Wise directing Ruth Roman in THREE SECRETS
Wise stepped into the new decade with a developed sense of film craft, cultivated from his editing and directing experience as well as the influence of mentors Orson Welles and Val Lewton. With his meticulous preparation and commitment to realism, Wise excelled in a variety of genres.

After the critically-acclaimed THE SET-UP (1949), his last movie for RKO, Wise directed one film for Warner Bros.: THREE SECRETS (1950), a melodrama infused with realism.

Meticulous Preparer

"...I have done storyboarding ever since THE SET-UP, the first film on which I used a sketch artist. But in general, I am a great believer in pre-production preparation and don't leave a lot of things to last-minute chance."*
Roberts, Wise and Ryan
The crew of THE SET-UP
Robert Wise and Robert Ryan at center.

That year, Wise also signed a six-picture deal with Twentieth Century-Fox. The first film he made with the studio was another example of Wise's prowess with a period piece, TWO FLAGS WEST (1950), starring Joseph Cotten and Linda Darnell. THE HOUSE ON TELEGRAPH HILL (1951), his following film with Fox , was a thriller set in San Francisco which earned an Academy Award that year for best art direction in black and white.


Golden Globe Award for the Best Film Promoting International Understanding

Next, Wise delved into another genre: science fiction. THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951) is considered a science fiction classic and allowed Wise, a committed humanist, to make a message about nuclear proliferation through the main character in the film, an extraterrestrial.

Day the Earth Stood Still"The science fiction type of film probably offers more opportunities for messages, for themes, for comments, for warnings about our own society now or about where it's going than any other type of film."*

Focus on Films (Spring, 1973)

Always a cooperative studio director but eager to have more control over his work, Wise started a film production company, Aspen Pictures, in 1951, with his former editorial assistant, Mark Robson, and Theron Worth. The company produced one Wise-directed film, THE CAPTIVE CITY (1952), inspired by the Kefauver Commission investigations on organized crime. The movie, an early example of using documentary-style to tell a fictional story, was reviewed in England as "the sleeper of the year." That same year Wise was onto a new genre—comedy—for SOMETHING FOR THE BIRDS, a Washington D.C. farce made for Fox.

In 1953 Wise made two, yet very distinct, World War II desert pictures. DESERT RATS, the sequel to DESERT FOX (1951), both starring James Mason, showcased Wise's talent for working on dramatic and action scenes and is one of his favorite films from the Fox period.

Academy Award Nomination: Richard Murphy, Best Story and Screenplay

DESTINATION GOBI was Wise's first color picture and was also a well-told adventure story, but with a comedic twist.

Two films in one year would be more than most directors could handle, but in 1953 Wise made three, with the third being SO BIG, a drama starring Jane Wyman, based on the Pulitzer-prize-winning Edna Ferber novel.
William Holden and Robert Wise put their heads together on EXECUTIVE SUITE.

MGM nabbed the prolific, gifted director in 1954. He started his four-picture run directing a new movie sub-genre, "the boardroom drama" with EXECUTIVE SUITE. The film, which included Wise's brilliant innovations in sound and editing, had an all-star cast and was Wise's greatest critical achievement and biggest box-office hit up to that point.


Academy award nominations: best supporting actress (Nina Foch), cinematography in black and white, art direction in black and white, and costume design in black and white. It won Special Jury Prize for ensemble acting at the Venice Film Festival and National Board of Review for best supporting actress.

HELEN OF TROY (1955) was Wise's first Cinemascope spectacle film, and was followed by the Western (Wise's least-favorite genre) TRIBUTE TO A BAD MAN (1956), starring James Cagney.

In SOMEBODY UP THERE LIKES ME (1956), the young Paul Newman starred as boxer Rocky Graziano. The fight scenes were carefully choreographed and storyboarded and the film was an editing tour-de-force, earning an Academy Award nomination for best editing.

"Paul [Newman] would get an idea for something, a little switch or a little change, something he wanted to do. And on the surface I would say, 'No, I don't think that right, Paul. Forget it.'...Then occasionally I was wrong and it would be good. So I got so I would say, 'Well, O.K., I don't think it's very good, but let's give it a whirl. We'll see. Who knows?' That's how I worked and molded the scenes with Paul."*

Eileen Heckart, Robert Wise and Paul Newman

A little melodrama, UNTIL THEY SAIL (1957), followed a little comedy, THIS COULD BE THE NIGHT (1957). And in 1958 the submarine action film RUN SILENT, RUN DEEP paired two megastars, Burt Lancaster and Clark Gable.

The story of Barbara Graham, the first woman to be executed in California, provided the story for Robert Wise's next brilliant and affecting drama, I WANT TO LIVE! (1958). The very personal film for Wise portrayed
a critical stance on capital punishment by putting a human face on the issue instead of using a heavy-handed soapbox approach.

The story for I WANT TO LIVE! was based on newspaper articles by San Francisco Examiner reporter Ed Montgomery

Tackling more controversial subject matter, racism, Wise directed ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW (1959), a crime film. With ODDS, he finished off the decade as one of the most versatile as well as risk-taking directors.


1. AFI Seminar, April 1979
2. AFI Seminar October, 1980

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