I have a screening to catch in less than two hours and doing my usual early-morning nutso thing, and Robert Wise has just died at the age of 91. I’m sorry it finally happened, but Wise had a rich life and a distinguished career as a director for about 20 years, from the late ’40s to late ’60s. It was 37 years ago when Wise seemed to surrender the ghost with the arrival of Star!, that godawful Julie Andrews musical debacle that permanently clouded Wise’s reputation as a director who occasionally mattered. Star! made him into a joke. The irony is that two years earlier Wise enjoyed his last creative hurrah with The Sand Pebbles. This 1966 big-studio period drama was widely seen as an allegory about Vietnam and the overall folly of heavily-armed countries look to mold less-strong countries into their own image…a theme that has some resonance today in Iraq. The Sand Pebbles contains Steve McQueen’s best performance ever (not to mention Richard Crenna’s), and it still shatters me each and every time I see it. The first Wise film that really mattered was The Set-up (1949), the real-time boxing noir with Robert Ryan (whose frame was too skinny for a fighter’s). The ones that counted in between this and The Sand Pebbles were The Day The Earth Stood Still, The Desert Rats, Somebody Up There Likes Me, Run Silent, Run Deep, I Want to Live!, Odds Against Tomorrow, West Side Story and The Haunting. This last effort, released in 1961, was a classy horror film that showed nothing except a shot of an expanding wooden door and used only subtle suggestions (sounds, mostly) to convey the presence of ghosts, but it was still extremely creepy. It’s depressing to think about how Wise became known as the stodgy industry guy responsible for The Sound of Music and Star! and Star Trek: The Motion Picture…I prefer to shut these films out. Wise managed one last half-decent film — 1971’s The Andromeda Strain.