe dreams (it takes place in a town called Paradise City), The Set-Up is the epitome of the poetic boxing film. Wise's choice to have the action unfold in 72 minutes of "real time" helps Ryan achieve a devastating, cumulative power -- he conveys the fury and despair of a man stripped of illusion and terrified of the reality he sees. And in The Day the Earth Stood Still Wise delivers the Washington, D.C.-set fantasy of a suave alien named Klaatu (Michael Rennie) and his 8-foot robot, Gort (Lock Martin), in brisk, momentous newsreel fashion. This reportorial style puts teeth in the spaceman's benign yet stern message: "Join us and live in peace. Or pursue your present course and face obliteration." But Wise doesn't leave fantasy behind: The patch of light beneath Gort's visor is transfixing, like the single eye of a Cyclops.
The tribute to Robert Wise takes place on Wednesday, Oct. 8, at 6:30 p.m. at the Sequoia II, followed by a reception from 9:30 to 11:30 p.m. Wise's The Sound of Music screens at sundown Saturday, Oct. 11, in the fest's "Movie on the Mountain" night, at Cushing Memorial Amphitheater in Mount Tamalpais State Park in Marin County. A picnic dinner (which starts at 6:30 p.m.) and the movie cost $35; $15 gets you the film. (Kids are free; teens and seniors are $10.) Call 383-5346 for more information.