The Film Noir of Robert Wise
by Jake Hinkson
FROM THE CRIMINAL ELEMENT
By most measurements, Robert Wise didn’t just succeed as a director—Robert Wise crushed it. He made West Side Story, which, if you adjust for inflation, made about half a billion dollars at the American box office. Then he made The Sound of Music. 2015 will mark the 50 year anniversary of that movie and many articles will doubtless come out to remind us just how gigantic that film was. Adjusted for inflation, it is still the third biggest movie of all time, behind only Gone With The Wind and Star Wars. Like those two films, it wasn’t just a blockbuster, it was a phenomenon. (Read Mark Harris’s wonderful book Pictures At The Revolution, which details how Hollywood basically bankrupted itself trying to duplicate the otherworldly success of The Sound of Music.) Wise walked away from 1965 with armloads of money and awards.
Afterwards, however, he floundered. He followed his monster success with movies that often felt bloated, self-important, and empty. Today, he’s more of a footnote than a legend. His stylistic impact on generations of subsequent filmmakers has been negligible, and there are few academic studies of his work. The Sound of Music has become a beloved classic sure, but it’s not remembered as Robert Wise’s The Sound of Music. It’s remembered as Rogers & Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music.
What all of this obscures, however, is that Robert Wise was a great director.
Not good. Not workmanlike. Not professional.
I base this opinion not on his blockbusters or his failed attempts at blockbusters. Like so many great directors, Wise did his best work in film noir. Let’s look at three films he made between 1947 and 1959: Born To Kill,The Set-Up, and Odds Against Tomorrow.
Born To Kill
I’m genuinely amazed that Born to Kill was made in 1947. When it was released, it was derided for being amoral, debased, and disgusting. What’s upsetting about the film—and what would certainly disqualify it from being made by a major studio today—isn’t its sexual innuendo or bursts of violence. There’s nothing here that hasn’t been surpassed a hundredfold by network television. No, what’s still taboo about this film is the way it focuses on the machinations of a truly gruesome set of characters, headed up by a romantic duo straight out of hell.
Helen Brent (Claire Trevor) discovers that her friend Laurie has been murdered. Instead of calling the cops, Helen flees the scene and catches the first train back home to San Francisco. On the train, she meets a handsome man named Sam Wilde. She’s seen Sam before. He is Laurie’s murderer. Here again, though, the movie surprises us. This isn’t a story about an innocent woman who meets a psycho. It’s about soul mates without souls. Love at first sight, you might say, if either of them could feel love.
Wise is a tough director to pin down. He was an expert craftsman, but he didn’t have a consistent style in the way that someone like Robert Siodmakdid. There’s no such thing as a distinctly Wisean shot. Still, the success ofBorn to Kill owes a lot to Wise’s sense of pace and drama (the first ten minutes of the film are thrilling in their economy and intelligence). It also owes a huge debt to the performances Wise gets from his actors. Lawrence Tierney was the meanest son of a bitch in noir; menace seemed to glint off him like light off a pair of brass knuckles. And holding the whole thing together is the remarkable turn by Claire Trevor. One of the great women of noir, here Trevor issues her definitive take on the femme fatale.
If you were going to introduce a friend to film noir, a good place to start would be Wise’s 72 minute masterpiece The Set-Up. There aren’t many perfect movies in the noir canon—hell, there aren’t many perfect movies, period—but this is one of them.
It stars Robert Ryan as Stoker Thompson, a past-his-prime boxer battling a younger fighter named Tiger Nelson (Hal Baylor). What Thompson doesn’t know is that his manager and his trainer (George Tobias and Percy Helton) have cut a deal with a local gangster for Thompson to throw the fight. They don’t let Thompson in on the arrangement —why split the fifty bucks?—because they figure he’s so over the hill, he’ll lose anyway. But then Thompson begins to rally against the younger fighter, unknowingly digging himself into a deep hole with the gangster and his thugs.
Wise, always a good director of action, here outdoes himself. In fact, working with Robert Ryan and Hal Baylor (both of whom were real boxers: Ryan held a college championship, and Baylor held the California Heavyweight Championship), Wise creates probably the best extended fight sequence in classic film. The fight occupies the center of the film both chronologically and thematically. Stoker Thompson is struggling to beat the younger fighter, but he is also struggling to overcome his own depleted sense of self-esteem. Since we know things Thompson doesn’t know, the fight takes on added layers of suspense. As Thompson begins to turn the tide of the fight, his manager and trainer begin to sweat, and so do we.
The Set-Up is based on a narrative poem by Joseph Moncure March. As scripted by Art Cohn, the entire film is an exquisitely constructed metaphor. Dramatically, it is freshly layered with almost every new scene.No one wants Thompson to win the fight. His wife begs him to quit. The gangster seethes. Even the guys who are literally in his corner want him to lose. He is alone in the ring, in a fight that matters to no one. It is a brilliant masterstroke to make us root for Thompson on one level and then on another level to make us hope, for his own good, that he’ll lose. Even we—the audience—aren’t completely in his corner. How existential is that?
Wise was a perfect director for this material. Many of his shots are long, floating compositions, nailing down the details of plot and character development while taking in multiple threads of the milieu surrounding them. You’ll remember The Set-Up as lean and mean, but notice how many little stories Wise manages to work in. His boxing spectators aren’t just a faceless, jeering mob. To take just one wonderful small story: there’s a nameless woman who accompanies her husband and friends to the fight under protest. She hates the fights, she says. We find out why as we gradually see her thaw out during the fight. By the end, she’s a bloodthirsty screamer, and we realize the reason she hates the fights is because some deep, ugly part of her craves the violence.
Everyone is excellent here, but the movie belongs to Robert Ryan. In the scenes with his wife (noir goddess Audrey Totter) he’s fragile and almost boyish in his simplicity. In the fight, he’s always believable. And when the fight is finished, and his body is battered, and he must somehow summon one last bit of strength to survive the gangster’s wrath, Ryan achieves something rare for the genre’s antiheroes: a tragic nobility.
Odds Against Tomorrow
Odds Against Tomorrow stars Harry Belafonte as Johnny Ingram, a nightclub singer with a gambling problem. To pay off his debts, Ingram agrees to rob a bank with an old ex-cop named Dave Burke (Ed Begley). Dave also enlists a third man for the job, a racist hood by the name of Earle Slater (Robert Ryan). Earle doesn’t like Johnny because he’s black; Johnny doesn’t like Earle because he’s a bigot. It’s pretty much all Dave can do to keep these two from killing each other before they knock over the bank.
Most American films about race from the fifties and sixties are pretty bad. They have a certain stiffness, a do-gooder liberal atmosphere which is mostly geared toward glorifying the enlightenment of white characters. Perhaps these films served a purpose in their time, but they make for bad entertainment and worse art. (One could say the same thing, one suspects, about recent Hollywood movies about race…)
Odds Against Tomorrow is an extremely rare exception to this case. The movie was produced by Belafonte through his production company, but he demands none of the “noble black hero” treatment that marred much of Sidney Poitier’s work from the same era. Instead, Johnny Ingram is a perfect film noir protagonist. He’s likable and relatable, but he’s deeply flawed. His flaws will be his undoing. Belafonte’s charismatic in the role, giving Johnny a quick, shallow charm that meshes nicely with Robert Ryan’s fiery, bigoted Earle. Ryan was a natural choice for this role, of course, given both his real world interest in the civil rights movement and his established screen persona as film noir’s King of the Nutjobs. He makes Earle a tower of seething resentment and rage.
The film was written by the blacklisted Abraham Polonsky, and it bears all of his usual intelligence and subtly. What is unique about Odds Against Tomorrow as a “race drama” is that the characters are allowed to have individual psychoses which have nothing to do with race. Johnny is a womanizing gambler who still loves his ex-wife but resents her for disapproving of his lifestyle. Earle is emotionally knotted up. He’s a married man who has a brief affair with his next door neighbor (Gloria Grahame in an exceptional, touching performance) almost out of sheer ennui. The conflict between the two men is an outgrowth of both their characters, not a plot point.
All of this is handled with Wise’s usual skill and efficiency. He never beats a point too hard, never goes for a preachy moment. He keeps things moving at a quick pace, but lets characters unfold naturally at the same time. For example, Ryan’s seduction of Graham has the pressure of a suspense scene, while the bank robbery is tense because of the evolving relationship of the characters.
Wise made other interesting noirs, but Born To Kill, The Set-Up, and Odds Against Tomorrow are an excellent place to begin reassessing his work.