Nationality: American. Born: Robert Rosen in New York City, 16 March 1908. Education: Attended New York University. Family: Married Sue Siegal, 1954, three children. Career: Staged plays for Washington Square Players, later the Theater Guild, 1920s; actor, stage manager, and director in New York City, 1930–35; writer under contract to Mervyn LeRoy and Warner Bros., 1936–45; member of Communist Party in Hollywood, 1937–45; directed first feature, Johnny O'Clock, 1947; subpoenaed by House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), hearing suspended after arrest of Hollywood 10, 1947; produced first film, 1949; blacklisted after refusing to cooperate when called again to testify before HUAC, 1951–53; allowed to work again after naming names, 1953. Awards: Best Direction, New York Film Critics, for The Hustler, 1961. Died: 18 February 1966.
Films as Director:
Johnny O'Clock (+ sc); Body and Soul
All the King's Men (+ sc, pr)
The Brave Bulls (+ pr)
Mambo (+ co-sc)
Alexander the Great (+ sc, pr)
Island in the Sun
They Came to Cordura (+ co-sc)
The Hustler (+ co-sc, pr)
Lilith (+ co-sc, pr)
Marked Woman (Bacon) (co-sc); They Won't Forget (LeRoy) (co-sc)
Racket Busters (co-sc)
Dust Be My Destiny (sc); The Roaring Twenties (Walsh) (co-sc)
A Child Is Born (Bacon) (sc)
Blues in the Night (Litvak) (sc); The Sea Wolf (Curtiz) (sc); Out of the Fog (Litvak) (co-sc)
Edge of Darkness (Milestone) (sc)
A Walk in the Sun (Milestone) (sc); The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (Milestone) (sc)
Desert Fury (sc)
The Undercover Man (pr)
By ROSSEN: articles—
"The Face of Independence," in Films and Filming (London), August 1962.
"Lessons Learned in Combat: Interview," with Jean-Louis Noames, in Cahiers du Cinéma in English (New York), January 1967.
On ROSSEN: books—
Hearings before the Committee on Un-American Activities, House ofRepresentatives, 1953 Volume, Washington, D.C., 1953.
Casty, Alan, The Films of Robert Rossen, New York, 1969.
On ROSSEN: articles—
"Rossen Issue" of Films in Review (New York), June/July 1962.
Cohen, Saul, "Robert Rossen and the Filming of Lilith," in FilmComment (New York), Spring 1965.
Casty, Alan, "The Films of Robert Rossen," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Winter 1966/67.
"Rossen Issue" of Cahiers du Cinéma in English (New York), January 1967.
Casty, Alan, "Robert Rossen," in Cinema (Beverly Hills), Fall 1968.
Dark, C. "Reflections of Robert Rossen," in Cinema (London), August 1970.
Wald, M., "Robert Rossen," in Films in Review (New York), August/September 1972.
Neve, Brian, "The Screenwriter and the Social Problem Film, 1936–38: The Case of Robert Rossen at Warner Brothers," in Film andHistory (Newark, New Jersey), February 1984.
Combs, Richard, "The Beginner's Rossen," in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), January 1986.
Nolletti, Arthur, "The Fissure in the Spider Web: A Reading of Rossen's Lilith," in Film Criticism (Meadville, Pennsylvania), vol. 11, no. 1/2, 1987.
* * *
Robert Rossen died as he was beginning to regain a prominent position in the cinema. His premature death left us with a final film which pointed to a new, deepening devotion to the study of deteriorating psychological states.
As a contract writer for Warner Bros. in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Rossen worked on many excellent scripts which showed a strong sympathy for individuals destroyed by or battling "the system." His first produced screenplay, Marked Woman, a little-known and highly underrated Bette Davis vehicle, deserves serious attention for its study of prostitution racketeering and its empowerment of women to overthrow corruption. His fifth film, The Roaring Twenties, is a thoughtful study of the obsessive drive for power and money amidst the harshness of the post-World War I period and the beginnings of the Great Depression. While his early scripts occasionally displayed an idealism which bordered on naiveté, Rossen deserves credit for his commitment to the depiction of economic and social injustice.
According to Alan Casty in The Films of Robert Rossen, Rossen was invited to direct his own screenplay for Johnny O'Clock, a tale of murder among gamblers, at the insistence of the film's star, Dick Powell. Rossen followed this poorly received directorial debut with two of his most critically and financially successful films: Body and Soul and All the King's Men, two male-centered studies of corruption and the drive for success. The first of these films is centered in the boxing ring, the second in the political arena. The success of Body and Soul (from a screenplay by Abraham Polonsky) allowed Rossen the financial stability to set up his own company with a financing and releasing contract through Columbia Pictures. As a result, he wrote, directed, and produced All the King's Men, which was awarded the Best Picture Oscar in 1949.
These back-to-back successes apparently triggered an unfortunate increase in directorial ego: production accounts of the later films detail Rossen's inability to openly accept collaboration. This paranoia was exacerbated by his deepening involvement in House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) proceedings. Despite a 1953 reprieve after providing names of alleged communists to the committee, he was unable to revive his Hollywood career, although he continued to work. He seemed a particularly unlikely candidate to direct his next three films: the Ponti-DeLaurentis melodrama Mambo, the historical epic Alexander the Great, and the interracial problem drama, Island in the Sun. The last of his 1950s films, They Came to Cordura, is an interesting film that should have succeeded. Its failure so obsessed Rossen that he spent many years unsuccessfully trying to re-edit it for re-release.
Rossen's final films, The Hustler and Lilith, show a return to form, due in great part to the atmospheric cinematography of Eugene Schufftan. Rossen, firmly entrenched in the theatrical values of content through script and performance, had previously worked with strong cinematographers (especially James Wong Howe and Burnett Guffey), but had worked from the conviction that content was the prime area of concern. As he told Cahiers du Cinéma, "Technique is nothing compared to content." In The Hustler, a moody film about winners and losers set in the world of professional pool-playing, the studied script was strongly enhanced by Schufftan's predominantly claustrophobic framings. Schufftan, long a respected European cameraman (best known for his work on Lang's Metropolis and Carné's Quai des brumes), had been enthusiastically recommended to Rossen by Jack Garfein, who had brought Schufftan back to America for his Something Wild. Schufftan's working posture was one of giving the director what he asked for, and production notes from the set of The Hustler indicate he gave Rossen what he wanted while also achieving results that one feels were beyond Rossen's vision. There was no denying Schufftan's influence in the film's success (it won him an Oscar), and Rossen wisely invited him to work on his next film.
Lilith, an oblique and elliptical film in which a psychiatric worker ends up seeking help, signalled an advance in Rossen's cinematic sensibility. While several of the purely visual passages border on being overly symbolic, one feels that Rossen was beginning to admit the communicative power of the visual. Less idealistic and with less affirmative endings, these last two films showed a deeper sense of social realism, with Rossen striving to portray the effect of the psychological rather than social environment on his characters. Rossen's last project, which went unrealized because of his death, would have allowed him to portray both the social and psychological problems of people living in the vicinity of Cape Canaveral (Cape Kennedy). Such a project would have provided him with a further opportunity to break away from his tradition of dialogue-bound character studies.