Robert wise

Wise is probably best known as the editor of Orson Welles's Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). Within two years, he codi-rected his first film at RKO. As with many American directors, Wise spent the next 30 years directing in all of the great American genres: the Western (Blood on the Moon, 1948), the gangster film (Odds Against Tomorrow, 1959), the musical (West Side Story, 1961), and the sports film (The Set-Up, 1949). He also ventured into those genres made famous in Germany: the horror film (The Body Snatcher, 1945), the science-fiction film (The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1951), and the melodrama (I Want to Live!, 1958).

These directorial efforts certainly illustrate versatility, but our purpose is to illustrate how his experience as an editor was invaluable to his success as a director. To do so, we will look in detail at three of his films: The Set-Up, I Want to Live!, and West Side Story. We will also refer to Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), The Day the Earth Stood Still, and The Body Snatcher.

When one looks at Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, the work of the editor is very apparent. Aside from audacious cutting that draws attention to technique ("Merry Christmas-.-.-.-and a Happy New Year"), the breakfast scene and the opening introduction to the characters and the town stand out as tours de force, set-pieces that impress us. They contribute to the narrative but also stand apart from it, as did the Odessa Steps sequence in Potemkin (1925). Although this type of scene is notable in many of Wise's directorial efforts, the deeper contribution of the editor to the film is not to be intrusive, but rather to edit the film so that the viewer is clearly aware of the story and its evolution, not the editing.

The tension between the invisible editor and the editor of consciously audacious sequences is a tension that runs throughout Wise's career as a director. The equivalents of the breakfast scene in Citizen Kane emerge often in his work: the fight in The Set-Up, the dance numbers in West Side Story, and the opening of I Want to Live! As his career as a director developed, he was able to integrate the sequences into the narrative and make them revealing. A good example of this is the sampan blockade of the American ship in The Sand Pebbles (1966).

Another use Wise found for the set-piece is to elaborate a particular idea through editing. For example, in The Day the Earth Stood Still, Wise communicated the idea that every nation on Earth can be unified in the face of a great enough threat. To elaborate this idea, he cut sound and picture to different newsrooms around the world. The announcers speak different languages, but they are all talking about the same thing: an alien has landed, threatening everyone on the planet. Finally, the different nationalities are unified, but it has taken an alien threat to accomplish that unity. The idea is communicated through an editing solution, not quite a set-piece, but an editing idea that draws some attention to itself.

Wise used the same editing approach in Somebody Up There Likes Me to communicate the wide support for Rocky Graziano in his final fight. His family, his Hell's Kitchen friends, and his new fans are all engaged in "praying" at their radios that his fate in the final fight will mean something for their fate. By intercutting between all three groups, Wise lets us know how many people's dreams hang on the dream of one man. Here, too, the editing solution communicates the idea. Not as self-conscious as the breakfast scene in Citizen Kane, this sequence is nevertheless a set-piece that has great impact.

The principle of finding an editing solution to an idea surfaces early in Wise's career as a director. In The Body Snatcher, Wise had to communicate that Grey (the title character) has resorted to murder to secure a body for dissection at the local medical school. We don't see the murder, just the street singer walking through the foggy night-bound Edinburgh street. Her voice carries on. Grey, driving his buggy, follows. Both disappear. We see the street and hear the voice of the street singer. The shot holds (continues visually), as does the voice, and then nothing. The voice disappears. The visual remains. We know that the girl is dead and a new body will be provided for "science." The scene has the elements of a set-piece, an element of self-consciousness, and yet it is extremely effective in heightening the tension and drama of the murder that has taken place beyond our sight.

We turn now to a more detailed examination of three of Wise's films, beginning with The Set-Up.

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