Friday, September 16, 2005


Curtain Falls on Robert Wise, 91

Robert Wise (who died September 14 of heart failure at age 91) directed 39 films in his career, ranging from westerns to science fiction (Star Trek:The Motion Picture). He also served as president of the Motion Picture Academy. But I, and I suppose, most of the film lovers the world round, will always associate him with having directed two of the greatest motion picture musicals of all time: The Sound of Music and West Side Story. The two films have many similarities. Both films earned the Best Picture Oscar and both won Wise a Best Director Oscar. In both cases, these films were adapted from successful Broadway musicals, and in both cases, they improved on their source material, as Wise truly understood the scope of film and how to "open up" these works and take full advantage of the medium. Who will ever forget the sweeping opening of The Sound of Music as the camera swoops over the hills until it focuses on the character of Maria as she sings "The hills are alive...with the sound of music..."? Or the use of the countryside and local architecture which seemed to perfectly underscore songs like "Do Re Mi"? Likewise, in West Side Story, again a sweeping aerial overview (this time of Manhattan) and a ominous whistling soundtrack follow the camera to The Jets, a gang of westsiders, and their leader Riff. The scenes in West Side Story were also cleverly rearranged from the stage version to better balance and contrast the downturned views of America from each rival gang. (The Spanish gang -- The Sharks -- sings of the oppression (and their girlfriends, of hope) of living in the U.S. in the song "America" while the native born gang expresses its sense of oppression of living here in the song "Officer Krupke." The use of color in West Side Story is also brilliant as the screen turns red with heat as the anger between the gangs rise or blue as the love grows between the central character of Tony and Maria. These two films simply represent the best in American movie musicals and only grow richer with each new viewing. Wise was a masterful director whose sense of cinema will be missed.

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