Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Robert Wise

Getting Wise

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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Citizen Kane turns 60 this year, not counting the 25 years that Orson Welles had already accumulated when he started it. As a result, not many people who actually worked on the film are still around to tell the tale. Cinematographer Gregg Toland passed away in 1948, writer Herman Mankiewicz in 1953, composer Bernard Herrmann in 1975, behind-the-scenes catalyst John Houseman in 1988, makeup genius Maurice Seiderman in 1989, actor Joseph Cotten in 1994 and Welles himself in 1985.

That leaves only editor Robert Wise, who turns 87 this year. After editing Kane, Wise quickly turned to directing starting with Val Lewton's classic B-movie The Curse of the Cat People (1944) and moving up to The Body Snatcher (1945), The Set-Up (1949), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), West Side Story (1961), The Haunting (1963), The Sound of Music (1965) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), collecting four Oscars out of seven nominations in the process.

In 1941, Wise had recently graduated from an apprentice editorship to a full-time editor, having cut Dorothy Arzner's Dance, Girl, Dance and William Dieterle's The Hunchback of Notre Dame before he interviewed for the job on Citizen Kane. The film's studio, RKO, had already assigned an older editor to the picture, but Welles fired him and hired Wise, who was just 6 months older than the 25 year-old director.

"I worked with him like I did with any director in those days," said Wise recently via telephone from his Los Angeles home. "When he shot all the angles in a sequence, I would put it in a cut and then I would show it to him and he would say, 'don't use that close up,' or 'why didn't you use those over-the-shoulders I shot?'"

Wise's 60-year memories of the film have faded slightly, but he does remember assembling the famous "breakfast" sequence, where he inserted "whip-pans" between the scenes to make the time seem like it was flying by. "The concept was there, and Orson shot it, but the feeling of it, the pacing of it, the rhythm of it was done in the editing," he says.

Wise also takes credit for the look of the "News on the March" newsreel sequence. As he combined new footage of Welles as Kane with old stock footage from the RKO vaults, he realized he needed to match the new footage with the scratched-up old footage. Wise's secret? Rubbing the film through cheesecloth filled with sand.

Though Wise acknowledges these innovations, he also blames himself for the film's biggest flub, which is that no character actually hears Kane say his famous last word, "Rosebud." "That was probably my fault," he laughs.

As for the film's subsequent reception, Wise says "I don't single out any one film as the greatest film of all time, but it's certainly one of the greatest."

September 19, 2001

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